Should Your Kid Play Multiple Sports?
Updated: Jul 20, 2020
On a podcast recently I was asked the question "You played multiple sports when you grew up and through high school, do you think kids should play multiple sports or specialize?" I decided to tackle this debate and offer my thoughts. I played soccer, baseball, and basketball until 7th grade, played football instead of soccer from 7th-9th grade, and ended up playing basketball and baseball the rest of high school. I played multiple sports.
Playing multiple sports as a kid has been increasingly debated recently because for the better or worse, there are resources out there for kids to specialize in anything they want, pretty much as early as they want. This was not really an issue 20 years ago because there were no other avenues for kids to take. There were less travel ball teams, less third party coaches, and collegiate/professional scouting for 8th graders was non-existent. Youth sports is shifting from school/area based to travel/club/facility based and that isn't necessarily good or bad, it is just how it is. Due to all this, and other factors, kids are getting pressured to specialize earlier and earlier in their careers. So, should they?
My answer: depends. There is no right or wrong answer as it is unique to each individual. Maybe they do, maybe they do not. A few factors play a huge role in this decision making process.
I think an athlete specializing in anything at a young age is not the answer. You're not missing anything. Kids still have to be kids. When I was in 8th grade I had no idea about what I wanted to do with my life (still don't!). I loved baseball, I loved playing baseball, but that was it, there was no concrete end goal at that time. Before high school it was fun, that's all it was. Sure I played on travel teams, had lessons from private instructors, and went to camps but it was because I loved baseball and wanted to be better. My parents wanted the best experience for me, I wanted to play with and against the best kids in the area. Those decisions weren't based on trying to get me recruited or exposure. A kid loving the sport they're playing can do as much or more for their development than any team, any lesson, or any tournament. IF they love the game of baseball they will want to practice, want to win, bounce back after failure.
Burnout with young athletes is real thing and it's unfortunate. Younger athletes are training harder than ever at younger ages and in some cases, it's not about fun anymore, it's already a job. The constant training and pressure takes a toll on a young athlete and they end up losing passion for the game. If an athlete doesn't think baseball is fun at 12 they're not going to think it's fun at 18. Eric Cressey sums it up. Fun matters for young athletes (and older athletes!).
So let's say an athlete is around an appropriate age (lets say 8/9th grade) and want to specialize. They need to objectively ask themselves two questions, one easier to answer and the other kids and parents usually have trouble with. Both work together.
What are my goals?
The first question, easier to answer. Goals matter because different goals require different levels of commitment. Setting a goal of playing professionally usually holds more commitment and work necessary than simply having a successful high school career and going to school for academics. Whatever that goal may be, a goal needs to be set. Maybe there are multiple goals. Maybe goal A is getting drafted and goal B is, if I don't, going to play in the ACC. It doesn't matter. In order to properly assess if an athlete should specialize or not, the athlete and parents need to understand what the athlete truly wants to do with their career.
How good am I?
The second question, in some cases is not easy to answer objectively. Sometimes there is a gap between how good the athlete really is and how good they perceive themselves to be. Parents and coaches play a large role in this perception. Some parents don't tell their kids how good or bad they are objectively. Some coaches don't tell their players how good they are realistically. They're always good. Whatever leads to this misguidedness, it happens. I can't stress how important it is to realistically assess how good you are when determining your goals. If you don't, you're setting yourself up for failure and disappointment. As a parent, if you misguide your kids into thinking they are a lot better than they really are, you're doing them a massive disservice down the line. This doesn't mean you need to be overly hard on them, they need confidence boosts, but be realistic. That isn't always easy on a parent but it's something that will help their future.
How good am I and what are my goals? Is my current situation of sports/training helping me towards my ultimate goal, or not? These questions of evaluation work in tandem when deciding to specialize or not. A 16 year old who plays three sports, weighs 165 pounds, throws 80 mph and the goal is to play D1, needs to get better at baseball. If he wants to achieve his goal, should he specialize? Well obviously. If he is realistic about playing D1 baseball, playing three other sports isn't going to help him gain weight, throw harder, or learn how to pitch. He's not going to play at the level he wants to play at without getting better. The current plan would not let me achieve my goal, so something needs to change. If that same 16 year old is 200lbs, throws 89mph and can hit a ball 400 feet, then he will probably achieve playing D1 baseball doing what he's doing and would be less likely to quit other sports.
The answer isn't multiple sports or one sport. For example, I played multiple sports but once I got older I stopped playing a sport in the fall to give me more time for baseball. I played basketball in the winter but in the northeast I wasn't missing out on massive development opportunities during that time period and I loved basketball. You could say I specialized while playing multiple sports. It doesn't have to be one or the other.
The answer to this is: it's relative to how good the athlete is and what they want to do with their careers.
If the athlete is naturally gifted and very good at everything, they're going to be less inclined to completely specialize because they're already very good/will achieve their goals on the current path. An athlete who needs to improve to achieve their goals may need to drop a sport/assign more time to focus on getting better. Playing other sports throughout your life can teach you many things and offer experiences that can help on the baseball field. It did for me. However, the only way to directly get better at baseball is by playing baseball. Michael Jordan didn't become the best basketball player ever by playing football. Aaron Judge didn't become an MLB star playing basketball. Your kid shouldn't play multiple sports because LeBron did. They are world class athletes who would excel in anything. They were good because they were good and enjoyed dominating in other sports as well, who wouldn't? The "you should play three sports because Mike Trout did!" is a fallacy that needs to stop and misguides youth athletes because they don't know any better. They should do what they love and whatever is best for their skill level and the goals they wish to achieve.