If you wanted your child to become a top athlete as an adult, what would be the best path? The answer might not be what you think.
When we think about famous athletes, we tend to focus on stories of people like Tiger Woods, who played nothing but golf from the age of two. Without looking at any research, it seems logical that someone who started at an early age and focused on one thing would become the best at it.
But it turns out the early specialists of the sporting world are the exception, not the norm. The most common path to becoming a champion, in most instances, is essentially the opposite.
The path to becoming a champion
Research of the past 20 years has steadily revealed that kids who have sampled different sports and activities, on the whole, go further in the long term than kids who have specialized early.
A comprehensive paper published in 2022 does an especially good job of proving the point.
In their report What Makes a Champion? a trio of American and German researchers reviewed 51 international studies on expert athlete performance. Taken together, these studies looked at the developmental history of 6,096 adult and youth athletes, including 772 of the world’s top performers.
Their analyses showed that the majority of world-class athletes were multisport athletes in childhood and adolescence. That is, they did a variety of different sports and activities and didn’t specialize early.
In many cases, the top adult athletes also started their main sport later and practiced it for fewer hours during childhood than many of their peers. They also generally progressed more slowly, such that they appeared to be falling behind at times.
In contrast, their peers who specialized early often found more success at the youth level. However, that’s where most of them peaked.
When it came to long-term success on the international stage, the data shows that the late-specialization kids were much better represented.
Based on these findings, the path to long-term success seems the opposite of what many community coaches and parents assume. Early specialization may produce more success at the youth level, but the price could be less success at the adult level.
Multisport athletes winning big
In Canada, we find plenty of top-level and professional athletes who took the multisport pathway in childhood. Three of our greatest national sporting icons are perfect examples:
- Soccer star Christine Sinclair played basketball and baseball
- Hockey great Wayne Gretzky played baseball, lacrosse, and tennis
- Basketball sensation Steve Nash played hockey, soccer, lacrosse, and baseball
David Epstein, an author who writes extensively on sport expertise, also points to several champion tennis players who benefited from different sports and activities as children:
- British tennis player Emma Raducanu—who won her first Grand Slam title at age 18 against 400-to-1 odds—did ballet, horse riding, swimming, tap dancing, basketball, skiing, golf, go-karting, and motocross as a child.
- Serena Williams participated in ballet, gymnastics, taekwondo, and track and field.
- Roger Federer played soccer, badminton, and basketball.
Why does multisport work?
The multisport approach works for a couple of reasons. One of them appears to be better skills transfer between different sports and activities.
When interviewed by The Guardian newspaper, Raducanu’s former coach described what she had gained by playing different sports:
“When she’s learning a new skill, or trying something a little bit different, she has the ability and coordination to pick things up very quickly, even if it’s quite a big technical change.”
As Epstein writes, another reason is that sampling more sports in childhood improves the chances that the child will find a sport that provides the best match between their aptitude and their interest.
Research suggests the multisport approach may also make young athletes more resistant to physical injury and less likely to burn out mentally.
Pushing early specialization
Given the research, why do we keep pushing kids to specialize at a young age? There are a couple of main reasons.
The first is simply the enduring power of myth. Because so many of us have lived for so long with the idea that early specialization produces the best results, we continue to perpetuate that myth in our media, our conversations, and our unconscious bias.
Another major reason, which has now become widely discussed, is the business of youth sport. Sport entrepreneurs at the youth level in communities across the United States and Canada make good money by selling extra coaching services, training, and opportunities to be part of exclusive “travel teams.”
The promise is almost always the same: the money spent will give your child the best chance of turning pro someday. The evidence in the real world, however, doesn’t support this.
Encouraging kids in multisport
Do we want kids to reach their full potential over the long term? Or do we want them to win as child and youth competitors, with the possibility that they will fail to become everything that they could have been?
The research is becoming clearer every year. If we want kids to reach their best potential, we need to encourage them to try as many different sports and activities in childhood as practically possible.
This doesn’t require putting them in dozens of different programs at high cost. Simple active play at home with family and friends can be a huge boost to developing skills and discovering favourite sports and activities.
A balance of both structured programming and unstructured casual play is ideal. There are also good community programs available that introduce young kids to a variety of sports at one reasonable price.
It’s also important to remember that every child is different in their interests and aptitudes. Consequently, each child’s pathway will be unique, especially with the hundreds of sports and physical pursuits available across different regions and communities.
The key is to give them options and let them play.