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Sport Specialization - A Wider and More Realistic Perspective

by Adam Sarancik

04.09.2019

At least once per month, I see a post or an article slamming athletes for choosing
to limit their athletic experience to one sport. As with any topic, data can be selected,
assumptions can be made, and facts can be ignored to confirm almost any bias. This is
certainly true for sport selection.

I have been a youth mentor for more than 35 years. I mentor youth who participate in multiple sports and those who choose to play in only one sport. The youth train with me for their sport(s), but they also receive coaching as athletes and counseling about nutrition, colleges and careers. My highest priority is teaching them about how their experiences in sport relate to them as family members, students, and future spouses, business and community leaders.


In short, I coach the athlete not just the player, and the whole person not just the
athlete. More importantly, I mentor the person first, then the athlete, and then the
player. I teach lessons within the game for beyond the game. This is true whether I am
coaching a school team, a public youth team, a clinic or private training. For example, I
have a saying for baseball pitchers, “You cannot become on the mound what you are
not in life.”

Often a parent comes to me and asks, “Should my child play one sport or multiple sports?” My response is never reflexively, “multiple sports” even though more often than not that is the best decision. The determination is much, much more complicated than that and this is why I get so upset when I read these posts and articles gloss over such an important topic to fit what they think the current public narrative is or should be. In doing so, they are doing as much harm to the athlete who would benefit most by a sound holistic training program geared toward one sport as the harm caused to an athlete choosing one sport to simply play 100 games year around hoping to maximize their development.

Here are the most important factors that should be considered before the question of one sport v. multiple sports can be answered:

(1) What are the goals of the athlete? If the athlete simply wants to have as many positive experiences in sports as possible and playing a sport at the highest level in college is not an option, then playing multiple sports for great mentor-coaches is the right choice;

(2) What is the age of the athlete? Prior to 8th grade, the advantages of playing multiple sports almost always outweigh playing one sport.

(3) How much playing time will the athlete get in each sport either by ability or by coach’s philosophy? Better use can be made of an athlete’s time than watching a team play 50 games from the bench.

(4) What is the quality of the coaching for each sport, i.e., are practices geared toward developing the person, the athlete, and the player or are they mostly geared toward training the team to win games? There are tens of thousands of personal trainers around the country who are overbooked working with high school athletes because the coaches on the school teams do not know how to or do not invest enough time training the person to be a better athlete and the athlete to be a better player.

(5) Does the athlete enjoy the sport well enough to have a growth mindset about
it? Again, free time is very precious. A person should do things with that free time that involve hard work while facing adversity and the challenge of accepting failure as part of growth and improvement. If the person does not love the sport enough to want to work hard at it, then the time would be better spent elsewhere – in the one sport they do love this much or in music, art, theater, etc.

(6) How short is the athlete’s learning curve in each sport? (I hate the term “natural ability”. Learning is always a prerequisite to performance. Some may learn faster than others, but on every level, physical, intellectual, and emotional, learning is involved. “Hard work beats talent when talent does not work hard.” “Under pressure, players do not perform up to the level of their ability, but rather to the level of their training.”) If the goal of the athlete is to play college baseball at the highest level, and the player gains physical attributes quickly, and learns the fundamentals and mechanics easily, then playing multiple sports in high school, if all of the other factors discussed above are aligned properly, may not keep the athlete from achieving their goal. On the other hand, if the learning curve is relatively average, then devoting 4-5 months every year to getting bigger, stronger, faster and quicker is probably necessary. However, playing 100 baseball games year around will rarely be advisable either!

So my point is, the answer to the question of one sport v. multiple sports is personal and complex. Playing one sport year around is almost never the answer; training properly for only one, in addition to playing it, might be.

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Adam Sarancik has spent most of his adult life mentoring youth ages 8-22 in baseball, softball, soccer, and basketball. He is a favorite speaker at and director of coaches' and players' clinics. He has also developed several youth baseball leagues. He earned his Bachelor of Science degree from San Diego State University, his J.D. degree from the University of San Diego School of Law and his Masters of Arts in Teaching from Western Oregon University. Adam is also an Impact Trainer for Positive Coaching Alliance and the author of  two books: Coaching Champions for Life and Takeaway Quotes for Coaching Champions for Life.

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