For sports longevity, variety is better than mastery

November 13, 2017

Want your child to keep playing sports? Consider embracing the philosophy of the more, the merrier. Fifth graders who focus on just one sport — specializing in it — are more likely not to be playing any sports at all by the time they’re 16 than their peers who dabble in multiple sports, according to new research published in the December 2017 Pediatrics.

For the five-year study, “Childhood Sports Participation and Adolescent Sport,” researchers worked with Canadian students beginning at age 10-11 years old. Every four months the children, who attended both rural and urban schools, answered questions about the physical activity they engaged in outside of their gym classes. As background for their report, the researchers explained that approximately 70 percent of young Canadians take part in organized sports, which have become increasingly competitive and demanding. This shift toward competition has increased the ratio of time spent in organized physical activity relative to unorganized physical activity, or free-play, and leads some children to become early sport specializers — focusing on just one sport, usually year-round.

During the study’s first year, 19 percent of the participants identified as sports specializers, 67 percent as sports samplers, and 14 percent as sports non-participants. Five years later, the “samplers” were more than 50 percent more likely still to be participating in sports and were less likely to become sports non-participants than those who specialized. Researchers found that many elite athletes began as early samplers, not specializer; these top performing athletes didn’t narrow their focus on a sport and become specialized until they were 16.

The study also found that children who didn’t participate in any sports typically remained non-participants as teens. Girls were more likely to be sports specializers than boys, and compared with children living in higher-income neighborhoods, those in low- or middle-income neighborhoods were less likely to be sport specializers (also called ‘having a performance profile.’)

Among the possible reasons for their study results, the study authors hypothesized, is that sampling promotes long-term sport participation through the development of motivation, fundamental movement skills, or autonomy by promoting youths to make their own decisions regarding what sports or activities they want to pursue.

The authors also shared how other studies have indicated that compared with early sport specializing, participating in a variety of sports at a young age has been linked to lower stress levels, better motor skill development, greater enjoyment of sports and physical activity, a greater likelihood of staying involved in physical activity throughout life, and a lower risk of overuse injuries.


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