By Margaret Sullivan
Recently I’ve noticed that a lot of kids are starting to specialize in a single sport much earlier than, say, just ten years ago. With clubs, travelling teams, and all sorts of youth leagues running two, three or four seasons for one sport, young athletes can literally play competitively all year long. But should they? A kid that grows up playing soccer every single season since the age of 6 should have some mad skills in the game by the time college recruiters come around, but what are the sacrifices?
The worst possibilities are injuries and just plain boredom. Depending on the sport, playing all year round can lead to repetition injuries, exacerbated by years and years of playing, so that by the time athletes reach a highly competitive age, they have bad shoulders, an injured knee, or are relatively apathetic about a sport that they’ve been playing for so long. As someone who grew up encouraged, if not forced, to try out a ton of different sports, I would say in the long run I am so much happier for the experiences. I think every parent should actively encourage their kids to participate in as many sports as possible right up until (if not through) high school. And here’s why:
The excitement. There’s just something about spending just one season for each sport that allows kids to build up real enthusiasm for the next year. I started rowing in high school, and remember looking forward to the spring with huge anticipation for an exciting season of the sport I’d missed so dearly for 9 or so months. I continued rowing in college and realized, spending month after month training and competing, that the break that allowed me to look forward to the next season was one of the things I missed the most. Time away from a sport can be healthy physically as well as mentally, allowing you to shed discouragement over a poor season and look forward to a fresh beginning, as well as letting you savor the victories you did have, without diving right back into the fray. I say, save the single-sport-mindset for college.
The “you never know” factor. You never know if your kid has a superstar talent waiting to burst into some previously untried sport. Again with the rowing analogy, I’ll say that you might be surprised at the number of people I know who tried rowing (not the most commonplace sport) after injuries had ruled out what they had been playing for years, and were surprisingly good. A lot of injured athletes who would otherwise be warming the injured bench, are drawn to rowing because of it’s low (or no) impact level sport. Some of them thank their lucky stars for getting injured in the first place because they discover an incredible, and occasionally olympic level aptitude for the sport they had never even considered before. As a fan of sports that are off the beaten track, I say try a new sport! Encourage your kids to do so, because they can be incredibly fun and you may even discover a hidden talent.
Injury is bad. I already went over this, but it’s one of the saddest things to me when an athlete, recruited to play in college, spends their first season on the bench because they are dogged by injuries from playing too much of the same sport in high school and before. Switch it up and, when you can, listen to your body when it protests that it has had enough.
Lifetime skills. I was encouraged (well, yes, actually forced against my will) to take lessons in tennis and skiing as a young kid (which i hated), as well as play softball (which i also hated) and soccer (which I liked). And now, as an adult, I am actually quite grateful. Because now that I am over the trauma of the dreaded lessons, I can go out and play a fun pickup game of tennis with my friends. And I actually enjoy it now. The lessons in skiing brought me to teach myself to snowboard, a sport I now love. And the softball… well that was useless, but at least I know the drill if I ever get pulled into a pickup or company game. And soccer was fun, but I was horribly bad, and still am, so gee am I glad I can play something else. I wish my parents had made me play even more sports, like basketball for example. People naturally assume I can play basketball because I am tall, so I was roped into a game at school, and realized for the first time I knew absolutely nothing about the sport. I couldn’t shoot or dribble well, had three fouls called against me (what, I can’t stand there or do that? who made up these rules?), and lasted ten minutes before I was asked to leave the game so they could get on with playing already. I do wish I had had at least a clue of what to do.
The obscure ones. I may have mentioned this before, but I am a fan of the sports that are off the beaten path. They are the ones that I often enjoyed the most. In high school I raced cross country and nordic skiing, froze my butt off, and had the time of my life. In college I played an intermural sport called innertube waterpolo (look it up and play) and once again enjoyed every minute.
Sports should be fun. Maybe your kid might not become a major league baseball player, but a lifelong appreciation of sports leads to a healthy lifestyle and a mentally stronger adult. So I say encourage (if not force… nicely) your kid to play multiple sports. In the end, they’ll thank you.