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2/11/20 blog post

Lessons learned from Super Star athletes

Patrick Mahomes, the quarterback for the Super Bowl Champion Kansas City Chiefs, is 24 years old. He is the youngest player ever to win both the NFL MVP (2018) and Super Bowl MVP (2020). His primary sport growing up was baseball. Tom Brady played baseball in high school too. Michael Jordan played baseball, basketball, and football. Kobe Bryant grew up playing basketball and soccer. Wayne Gretsky played hockey and baseball. The list of professional athletes who played multiple sports in high school is extremely long. What do all these athletes have in common? They did not narrow it down to one sport until at least high school, and sometimes not until much later. In fact, Mahomes, Brady, and Jordan were all offered opportunities to play professional baseball.

“Yes, but they all had natural athletic ability. Of course they were good at every sport.”

That is absolutely true. Genetics and natural talent play a large role in a person’s sports potential. However, if I told you there was a scientifically-backed way that the elite coaches and players recommended, and it could minimize your child’s risk of overuse injuries and burnout, and maximize their chances of enjoying lifelong physical activity, would you take it? Most of us would.

There are two common ways to develop a young athlete.

  1. Specialization: Early specialization is popular right now. Parents find which sport a child gravitates towards at a young age, then puts a lot of time and resources into developing those sport-specific skills. They quickly become better than their peers at that sport. They get noticed by more coaches. They get invited to play in more select leagues. They are promised fame and fortune if they continue to stick with this one sport. Who wouldn’t want that? Unfortunately, study after study into this method of sports development shows that these kids also get hurt more, and most of them quit by high school. They do not get the sports scholarships, fame, or fortune that was promised because they are done.  Even worse, once they reach high school, they stop being active altogether. They never had a chance to explore other activities and do not have the skills necessary to compete in other sports.
  2. Diversification: This method takes young athletes and teaches them skills which are common to all sports. They learn agility, balance, coordination, speed and strength. They work on jumping, running, throwing, kicking. They work on teamwork and sportsmanship, and experience a variety of coaching styles. They learn what it is like to play on a good team, and on a bad team. They learn how to be the best kid on the team and how to be the worst kid on the team. After exploring all these opportunities, teens will start to show a preference for certain sports. They spent most of their childhood developing skills which will help them with any sport, and they do not need to spend as much time on sport-specific skills once they decide to specialize. They are less likely to get injured, less likely to burn out, more likely to continue physical activity as adults. Plus, they are more likely to get recruited to play in college. A soccer player who played basketball will have a good vertical, making them better at headers. A football player who also ran track has experience developing the explosive power to sprint downfield. Coaches notice this when they recruit.

Even beyond the variety of sports skills, multi-sport athletes also learn a variety of coaching techniques and game tactics. Patrick Mahomes said “the way you have to find different ways to win, in whatever sport it is, helped mold me to the quarterback I am today.” College coaches prefer to recruit multi-sport athletes and will not let their own kids specialize. Urban Meyer says that people kept pressuring him to get his son to quit other sports and just focus on baseball, starting around age 9. He argued with these other parents, then watched their children slowly quit due to injury or burnout before they reached high school.

If the elite coaches and players all say they recommend sports diversification, then why aren’t we listening? I think many parents are afraid of the cost of multiple sports. Let me let you in on a secret: sports can be free if you let the kids do it themselves. Let them get together for a neighborhood pickup game of basketball. Take them to the park to play catch. Let them throw water balloons in the yard, run, and climb. Sign them up for the local rec team. This isn’t about being the best or even good. It is about seeing what they like, developing different skills, meeting different kids, and responding to different coaching styles. There is time to worry about winning and recruiting when they are older. Let them play when they are young.

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Lora Scott, MD

division chief sports medicine
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