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Sport Specialization

Updated: Apr 21, 2020

As athletics are changing with the times we are starting to see all kinds of new trends; some are good and some are bad, but one in particular I want to discuss is the idea of specializing in one sport. We are starting to see this more and more in younger ages. Often, parents decide this with the mindset that if the athlete focuses only on this one sport, that dedication will help them reap benefits of higher performance. However, in order to produce the greatest amount of productivity and athletic development it is actually ideal to have the individual remain a multi-sport athlete as long as possible. In fact, 88% of all college athletes come from a multi sport background. As more light has been shed on this topic, a tremendous amount of stats and evidence has supported multiple sport participation.

Keep your body guessing

As with anything, when you do something the same way often enough habits begin to form and your mind simply doesn’t have work as hard. In some cases this is a good thing; muscle memory, such as the skill of riding a bike, is a great thing. In other cases, this lack of variety causes the body and mind to begin to disengage and lose the creative edge. When your mind is actively involved with the athletic process, you inevitably get more out of it. Think of this concept like the idea of interval training. Interval training is a well-respected and proven method of strength training that involves various stages. The athlete works through one stage for X number of weeks (typically 4) before moving on to a different stage that works at a different level of cardiorespiratory activity, workload, and RPE, forcing the athlete’s body to adapt, as well as giving other areas time to rest an recover. That same concept can be applied to playing multiple sports, as the athlete is able to engage and ignite areas of cognitive function that may not otherwise be used in just one sport, and rest areas that may be at risk for over training with single sport specialization. Athletes that specialize in one sport are 70-93% more likely to get injured. Most often these injuries are overuse.

In high school, I played both basketball and softball. In basketball, the ankles, knees, and hips really take a pounding from all the jumping, cutting, and sprinting. In softball there is much less of this so other elements are able to become a focus. Playing shortstop and catching with my left hand really helped to develop a skill that benefitted me on the court. Learning how to slide, dive and get dirty on the field taught me to apply those same rugged responses on the court. Softball was also a lot of fun to me. I managed to be an All-State player and was even finished as Player of The Year in both sports. Ultimately, when I turned to specialization in basketball as a collegiate athlete, those days spent in the dirt were not wasted, but a beneficial training tool I carried with me.

Eliminate boredom and avoid plateau

Similarly when this habitual routine begins to take over and there is no variation, you will often see a plateau in an athletes performance. When there is less of a challenge there is less of a competitive edge pushing the athlete to perform at a higher level. Athletes often get “burned out” at young ages but with the variety that comes with multiple sports, this is much less likely to happen. In rare cases you will find athletes that could spend all day, everyday playing their respective sport and never get bored. Even in these cases however, it’s good for their performance to occasionally partake in other activities. I found that I would sometimes get incredibly wrapped up in basketball, working on my shot constantly and grinding day in and day out, and it was in these times that I would develop bad habits and not even realize it. You start to drift, fade, make minor mistakes, but taking that a step away and then returning to it will bring that mistake to light. With a refreshed mind and attitude, progress can be made in a more productive way.

Bring back the fun

Enjoying what you do is the key to success in any endeavor. So often, kids and parents alike put so much pressure on success in sports; whether it’s to get a scholarship, get their name in the paper, or break records, these goals overshadow the fun factor. At any age, fun must be the priority. Sure, you have to take yourself seriously in practice and put in all of your effort, but at the end of the day you have to feel grateful to do what you do and appreciate the fun that games are meant to be. Taking a moment to breathe in the external forces of the nature of sports is very important and with so much pressure on performance, this is often hard to do. Taking a step back into a less serious situation is one way to find this crucial peace of mind, and remind yourself it doesn’t always have to be so serious.

Being a true athlete goes well beyond your one field of play. While certain skills may not seem to have a direct application to your main sport, if they help you to become a more well-rounded athlete, they will benefit you. There are often unpredictable things that happen in games. When true athletes are put in these situations, not only are they often able to respond and react to the situation better but they are at a much lower risk of injury and ultimately, that is the most important element.

Read more about specialization in sports and studies on this at:

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