One Sport or Multiple? Kid Athletes

Should young athletes participate in one sport or multiple sports?

Just one generation ago children were encouraged to play outside and participate in sports, not just one sport but many sports. Today, many young athletes focus on organized competition in one sport rather than a variety of sports.  There are many benefits to our youth by having them participate in sports. These benefits include enhancing self-esteem, socializing with peers and improve general health and fitness.

When youth compete in a single sport or competition it can lead to overuse injuries, loss of interest in participation or burnout.  There is scientific data that suggest that early single-sport specialization might be detrimental to long-term success in team sports. These findings might be related to the pattern recognition and skill transfer that takes place among young athletes who participate in more than one sport.


John O’Sullivan founder of Changing the Game Project wrote an article, “Is it Wise to Specialize?” discussing this issue. He quotes five research excerpts that demonstrate how early specialization may negatively affect your child.

  1. Children who specialize in a single sport account for 50% of overuse injuries in young athletes according to pediatric orthopedic specialists
  2. A study by Ohio States University found that children who specialized early in a single sport led to higher rates of adult physical inactivity. Those who commit to one sport at a young age are often the first to quit, and suffer a lifetime of consequences.
  3. In a study of 1200 youth athletes, Dr. Neeru Jayanthi of Loyola University found that early specialization in a single sport is one of the strongest predictors of injury. Athletes in the study who specialized were 70-93% more likely to be injured than children who played multiple sports.
  4. Children who specialize early are at a far greater risk to burnout due to stress, decreased motivation and lack of enjoyment.
  5. Early sports specialization in female adolescents is associated with increased risk of anterior knee pain disorders including PFP, Osgood Schlatter and Sinding Larsen-Johansson compared to multi-sport athletes, and may lead to higher rates of future ACL tears.

102808soccergjw.jpg Cortland High School's Casey Marks, left, and Fulton's Karlee Osborn vie for control of the ball Tuesday during a Class A semifinal game at Chittenango High School. Cortland won, 5-1.

O’Sullivan also lists some reasons for multi-sport participation:

  1. Better overall skill and ability: research shows that early participation in multiple sports leads to better overall motor and athletic development, longer playing careers, increased ability to transfer sports skills, increased motivation and confidence.
  2. Smarter, more creative players: multi-sport participation at young ages leads to better decision making and pattern recognition, as well as increased creativity.
  3. Most college athletes come from a multi-sport background: A 2013 American Medical Society for Sports Medicine survey found that 88% of college athletes surveyed participated in more than one sport as a child.


So why do we put pressure on our youth and adolescences to specialize in one sport, or why do we feel the pressure as parents? Perhaps the biggest drive to specializing in one sport is for our children to receive a college scholarship. Only about 2% of high school athletes receive a scholarship to play at the college level. That’s a very small percentage.  Instead of pressuring our youth to specialize in one sport, lets encourage them to participate in multi-sports and to participate in organized and unorganized competition. There is research that proves multi-sport participation is better overall for our youth, will lead to less injuries and will encourage a more active lifestyle later on in life.

For those interested John O’Sullivan will be speaking in Bountiful at Viewmont High School on February 10,2016 from 5:00-8:30pm. Contact RallyMe at for questions.

Melissa Kite, PTA
Utah Physical Therapy, West Haven