We all have our favourite sport, we might have grown up dreaming of making a living from that sport, maybe even still dream about it. What if I was to tell you that you might not become a pro in that sport because you play it too much? You’re crazy you’d say! I need to practice or I’m not getting ahead of the other person aiming for that one spot on the team.
There are always anomalies to the trend such as Tiger Woods, who’s only played golf since he was 2 and was ‘destined’ for greatness ever since he appeared on TV at 3 years old playing golf. However, his story is famous because it is unusual. There are also sports deemed as ‘early specialisation’ such as gymnastics and tennis where there is a large variety of skills required to perform at an elite level. Compared with other sports such as bobsleigh, cycling and rowing where those who are physically capable can succeed.
In richer sports such as football we are seeing a race to the bottom to scout potential talent, they have the money to host U8 football academies, where at one point in the day the child is learning about joined up handwriting and playing with superhero toys and come the evening people are studying their every movement to decide if he’s the next Lionel Messi. With this race to the bottom the athletes are pressured into being good enough to make the U9 team then U10 and so forth. Soon they are doing nothing else than practice that sport, we have seen it with Tennis too, people we have tested avoid mainstream PE to practice tennis as often as possible.
When we practice the same sport continuously, we are subjecting our bodies to the same movement, the same stressors and building up fatigue in the same areas. The end result is often an overuse injury, where the joints, muscles, tendons or bone cannot recover enough before being tasked with the same stress. These injuries can be stress fractures, tennis elbow, runners’ knee and Osgood-Schlatter’s in athletes growing rapidly through puberty to name a few.
Simply by having a different summer and winter sport you will expose your body to different movements, skills and coordination tasks that will likely transfer back to your favourite sport. This will reduce the likelihood of burnout and overtraining and help you return to the next season feeling fresher.
The transfer of skills between sports is one of the most key benefits of being a multi-sport athlete, you are always absorbing new information and using past experiences to guide how you respond to new challenges. You might think nothing of playing Swingball or messing around on a trampoline in the garden one summer, but you are gaining skills in balance, body awareness, hand-eye coordination, developing leg strength and joint stability. When you return to the rugby pitch in the winter you arrive with a greater ability to catch the ball and recover from being tripped with your improved balance.
By playing two to four sports throughout the year you are likely to create a huge portfolio of tactical, psychological and physical skills that can be applied to any of the sports you currently do or any future sport you turn your hand to. Not to mention that you are now exposed to four different coaches, all of whom bring their own coaching style, something that was really difficult may become clear after being explained to your differently by someone else. You are now improving your ability to learn too!
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are prime examples of competing in multiple sports at a young age before choosing one that they enjoyed the most. Roger played badminton, basketball and cricket in his early year before playing more tennis in his early teens, Nadal played football mostly and did tennis 2 days a week in his early practice days before focusing more on tennis in his teenage years.
Others may not find the sport they are good at until their late teens, many Olympians don’t compete in the sport they win a medal in until 17-18 years old after transferring from another sport. Some Olympians achieve success in one sport then switch to another sport for the next 4-year Olympic cycle. Rebecca Romero of Team GB achieved a silver medal in rowing following by a gold in cycling 4 years later. American Alana Nichols has achieved gold medals in wheelchair basketball and sprint kayaking at the Summer Olympics and two skiing golds at the Winter Olympics!
The message from us to parents is encourage your child to participate in as many sports as they can and continue to enjoy. If they aren’t enjoying a sport for a long while encourage a change, they’re always going to try harder when they like it. Encourage participation in sports with varying skills and challenges, Rock Climbing and Rugby, Swimming and Netball etc. Let kids be kids, competitive sport can be played until retirement age, leave competition to one side and allow pursuit of enjoyment first and foremost.
Our message to athletes is reflect on the sports you play, what is it you like about them, what don’t you get from that sport that doing something alongside it might give you. Is your favourite sport an individual sport but you like feeling part of a team? Then do both! Try many sports, try hard at those sports, if it doesn’t work out, take what you’ve learnt and apply that knowledge to better yourself elsewhere!