Is it better to play multiple sports or specialize in just one? | Youth1

Is it better to play multiple sports or specialize in just one?

Theodore and Ariel Horton sat with their 11-month-old Theodore Jr. and watched the U.S. Women’s Olympic team in amazement. Not only 

because of their grace and skill, but something else jumped out of the screen.

“Wow look at how young they are,” T. Horton said to his wife. “But they are really good.”

They are young. In fact, the oldest member of the team is Aly Raisman at 22 and the youngest is Laurie Hernandez at 16.

These aren’t the only young prodigies to shake up the sports world as fellow Olympian Katie Ledecky won her first gold medal at 15 or Tiger Woods was on national television at the age of two showing off his putting skills.

While most at that age are engaging in many different activities finding themselves, these athletes spent their entire lives focusing on one sport.

But for every single-sport stud, there are just as many athletes who played multiple sports all the way through high school and even in college. Michael Jordan, Allen Iverson, LeBron James, Jim Brown, Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson just to name a few.

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“The bottom line is, ‘Is your child happy? Is your child enjoying this? And are they good at this?”

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The current climate for youth sports has changed drastically within the past 10 years. This year alone has seen the most Eighth graders receiving Division 1 NCAA scholarships in football than ever before. With parents and youth athletes recognizing the new trend, the debate on whether or not young athletes should play multiple sports or specialize in one has gotten hotter than temperatures outside this summer.

According to an article published by the Wall Street Journal earlier this summer, within the last five years the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the International Olympic Committee have published research supporting the position that children should sample different sports, rather than picking one too early.

The article also states that parents are also pushing their children to doing more rigorous training at an earlier age than before.  Although studies show, it would be more beneficial to spend about 20 minutes each day drilling their fundamentals instead of practicing too much, said Florida State psychologist K. Anders Ericsson, whose 1993 study of violin students was eventually the basis for the 10,000-hours theory of success.

“This idea that you have to restrict yourself is a total misrepresentation,” Ericsson said in the article. “The more practice you squeeze in does not necessarily lead to improvements but may, in fact, lead to the acquisition of bad habits.”

The studies also stated that youth athletes could grow disinterested in the sport, fatigue faster and are more likely to sustain injuries from playing the same sport throughout the entire year.

The debate has even seeped into the Horton household. They are both entrenched within the youth community, as A. Horton is a first grade teacher at Noyes Elementary School and T. Horton is currently the Program Director for Overtime Athletics and former Physical Education teacher at Kelly Miller Middle School in Washington D.C.

Like most with an opinion on the matter, they agree and disagree at the same time.

“I would probably go the multiple sports route,” T. Horton said. Horton went on to explain how playing three sports helped him for his core sport of football. “I think you can do the same thing with basketball when I talk about opening the hips up or exploding. I was training for basketball by doing calf raises trying to dunk and that made me more explosive for my main sport.”

T. Horton was First-Team All Prince George’s County at defensive end and went on to play college football at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. 

Ariel Horton nodded in agreement. “I think research shows that it’s better to allow your child to do more than one thing,” she said. “It gives them the opportunity to know themselves, their strengths and weaknesses.”

A. Horton played volleyball in her younger years, but also participated in other after school activities such as the drama club.

“It allows a parent to be able to inspect their child to see what do they do well and what do they enjoy because sometimes kids can’t see that for themselves,” she continued. “But if they’re only playing one sport they wont necessarily know.”

They seem to agree up to that point, but their differences began to appear once the question of paying for college and athletic scholarships came up.

“I think at 14 having them focus (on one sport),” A. Horton said. “Research shows Bill Gates and Warren Buffet always talk about the reason why they are the most successful because of their focus.”

T. Horton vehemently disagreed. “When I did track, no (other) coaches taught me how to breathe and keep my arms right when running,” he said. “When I did track it made me a better football player.”

“For me, I would say let’s just do what he’s really great at and get the best return on our investment as the parent,” A. Horton rebutted. “I just think by the age of 14 or 15 you should just focus on one.”

T. Horton does feel that if he would have focused on one sport he feels he could have been better at it, but he wouldn’t change his past, or do it for his own son.

“I think playing multiple sports did help me but if I just focused on football I could learn how to run and techniques from a football trainer,” he added. “If my parents wanted me to be the best football player they should have got me a trainer.”

The topic is so hard that T. Horton began to shift his argument, but he concluded it all by solidifying his original point.

“Multiple,” he said solemnly. “In a heart beat.”

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“If you’re getting average coaching year round, you’re still going to be pretty average.”

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Lincoln University of Pa. Head Coach Herbert Pickens believes its good for athletes to play multiple sports, but only up to a certain point.

“It’s really a double edged sword. One you get guys who are athletically blessed that can play two sports,” Pickens said. “The downfall is you know for a fact they aren’t giving their all to one of the sports. So you run into a situation where he might be good but he could really be great if he worked on it. You leave that caveat it’s always a sense of  ‘what would have happened if he would have really spent his time playing football.’”

