Play Multiple Sports to Build Athleticism

Note: Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, May 2008

2330586993_691a204aa1We generally do not allow sports science to interfere with our deeply held beliefs, even when the beliefs are more myth than reality. When I coached in Ireland, the young Irish players believed that basketball greatness was not in their genes. They felt that Irishmen were not meant to be great athletes. Meanwhile, the Irish Rugby Team crushed its opponents in its preparation for the 2007 World Cup. While basketball and rugby require different skills, each features fast, quick, agile, strong and coordinated athletes. If Ireland develops world-class rugby talent with these qualities, why do Irish basketball players believe this development is beyond their gene pool?

Few people view rugby and basketball in terms of athletic qualities, so few see the similarities, which impedes our overall athletic development.

Because we view sports in sport-specific terms, coaches encourage early specialization. Some basketball coaches dislike players who play volleyball, as they feel the players fall behind their teammates. However, volleyball and basketball require lateral movement, hand-eye coordination, ball skills and vertical jumping. Blocking a ball transfers to contesting a shot, and moving laterally for a dig transfers to moving laterally to prevent an offensive player’s penetration.

As youth sports grow more competitive, more young athletes rush to specialize. They heed their coach’s advice or follow their parents’ guidance, as parents try to give their child an advantage over the competition.

Early specialization – when an athlete plays one sport year-round to the exclusion of other sports before puberty – leads to immediate sport-specific skill improvements. Coaches and parents see immediate results and follow this path. If the most skilled 10-year-old plays basketball year-round, maybe my son or daughter needs to devote 12 months a year to basketball.

However, athletic development is a process, and sport-specific skill development is only one piece. Before one can be a great player, he must be an athlete, and early specialization impedes overall athletic development. Unfortunately, as with the Irish players, we view sports based on sport-specific skills, not athletic qualities.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of athletic training facilities. While these facilities play to parent’s big league dreams, their success is developing general athletic skills which athletes fail to develop naturally because they specialize and narrow their athletic development. Rather than play multiple sports, which train multiple skills, athletes specialize in one sport and use performance training to compensate for their narrow athletic development.

Kids used to develop these athletic skills by playing multiple sports and neighborhood games, like tag, which develops agility, balance, coordination, evading skills, body control and more.

Now, rather than play tag, children go to facilities and do agility drills so they can change directions, fake, evade and cut when they play basketball, soccer or football.

Athletic development is a process, and early specialization attempts to speed the process. However, what is the goal? Is the goal to dominate as a 10-year-old?

Early specialization leads to early peaks. Players improve their sport-specific skills more rapidly than those who participate in a wide range of activities. However, those who develop deeper and broader athletic skills have a better foundation when they ultimately specialize. While those who specialized early hit a plateau, the others improve as they dedicate more time to enhancing their sport-specific skill.

If one specializes in basketball at 10-years-old, his general athletic development is incomplete. While he likely improves his dribbling, shooting and understanding of the game more rapidly than his peers who play multiple sports, those who play multiple sports develop many other athletic skills. If the others play soccer, they improve their vision, agility, footwork and more; if they play football, they improve acceleration and power. When these athletes specialize in basketball at 15-years-old, they have broader athletic skills and an advantage against the player who specialized early and hit a plateau in his skill development.

Skills – from athletic to tactical to perceptual – transfer from sport to sport. Many coaches and parents insist there is no relation between sports, which gives more credence to early specialization. However, before one excels at a sport, he or she must be an athlete first. The more developed a player’s general athletic skills, the higher the player’s ceiling in his or her chosen sport.

Sports science research contends that specialization before puberty is wholly unnecessary and, in some cases, detrimental to an athlete’s long term success. If the goal is to dominate other 10-year-olds, specialize early. However, if the goal is to nurture healthy children and give them an opportunity to participate in high school and/or college athletics, playing multiple sports offers a child more developmentally than does early specialization.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development

15 thoughts on “Play Multiple Sports to Build Athleticism

  • So are you saying that athletes should specialize by age 15? Currently, my 14 year old son plays football, lacrosse, and basketball. This fall he will be a freshman. I feel that he should play all three sports for one more year and then he should specialize. What are your thoughts?

  • Chris:
    I’m not saying to specialize at 15-years-old. The reference was to the advantage of waiting until 15 as opposed to at age 10. In Jean Cote’s Sports Development Model, he refers to age 6-12 as the Sampling Period where children play as many sports as possible. He refers to ages 13-15 as the Specializing Period where children narrow to 2-3 sports. He refers to 16+ as the Investment Period where athletes really invest in the deliberate practice required to become an expert in that domain.

    Lacrosse, basketball and football are all late specialization sports. There is no reason to drop any of them provided he has the time to play each and pursue whatever non-sports activities that he enjoys. If his goal is college/professional in any one of the sports, he should invest in more training and deliberate practice in that sport starting soon, but that does not necessarily necessitate the quitting of the other sports. I used to train a basketball player who played football all the way through high school. He invested the time away from his football team to develop his strength and speed, and invested time away from his basketball team to improve his basketball skills. He ended up an all-league player in basketball and a D1 football player and when I met him at 14 years-old, he was one of the more awkward, unskilled kids that I had met. He just had a relentless work ethic, some good size (6’5) and very supportive parents.

