And how many sports is too many?

Often in the clinic, our younger patients are the people with the longest list of sporting commitments. It often goes like this:

“I have footy training Tuesday and Thursday, Basketball training Monday and Wednesday, I swim Monday and Thursday mornings, play basketball on Friday nights and footy on Saturdays. Oh, and I run cross country for my school, which is sometimes at school and sometimes on the weekends.”

Or alternatively, these younger people will have 5 trainings and 2 competitions per week of just one sport.

That’s a lot of sport.

But how many sports is too many?

In the case of kids who play more than two different sports all at once, these are the ‘Generalists’.

In the case of having a long list of commitments for one sport, these kids are the ‘Specialists’.

While it would appear obvious that if your child wants to become a professional athlete, they need to be a ‘Specialist’ as early as possible, research shows this isn’t the case.

What is Early Specialisation? 

An intense and specific focus on one sport at the exclusion of others.

How is Early Specialisation seen in Elite Sport?

An American College Football Coach, whose Ohio State team won a National Championship, documented how many of his players played a single-sport in high school. Looking at the graph, it’s clear that most of the players that made it to his team have something in common – they played multiple sports.

Furthermore, a survey looking at American College Division 1 athletes found that 45% of athletes had played multiple sports until they were 16!

But what does playing multiple sports until their mid-late teens do for these successful athletes?

1. Reduces the risk of over-use injuries.

50% of youth sports injuries are due to over-use. If you play only one sport, that’s a lot of repetition of the same movements. In this sense, having some variety can serve as protection from injury. In fact, research has shown that kids who specialise have greater rates of injury, compared to kids who do not.

2. Develops a more well-rounded athlete

Playing different sports means kids develop a variety of motor skills – whereas sports specialisation has been shown to reduce performance of general skills in 10-12 year olds. For example, the agility you develop in netball might actually help you on the soccer field, and set you apart from other players.

3. Reduces the risk of burn-out

We’ve all seen it before – the child who has been encouraged to specialise so early that they fall out of love with the sport before they realise their potential. Simply put, playing more than one sport keeps the enjoyment fresh, and by not ‘putting all your eggs in one basket’, a loss on the court of one sport is offset by the joy of winning in another a couple of days later. Think of it like ‘diversifying’ your enjoyment of sport.

And for the kids who didn’t make it to an elite level? Being a generalist meant it mattered less if they were the best in the team, or the squad. This means they can still enjoy being active into their late teens and early twenties, and stay healthy. We should note, there’s nothing wrong with specialisation later on – this is likely what it takes to achieve sporting success at an elite level. However, in the words of the British Journal of Sports Medicine paper:

“Early specialisation in a single sport leads to success for few and physical inactivity for many.”

So if my child becomes more of a generalist… how much is the right amount?

One proposed rule suggests:

“A child’s age equals the number of hours he or she should spend in sports training each week.”

– National Athletic Trainers Association, USA.

This is backed up by research in New Zealand, which found children 10-13 years old to have more overuse injuries when they:

  • Played more hours per week than years of age
  • Spent more than 8 months of the year playing one sport
  • Having more than double the amount of organised sport compared to free play.

However, the right amount for a child… depends on the child.

For example, if your child is always complaining of pain, or always seems fatigued, they may simply be doing too much.

Alternatively, if your child shows a sustained loss of enthusiasm for a sport they previously loved… They may be a little burnt out.

Above all, it is important to keep a level of moderation and not be swept up in the amount of sport that seems ‘normal’ for others. The research is still developing in this area. Finally, we’ll leave you with this Tweet by American Physiotherapist Mike Reinold, which sums up the topic nicely:

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