The Competitive Edge Playing Multiple Sports

In 2017, during the NFL Draft, 32 players were taken in the first round. Of those 32 players, 30 of them were multi-sport athletes during high school.  In 2018, it was 26 of 32 players taken in the first round. One of the most largely debated topics surrounding sports these days is whether or not a kid should specialize. In my opinion, the answer is not an easy yes or no scenario, however I do believe there is enough data to help the majority of kids and their parents make this decision. 

For the most part, it is believed that in order to one day become a professional athlete, you must specialize early in order to reach the level of skill required to compete.  The main concern with this is injuries have to be shown to occur more frequently in athletes that specialize in one sport. This is typically due to overusing the same muscles or motions repeatedly. This also speaks to a bigger concern where these athletes are only learning specific movements in relatively small degrees of variation. What happens when an athlete is forced to react to something outside of their normal movement pattern in their sport? If an athlete is only subjected to a small degree of movements, it is highly unlikely they will be able to successfully handle any dynamic force that is outside of their common movement patterns. By repeatedly performing the same movements, you’re depriving your body of the ability to function and tolerate different forms of movement. Last, but certainly not least, the issue of “burnout” is much higher in athletes who specialize or play year-round.  

In contrast to the problem of overuse injuries, possibly the biggest benefit of playing multiple sports is the ability to acquire different skills across different movements. Being able to learn new movement patterns, and skills from different sports has direct carryover to other sports.  Two of the most successful coaches in college football today, Dabo Swinney (Clemson) and Urban Meyer (Ohio State) have both publicly talked at length about only recruiting multi-sport athletes. They both generally believe an athlete that can learn skills in different sports are better equipped to handle game-like situations. In most team sports, there is not a singular movement pattern as there might be in track & field or baseball. Therefore, being able to move and react in various planes is key to both avoiding injuries and being successful. If you look across the landscape of sports, typically the best players are those that have no glaring weakness. For example, you could argue either Micheal Jordan or Lebron James are the best basketball players to ever play the game. However, if you were to study their respective skillsets, neither would be at the very top of most skill categories. Neither would be considered elite shooters. Neither have ever been considered the best ball handlers. However, it would be difficult to find one area of their game where they struggled to any large degree. Both players were multi-sport athletes that developed a wide-array of skills at an early age that ultimately carried over into being two of the most well-rounded athletes the NBA has ever seen.  

I would also like to show some recent data from an NCAA study. In April of 2018, the NCAA looked at the likelihood college players had of playing professionally in their chosen sport. Here are the numbers from that research: 

1.2% - NBA 

0.9% - WNBA 

9.5% - MLB 

1.6% - NFL 

1.4% - MLS 

I believe this might highlight the biggest issue of all. Even if your child does specialize, they’re still highly unlikely to ever reach the professional level. In that case, is it really worth all the risks and sacrifices for those odds? 

Keith Suttle