    Also, from a tactical standpoint, lacrosse is a perfect complimentary sport for basketball due to the spacing and movement and passing, while football is a perfect compliment to basketball in terms of power, speed and aggressiveness.

  • Brian,

    Thanks for the quick reply and expert advice. I really appreciate it. I agree that the sports seem to compliment each other well and I can see my son using similar skills & strategies in all three.

    I’ve found that as my son gets older the pressure to focus on one sport gets greater and greater- especially with basketball. He could play year round- there’s school ball, then spring/summer AAU ball, and fall ball. I feel that if he doesn’t play year round he will slip behind those who do. Lacrosse has a similar year round schedule. Football is the only sport in MN that is seasonal.

    The hard part is choosing which sport to eventually focus on. He’s a starter in all three sports, with defense his specialty. Right now, basketball is his favorite sport, but because of his average size I see him having a better chance to excel in lacrosse in high school and possibly beyond.

    From your comments, it look like we have a few years to see how things pan out before we have to decide.

    Thanks again!

  • Chris:

    Falling behind is often the worry. However, the question is: how is he going to fall behind? Are the other players going to develop significantly? In what way? At that age, “development” generally comes from physical growth and maturity first. If he’s playing football, and working out with the football team, he’s likely to improve his strength and power. Those transfer to any sport. If he’s falling behind in his skills (passing, shooting, footwork, ball handling, etc), you can practice those skills more to compensate while continuing to play the other sports. As I mentioned, I think playing lacrosse and basketball will help with the decision-making, pattern recognition, anticipation, spacing, spatial awareness and other similar skills.

    Therefore, the real worry is not knowing the plays or a coach favoring a player who plays with the team more and does not play multiple sports. If you can play, that should balance out quickly. Coaches want to win.

    From a recruiter’s perspective, I prefer a multi-sport athlete because I know the player isn’t a finished product. If a player has specialized in basketball since he was 10, his skill level is automated and habits fairly engrained. He can improve, but it will take more time and will have a slower rate of improvement than a three-sport athlete who has a lot less experience. If the players are close, I’l take the multi-sport athlete.

  • Hi Brian,
    I disagree with the notion that there is only one path to attain excellence in your sport and to paint things black and white and say that the only correct way is to play multisports. The answer is not so simple. I have done research myself on high caliber international soccer teams that show that while some of the performers where in 2-3 different sports, others became excellent while specializing early and by only training in one sport.
    Take soccer. If you want to become an excellent soccer player it is crucial to attain technical proficiency. If you don´t have technical ability you will have a very tough time becoming excellent. Technical proficiency in soccer is developed mostly from age 7-14. If you are 14 and without technical skills you will struggle to become an excellent soccer player. In fact Arsene Wenger the manager of Arsenal in the English premier league states that you have no chance of becoming a professional soccer player if you don´t have technical proficiency at age 14. So if you spend your time in 3 different sport to age 14 and soccer is only one of them which probably means you´ll be training soccer 1-2 days a week I think you have a very very low possibility of becoming an excellent soccer player. In my view the multi sport athlete will probably become a better athlete but less technically proficient. If you look at soccer at the highest level, the best players are the ones that have both. The key thing to know is that you can quite easily develop athleticism in players after age 14 or so but you cannot develop their technical proficiency at that age, up to the standards required to become outstanding. It will be too late. So my view for soccer players is to make sure you train enough your technical skills from age 7-14 and play other sports too. 1-2x per week is not enough though.

  • Im a badketball player and our season is over and im wondering what other sports should i play
    Im pretty good at football and they want me to play but i dont want to get injuried and ruin my chance to go to college for basketball
    Should i play or should i just do something else

  • Depends on why you want to play. The sports that have the most transfer are going to be other invasion games like soccer or lacrosse. Football has good transfer from a speed, power, and aggressiveness standpoint – try to play defense to limit some potential injuries. Tennis has good transfer from a movement standpoint. Volleyball has good transfer from a movement and power standpoint.

  • Hi,my name is alex and im 9 years old i play for a basketball team for 4 years you dont have to be 15 and i dance for about 10 days so dont say that you have to be 15 thats not true!

  • Dear Brian,

    My son is 10yrs old now. He did some swimming before and has been playing basketball for the past 2.5yrs. As he didn’t play muiltiple sports before, he needs to improve especially in speed, agility. There isn’t any people play lacrosse in my country. What other should my son take part in order to improve his basketball?

  • Crystal:
    Tennis, badminton, racquetball, squash, volleyball, soccer, track & field (sprints and/or jumps), water polo, etc.

  • Premature specialization is a middle-class white suburbanite problem. It is a pointless and ridiculous concern. In interview after interview current and past NBA stars (mostly black, except for a handful like Chris Mullins or Pete Maravich) describe how they spent every available minute at the court playing pickup basketball, from early morning to after nightfall, even skipping school to play. What is that if not specialization?

  • AT:
    There is a difference between playing pickup games on one’s own and playing and training in formal, structured environments. It is good that you have two examples that counter the point, although possibly not the best examples. Also, other articles say that Mullin played neighborhood games such as stickball as a child.

    Of course, LeBron James playing high school football, Jason Kidd playing baseball, Steve Nash played soccer, etc.

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