Child’s play: sport specialization versus multisport athleticism

Mike Dee P.T.


Children benefit from free play time. Courtesy photo

It is well documented that allowing children free play time without adult intervention will develop their social, cognitive, emotional, and physical abilities. Evidence is growing that suggests the multisport athlete is happier, has fewer injuries, and is bound to be very good in her or his favorite sport. What six-year-old is concerned about making varsity in his sport as a freshman in high school?

As a physical therapist, I see the overuse patterns expressed in soft tissue injuries of young athletes who have specialized in a sport before, during, and post-puberty. I do understand that gymnastics and figure skating require a pre-puberty focus, but would suggest decreasing the volume of practice time and trying another sport as a means of lessening those injuries.

In his article, “To Sample or to Specialize?” in the International Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, J. Cote described the measured benefits of early sports diversification:

1. Does not hinder participation in sports in which peak performance is reached after maturation.
2. Is linked to a longer sport career.
3. Promotes positive youth development.
4. Promotes intrinsic motivation through involvement in enjoyable activities.
5. Establishes a range of motor and cognitive experiences.
6. Children should have the opportunity either to specialize in their favorite sport or to continue in sports at a recreational level.
7. Late adolescents have developed the physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and motor skills needed for investing their efforts into highly specialized training in one sport.

There are technical and tactical skills that cross over from similar sports, and this enhances the athlete’s ability to perform better in all of those sports.  Look at this list of legends who excelled in a few sports:

Tom Brady (NFL) – drafted in the 18th round of the 1995 MLB Draft by the Montreal Expos

Dan Marino (NFL) – drafted in the fourth round of the 1979 MLB Draft by the Kansas City Royals

Tom Glavine (MLB) – drafted in the fourth round of the 1984 NHL Draft by the Los Angeles Kings. He was drafted before Brett Hull and Luc Robitaille, both 2009 Hockey Hall of Fame inductees.

Michael Jordan (NBA) – briefly played as an outfielder in Class AA team for the Chicago White Sox.

Locally, Brendan Gleason of Essex Junction is a starting sophomore attackman on the University of Notre Dame mens lacrosse team. He was captain of the football, hockey, and lacrosse teams while at EJHS.

The message here for parents and youth coaches is simple: mix it up. Allow your lacrosse players to practice their game with volleyball; soccer players, a Frisbee. Let the kids practice freely and make up a new set of rules or a game. Allow some time for sit-ups, pushups, and jumping jacks. Let them create a new warmup exercise.

I am reminded of the sense of adventure, courage, freedom, and potential for anything to happen when I hear a young child, without a toy or piece of equipment, say to another child, “Let’s go play.” Now that sounds like fun!

Mike Dee is a physical therapist and co-owner of DEE Physical Therapy located in South Burlington, Shelburne, and Hinesburg.

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