In the past decade, there’s been much discussion of the dangers of children pursuing one sport or physical activity to the exclusion of all others. Research into early specialization has pointed to problems ranging from overuse injuries to mental burnout, dropout, and quitting physical activity entirely.
In response, many coaching experts and health professionals have encouraged a more varied multisport or sport sampling approach to kids’ physical activity. The idea is that kids will experience fewer overuse injuries due to repetitive specialized movement, less burnout, and ultimately less dropout from activity.
Many also believe the multisport approach produces better all-round athletes. Some evidence suggests the best way to reach the collegiate and professional ranks of most sports is to do a variety of physical activities and sports during childhood. For example here in Canada, four major national sport organizations have taken a stand to promote multisport as the recipe for success.
Assuming multisport is the right path for your child, what should it look like? Does it mean doing three different sports per week? A new sport every month? Fifteen sports per year?
There are different nuances to the multisport approach. These reflect the differences between individual children and the sports and activities involved, and these nuances are important to understand.
If a child wants to grow up to be a champion, they will definitely need to specialize at some point. Experts also agree that some sports such as artistic gymnastics and figure skating require earlier specialization than sports such as basketball and cycling. Other sports, such as soccer, seem to require starting at an early age, but specialization doesn’t appear to be necessary until the teen years.
Still, exactly how much training and practice represents specialization? How many hours and weeks per year, and when should a child start? And does this level of training and practice necessarily preclude a child doing other activities at the same time?
As York University professor Dr. Joe Baker points out, the exact “dosage” of training and competition that constitutes specialization has never been defined in most sports. This becomes significant if we are preoccupied with fast-tracking children to professional success in sport without injury or burnout.
Most kids don’t want to specialize early
The reality, however, is that most pre-adolescent children don’t enter sport and activity with the aim of turning professional. The vast majority of kids are simply interested in having fun.
Similarly, most parents and coaches in community-level sport are not trying to fast-track their children to the professional ranks. Most are simply trying to introduce them to sport and activity, and hoping they’ll have a positive experience that encourages them to stay active for life.
There are a few famous athletes who appear to have willfully chosen to specialize in one sport from a very early age. Good examples are Connor McDavid in hockey and Lionel Messi in soccer. But this kind of early passion is extremely rare.
Anecdotal testimony from kids, parents, and coaches tells us the vast majority of kids are not so eager to limit themselves to one sport or activity. Most are far happier when they have the opportunity to play a variety of sports and activities in their elementary years, and especially in the preschool years.
The choice comes down to values
For parents trying to raise healthy preteen children, the question of specialization versus multisport becomes a question of values. Some parents believe children should pursue sport solely for fame and achievement, and they believe early specialization will achieve that end.
Other parents take the view that kids should practice sport and activity for long-term health and enjoyment. This implies kids should have more opportunities to try different sports and activities and have fun in the process.
If we assume most kids are not pursuing competitive gymnastics or figure skating, and if we agree most kids are not trying to reach the Olympics or the professional ranks of sport, then we can probably agree that we shouldn’t ask preteens to play one sport year-round to the exclusion of all others. Instead we should help them to experience as many activities as possible in a positive, fun way.
Let your child decide
Ultimately we should let our children decide if and when they want to specialize in any sport or activity. After all, without their willful effort, no amount of specialized training will ever take them to the professional level anyways.
Experienced coaches know the best athletes, again with rare exception, reach the greatest heights of achievement because they want it for themselves. They have a motivation that is intrinsic, within themselves, as opposed to extrinsic, coming from their parents or their coaches.
This kind of intrinsic desire to achieve in sport can appear at any age, but it is seldom seen in four- and five-year olds. It becomes slightly more common among teenagers, but even then it tends to describe a minority of athletes and participants.
How you can approach multisport
Because every child is unique and has different degrees of motivation, and because every sport has different physical and mental requirements, there isn’t any one formula for raising a child in sport. Different children may choose to “specialize” early or continue sampling different sports and activities into their teens.
For the sake of simplicity, here are two simplified examples to help you think about an approach for your own children.
Your child can’t get enough
If you have a preteen child who discovers a sport they like, and they want to play it all the time, it might be okay to let them play that sport year-round. But it needs to be driven by them, not you or their coach, and ideally you will still encourage and help them to pursue informal play outside of structured programs and camps.
Depending on your child’s level of interest and health, this could mean four or five hours of play and practice each week, or it could mean substantially more. You simply need to watch for signs of physical, mental, and emotional fatigue and call “time out” if it becomes excessive or dangerous.
Even if your child enjoys doing this much of one activity, you still do them a great favour by exposing them to others when possible. This increases their vocabulary of fundamental movement skills and introduces them to other potential passions that they may not have considered.
Your child enjoys change
If you have a child who clearly shows interest in trying different sports and activities, it’s important to give them those opportunities. Again, this increases their movement vocabulary and introduces them to other potential interests. Most importantly, it respects their wishes.
Depending on your child’s interests, and the practical realities of parenting and managing your household, this could mean your child pursues one activity per season for three or four hours per week. Alternatively, it could mean they do two or three activities throughout much of the year, with only one or two hours committed to each activity each week.
Your child’s approach to multisport could include a seasonal mix of everything from introductory hockey and soccer to gymnastics and dance programs. It could also include programs that are explicitly labelled “multisport.” A variety of multisport programs have been started by recreation associations across Canada in recent years to meet increasing demand.
How much is too much?
Again, it will depend on your child’s interests and your family’s resources, and it depends on the age of your child and their stage of development. Always watch for signs of excessive physical, mental, and emotional fatigue, and also consider the Canadian 24-hour movement guidelines. The guidelines can help you to gauge how much moderate-to-vigorous physical activity your child should be doing every day. The Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model also provides guidance on how much activity is appropriate at each age.
Choosing to raise happy, healthy children
If we want our children to enjoy physical activity and develop well-rounded movement skills, it’s important to help them try different types of activities and sports according to their interests. We should also remember that they may have other interests, such as music and art, and these deserve time and attention as well.
Ultimately our approach to how we raise our children in sport and activity will reflect how we view raising happy, healthy children in general.