An Argument Against Single-Sport Athletes / by James Leath

The idea of single-sport specialization is a matter of perspective and experience. Any coach who has been coaching for 10 years or more will agree on one thing - their best athletes are 99 times out of 100 multi-sport athletes. As coaches, we see this with every new crop of students. Here is an article written about Urban Meyer, head football coach of the Ohio State Buckeyes. Coach Meyer’s ideal candidate for scholarship is not the exception; it is the rule.

As a parent there is a lot of pressure to make sure you give your athlete every opportunity to get better. The best teams, the best league, the best coach…but at what cost? The financial cost alone is enough to reconsider, but what about what your child is missing out on? Parents are so afraid their kids are missing out on something that they over-extend themselves and their bank account thinking one day the athlete will get a scholarship. They might; they might not. There’s a high price to pay to participate in that gamble.

I know -- peer-pressure is STRONG with other parents. But, here’s the thing; they are wrong. They have no idea what they are talking about. They are inexperienced when it comes to raising an athlete.

As coaches, we see what works and what doesn’t work. A parent asked me the other day what I love about coaching kids. My response, “They stay the same age.” When your 12-year-old son acts out on the field, I’ve seen it before. He is trying on manhood and I am going to encourage that, but give him the tools to do it without getting hurt. When your 9-year-old daughter is timid and won’t go for a loose basketball, I’ve seen it before. She hasn’t been told yet it’s okay to be aggressive, but once she learns how, she will enjoy the sport much more. I know how to handle those situations; mainly because the first time I had to deal with them I got it wrong. I learned from my own mistakes.

Next time you see me, ask me about the time I shattered a clipboard into 10 pieces during a sixth grade preseason girls basketball game. Yeah, we all learn from our mistakes.

I have almost 20 years of experience coaching ages 8-21. That means kids I coached in elementary school are now in college or have graduated. Every single one, without exception, played at least three sports in grade school and at least two sports in high school.

Every, single, athlete -- without exception.

The pressure from other parents to play one sport year around, and the coaches who live on the money you pay them, is very high. Parenting an athlete is the most competitive sport in America. 

This epidemic of single-sport specialization comes from athletes like Tiger Woods and Olympic hopefuls who, from a young age, only participated in one activity and they found success. Reminder: they are the exception, not the rule. Malcolm Gladwell wrote a book called “Outliers” that talks about a study done with musicians and 10,000 hours of intentional practice. Parents quote this as proof, but those parents who challenge me have rarely read the book, proving again they don’t really know what they are talking about.

When should your child specialize?

Once they hit 13 or 14-years-old, they should consider focusing on one sport. Even then, consider it a primary sport, but participate in secondary sports. I excelled at football, but still spent a season participating in basketball, baseball, wrestling, track, and volleyball.

Three Reasons Your Child Should Play Multiple Sports

1.Mental Toughness Gained through Adversity

When an athlete goes from being the best on the team in one sport to a role player in another sport, they get to learn how to deal with adversity. Adversity and learning new skills develops mental toughness. When they go back to their primary sport where they are the best, they are a better leader because they had to become a follower. This skill translates very well in the adult world.

2.Physical Maturation of the Whole Body

Parents, your child will have a better chance of playing sports in college if they are an athlete with 10,000 hours of athleticism. College recruiters don’t want someone with only one set of skills. Skills can be taught, but athleticism is earned through years of acceleration, deceleration, rotational power, read and react, and all the other things an athlete learns by participating in multiple sports. There is no single sport that develops all of these skills alone, and therefore no child should only participate in one sport alone.

3.Prevent Burnout

According to Michael Pfahl, executive director of the National Youth Sports Coaches Association, “The number one reason (why they quit) is that it stopped being fun.”  Kids experience burnout in one sport, and with the pressure to always be the best, they end up missing out on childhood. Not only does the athlete get burned out, but the parents exhaust themselves physically and financially unnecessarily.

So take it from someone who wants nothing but success for your child – let them play other sports. Let them develop to their full athletic potential and let them experience trying a sport they are not good a superstar. The lesson they learn from having that experience will benefit them long after they hang up the cleats and tackle being an adult.




James Leath is a mental toughness coach with over 20 years experience coaching young athletes. He writes a weekly note to athletes, coaches and parents on subjects that pertain to sport psychology, youth sports, and personal development. He is currently finishing his masters of Performance Psychology and lives in San Luis Obispo, CA. You can sign-up for his weekly note here, find him on twitter at @jamesleath or visit his website