In theory, it makes sense for athletes to specialize in a given sport at an earlier age. After all, isn’t the saying, ‘practice makes perfect?’ By specializing early, athletes should be improving their chance of a college scholarship, professional contracts, or the ever-elusive chance at Olympic glory.
The reality, however, is that early specialization does more harm than good. David Epstein, author of The Sports Gene, recently penned an op-ed in The New York Times highlighting the benefits of playing multiple sports while also explaining how hyperspecialization in a sport is both dangerous and counterproductive to youth athletes.
Surprisingly, this was a counterintuitive find for the ProPublica reporter.
Reached by email, Epstein said, “When you look at studies of adult elite versus sub-elite athletes, the elites have accumulated more practice hours in their sport. No big surprise. But I really wanted to see if that pattern held over the entire lives of athletes, and it turns out that it absolutely doesn’t.”
What Epstein discovered is that eventual elite athletes practice less in their eventual sport through at least age 12 than those athletes who plateau at sub-elite levels.
“Once I saw that pattern coming up again and again, I started talking to researchers who study skill acquisitions, from soccer to chess, and they talked to me about evidence suggesting that, early on, athletes should sample a variety of sports, gain a range of physical skills during that period of brain flexibility – age 12 is also the general cutoff for changing your native language – and only focus in and specialize later.”
Described by scientists as a ‘sampling period,’ a young athlete’s time playing multiple sports does more than provide the skills needed to maximize one’s athletic potential; it allows an individual the opportunity to find the right sport for that potential.
Epstein illustrates this point in The Sports Gene by exploring the ‘talent transfer’ system in Australia. In hopes of qualifying more athletes in Olympic Games, the Australia Institute of Sport (AIS) provided talented athletes a ‘sampling period’ to try new sports they had never done before. As a result, athletes like Alisa Camplin went from being a gymnast to an Olympic gold medal aerial skier. In the book Epstein writes, “The successes with talent transfer attest to the fact that a nation succeeds in a sport not only by having many athletes who practice prodigiously at sport-specific skills, but also by getting the best all-around athletes into the right sports in the first place.”
This model is also endorsed by USA Hockey. Bob Mancini, USA Hockey’s American Development Model regional manager, told ESPN, “At the youngest ages, we shouldn’t try to develop hockey players. We should develop athletes who love hockey.”
USA Hockey’s counterpart, Hockey Canada, is also spending more time helping youth athletes improve their overall athleticism as their new spring hockey programs have incorporated an ‘athletic component’ that utilizes sports like soccer, lacrosse, and mountain biking to help hockey players develop overall athleticism.
While one of the benefits of playing multiple sports is the development of an individual’s overall athleticism, Epstein says it can also help prevent athletes from feeling “burned out.” Not surprisingly, less burnout can lead to greater long-term success in an athlete’s chosen sport.
“Athletes who specialize early have pretty high burnout rates,” Epstein said. “I just saw some unpublished data from Division I athletes, and more than a quarter of them said they dropped a sport they were really good at because they got burned out on it. So, it looks like early sport sampling is better for ultimate skill development for most athletes and probably helps many athletes stay fresh and gives them the best chance of truly falling in love with a sport.”
In a recent interview with USA Swimming, Olympic gold medalist Breeja Larson attributed her involvement in other sports as a key role to feeling ‘fresh,’ which she credits as part of her success. As she told USA Swimming, “I feel like I came into college swimming very fresh in the sport and excited, with the last thing I had to worry about was burn out. I feel like that was a big advantage for me.”
Though Larson didn’t feel burned out from one sport, could it have been possible for her to feel burned out from all the sports in general?
“I do think it’s possible, particularly if it involves lots of travel league,” Epstein said. “One thing I noticed in visiting with elite athletes around the world is that they take their rest time as seriously as their training time. Whether it’s specialization or diversification, I think if you have too many high pressure competitions and too much travel, the likelihood of burn-out goes up, and I think that’s true at every level of sport.”
Another concern that may make parents hesitant to sign their child up for multiple sports is the potential cost factor. This, however, shouldn’t be a focal point, says Epstein.
“The money that’s spent on fancy equipment and professionalized training for kids is usually done with good intentions, but is a waste in many cases.”
Epstein supports this claim by referencing Queens University researcher Jean Côté’s study on youth sports. While the study focuses on the benefits of youth sports, it provides data suggesting an athlete’s chance of becoming a professional athlete is greater in a smaller city with inferior equipment and coaches with little technical skill compared to what one would find in larger cities.
How can that be?
“Well, some of it has to do with the ability to sample sports in smaller towns – where you aren’t pushed to specialize as early – and also with more opportunity to learn ‘implicitly,’” Epstein explains. “That is, through athlete-led activities, rather than the heavy-handed coaching you find in more developed, bigger city youth programs.”
This is not to say an athlete cannot take the early specialization route to achieve their athletic dreams. After all, Tiger Woods has gone on to have a wonderful career after demonstrating his swing to Bob Hope at age 2. It is, however, important to note that his story is the exception, not the norm.
Instead, athletes should seek similar journeys to Steve Nash, Roger Federer, and Wayne Gretzky, who played soccer, badminton, and lacrosse before becoming household names in the worlds of basketball, tennis, and hockey. Like many professional athletes, Gretzky credits his involvement in another sport (lacrosse) to his success on the ice hockey rink. In an interview with the National Post in March 2000, Gretzky said, “All the good hockey players seemed to play lacrosse in those days and every one of them learned something from the game to carry over to the other – things athletes can only learn by mixing up games they play when they are young.”
While participating in multiple sports doesn’t guarantee NBA MVP titles, Olympic medals, or Stanley Cups, it does provide an opportunity for the athlete to achieve their true athletic potential in a sport they love, as Epstein himself can attest.
“I played football, basketball, and baseball in high school before I found track and fell in love with it and went on to success at the Division I level. And boy did I learn a lot, and I learned different things from each sport before I found the one that brought the most out of me.”
Epstein also noted the character skills one develops as a benefit of playing multiple sports. “You don’t get stronger by lifting the same weight the same number of times each day, and I don’t think you become more resilient without facing new character challenges either. The philosopher Bernard Suits defined sports and games as ‘the voluntary acceptance of unnecessary obstacles.’ And every sport presents different obstacles, each one an opportunity for growth.”
David Epstein is a ProPublica investigative reporter and author of The Sports Gene. A 2014 TED speaker and Columbia University graduate, you can follow Epstein on Twitter here.
By: Jon Gomez
Gomez is a member of USADA’s TrueSport team, providing young athletes with the tools and skills to be successful in sport and in life. Prior to joining USADA, he spent time with Hill+Knowlton Strategies, USA Team Handball, and the United States Olympic Committee. Gomez graduated from Texas A&M University in 2012 where he was an NCAA National Championship qualifier in the javelin. Prior to joining A&M, Gomez set freshman and school records at the University of Delaware while qualifying for the 2008 USA Track and Field Junior National Championships.You can follow him on Twitter or reach out to him via email.