He went on to share an example from his perspective.

“Like if you have a football/basketball guy, especially if he is a quarterback. What would have happened if he had worked out during the spring and worked on his passing?” Pickens added. “Or what about summer? Instead of playing summer ball what would he look like in seven-on-seven? Some are really good to do it but you never see their full potential.”

Pickens also said that NFL players that were All-State in different sports in high school, but stopped in college prove his point even more.

“You see what happened when AJ Green took the time to dive in and fully be a wide receiver, his route running got better,” he said. “He was able to compete when he got to camp because he got to take that extra time where he would normally be playing basketball, but to focus on football.”

Pickens went on to say hypothetically if he has kids if they want to play multiple sports he will allow them, but will direct them to focusing on one after their sophomore year of high school, essentially agreeing with A. Horton’s notion.

“If you’re looking at D2, D3 offers for basketball but football you’re getting D1 major offers, you got to put your eggs in the basket that are buttering your bread,” he concluded.

Here is a hype video of Lincoln before one of their seasons of recent history.

“I don’t knock kids that play multiple sports because it’s fun,” he said. “But when it’s time for the chips to fall, you have to pay for your education and what will ultimately be best for you.”

He’s speaking from experience. Pickens did play football, basketball and baseball in high school, but after a meeting with his high school coach he realized he needed to put all of his time and energy into football.

During his basketball summer league, his coach asked him if he had any interest from basketball programs and he responded with one Division 3 school and a preferred walk on at one Division one university.

The football coach then pulled out a stack of letters for Pickens that included Nebraska, UNLV, UCLA and other big time schools. The coach told him all they asked was that he got bigger and quicker off the ball and they would pay for his education. He stopped playing basketball that day.

Pickens however admitted that although focusing on one sport was the best for him at the age of 16, the experiences for multiple sports helped him with football. “A lot of the balance, footwork and conditioning (from basketball) really helped me in football. The hand-eye coordination, the quick twitch of baseball really helped me in football. There are a lot of good positives to it.”

Riverdale Baptist Football Head Coach Cesar Nettles says in his experience, he feels playing multiple sports is the best route. The small school in Upper Marlboro, Maryland has seen its fair share of talent over the past few decades from former NFL player Orlandis Gary to current NBA player Michael Beasley to name a few.

“I believe it’s always better to play multiple sports especially early on in your high school career because it allows you to learn different disciplines, it develops different muscle groups,” Nettles said.

“In the same vein, I believe younger kids should always play multiple positions because you never know exactly what is going to be your skill set as your body grows and develops. Under that same vein, I believe that playing multiple sports gives you two different avenues.”

He understands that each situation is solely based on the athlete at hand, so he dove deeper into his comments.

“It depends on where they are athletically. If you are a guy that is truly perceived as dominate and a national treasure at one sport, then it’s ok to align with one,” Nettles said.

“But if you’re pretty good with both and you’re still developing I think you should stick with it all the way throughout (high school). I think colleges are looking for athletes. I don’t think they are looking for positions, when you get to college they will put you where they want you at.”

Nettles doesn’t just coach football, but he played on the Division 1 level at Hampton University and over the past four years has helped Riverdale Baptist football land more college scholarships than ever before. It’s safe to say he is extremely knowledgeable about this matter.

“I have a lot of colleges that recruit our players and ask what other sports are they playing and if they have film because they want to see if they 

play basketball how explosive they are or if they have good feet. If they run track they want to know their speed times.”

Nettles actually encourages his players to be involved in things other than football because they may find themselves better at another sport even later in high school.

“I don’t want to limit one kid to have a one-track mind because even though he’s a good football player. He could become a national treasure at track or basketball,” he said. “I want our guys to have multiple avenues to get what is the ultimate thing to me, which is a college scholarship.”

He also refutes the notion that because an athlete solely focuses on one sport, that it will in turn make them a better athlete. 

“I know the more you practice one thing, obviously the better you should get as long as you’re getting the proper teaching, but ultimately a lot of that has to do with the type of teaching,” Nettles said. “If you’re getting average coaching year round, you’re still going to be pretty average.”

“Ultimately making the decision to align specifically with one sport can be a risky one unless you’re just an elite prospect at that sport. I think you should attempt to be great in a variety of different avenues because you simply do not know where your skillset is going to be,” he added.

Nettles concluded by completely agreeing with T. Horton. 

"The reality is that other sports can develop other traits in you that you might not get in football,” he said.

The debate will continue as long as athletics sustains being a multimillion dollar enterprise. All agree that it’s best for young athletes to play multiple positions, but once they get into high school and trying to do what's best to receive that illusive Division 1 scholarship, you will hear mixed opinions.

This just shows there’s no right or wrong way. There’s only the right way for your child and situation. As a parent or coach, each case differs by my reasons and their strengths according to A. Horton.

“The bottom line is, ‘Is your child happy? Is your child enjoying this? And are they good at this?”

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