The topic of sport specialization versus sport diversification in young athletes has seemingly become more prominent in recent years, which may be partially attributable to the increase of injuries – or a similar increase in media coverage of such injuries – within sports. The sport specialization model argues that young athletes should participate in one sport from a young age, often involving year-round training, the perception being it will allow these athletes to dedicate all of their time and energy to that one particular sport, resulting in greater skill development. The sport diversification model argues that young athletes should participate in multiple sports, at least until high school. If it is believed that sport specialization allows athletes to develop faster and more effectively, then it follows that sport diversification would impede such development, according to that belief system. However, sport diversification does offer three key benefits that sport specialization fails to provide.
Under the sport diversification model, an athlete may participate in effectively one sport per season (track and field in the spring, softball in the summer, soccer in the fall, and basketball in the winter). That’s not to say things spread out that perfectly, or that an athlete must participate in four different sports for it to be considered sport diversification: sport diversification simply implies two or more sports over the course of the year. By participating in different sports, an athlete has the opportunity to learn different skillsets they otherwise would not acquire by participating in one sport. This can manifest itself as an athlete who only participates in an individual sport, never gaining significant exposure to a team environment, and vice versa. In this example, participating in both team and individual sports provides an athlete with lessons unique to each type of sport, giving them a more holistic skillset.
“Some studies indicate that early specialization is less likely to result in success than participating in several sports as a youth, and then specializing at older ages.”
Dr. John P. DiFiori – NBA Director of Sports Medicine
As previously stated, basic math indicates that focusing solely on one sport does in fact result in more time that could be spent focusing on that sport. However, having this additional time may be more harmful than helpful.
Sport specialization has been criticized for pushing athletes too much at too young an age, resulting in injuries from overuse that could have otherwise been avoidable. In contrast, sport diversification has potential to develop the body in a well-rounded manner that subsequently reduces the risk of injuries from overuse.
“The muscles, ligaments, and bones of adolescents are not fully developed, making them more susceptible to overuse injuries due to repetitive motions at an early age.”
Dr. Robert LaPrade – Chief Medical Officer at the Steadman Philippon Research Institute
Sport diversification allows young athletes to mix up their athletic routine; their body may be used in one way for football, but in a completely different way for baseball, for example. By spending time participating in both, an athlete can limit the wear-and-tear on their body that comes from using their “football muscles” year-round. Similar to how sport diversification essentially treats the body better, it also has the potential to treat the mind better.
A significant point of disagreement is how athletes are pressured to perform. The amount of money available in professional sports has skyrocketed, giving athletes (and their biggest fans and supporters) more incentive to do whatever it takes to make it the biggest stage. Beyond that, sports have proven to be an incredible opportunity to let athletes attend college who otherwise may not have been able to due to financial concerns. External factors such as these have resulted in more parental-pressure on young athletes to succeed at all costs.
A Michigan State study surveyed 10,000 kids between the ages of 5 and 14 and found the following: 65% play sports to be with friends; 71% said they wouldn’t care if no score was kept during their games; 90% would rather play for a losing team than sit on the bench for a winning team.
To these athletes, sports are about having fun, something that can easily be lost in all of the surrounding noise.