Why you should care
Because the best intentions don’t always translate to the best results.
Playing soccer until age 13, with a fanatic soccer family egging you on, is not the traditional recipe for a successful basketball career. But for Steve Nash, the two-time winner of the NBA’s Most Valuable Player Award, it was only natural. The long-haired Canadian isn’t alone. Indeed, a host of the world’s top athletes, from LeBron James to Johnny Manziel to Michael Jordan, were studs in other sports before focusing on their current profession.
But modern-day parents couldn’t care less about Steve Nash’s upbringing. Role models be damned, they force their 4-year-olds to bypass kiddie shenanigans and practice putting and free throws out of fear their kids will “miss out.” Heads up: A growing body of research shows that these gung-ho parents and coaches have it all wrong. In fact, studies suggest if you want to be a great basketball player, try volleyball or pingpong. Sure, there are the Williams sisters of the world, but child phenoms are freaks of nature, says Neeru Jayanthi, an associate professor of sports medicine at Loyola University. “It’s simple: Tiger Woods is an anomaly” and you shouldn’t rely on anomalies to raise your child, he says.
Highly specialized players were more than twice as likely to suffer from overuse injuries.
So Happy Gilmore (remember Adam Sandler as the hockey-player-turned-golfer?) was right. Studies show that those who play multiple sports are not only less likely to get injured and burn out, but are also more successful at the sport they finally settle on. In an extensive survey of 296 Division I athletes, UCLA researchers found that almost 90 percent participated in at least two sports as kids and 70 percent didn’t specialize until they were age 12.
And highly specialized players were more than twice as likely to suffer from overuse injuries, like a stress fracture, than their multisport counterparts, according to a study by Jayanthi and his colleagues to be published this year in The American Journal of Sports Medicine.
So if better and healthier athletes play more than one sport, what’s with all the maniacal parents and coaches? For one, that damn 10,000-hour rule. Popularized in the book Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, the notion that anyone can do anything, with enough practice, has driven parents to put their kids through intense training regimens for a shot at a full scholarship or Olympic fame, says John O’Sullivan, a former coach for the University of Vermont’s men’s soccer team. A more systemic culprit is lack of funding for physical education and sports programs in schools, which has spawned profit-driven private leagues that need a year-round curriculum to survive, he says.
Still, Jayanthi is the first to admit the data set has limitations. For one, his study is restricted to the Chicago area and covers more than 25 sports, as opposed to focusing on just one — possibly clouding results. Also, the multisport approach doesn’t apply to every sport. Some, like ice skating and gymnastics, have a lower peak age. So LeBron James, no matter how acrobatic he is, probably can never be a gold-medal gymnast. Jayanthi’s open to contradictory conclusions, but none have been published, he says. And for those gymnasts who pass their peak at age 16 or 17, they can just pick up another sport. Darts, anyone?
This OZY encore was originally published Dec. 12, 2014.