What To Do With a Talented Young Athlete: Specialize in One Sport or Play Them All?
By Patti Putnicki
It’s the era of the sports prodigy; a time when young athletes are taking the podium, winning championships and making headlines. Mo’Ne, Missy, Jordan—each seemingly emerging from the birth canal ready to compete; each supercharging their respective sports, with a legion of fans in their wake.
So, what if your kid has a golden arm or an unbeatable backhand? Do you take the “Tiger Parent” approach and start grooming him or her for that chosen sport early?
Not so fast, says Kelli McKandless, director of golf instruction for Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas, who has also coached volleyball, basketball and track teams.
“I don’t think anyone should specialize in a sport before junior high or the early part of high school,” McKandless said. “It doesn’t matter if it’s golf and basketball, baseball and track—experiencing different types of sports will make you a better overall athlete. It also makes sure that, if you eventually specialize, you’ll pick the sport you really love, not just the first one you’re good at.”
McKandless, herself, grew up playing basketball and running track. When she didn’t make the varsity basketball team in high school, her brother encouraged her to take up golf.
“When he told me it was the easiest way I could get a letter jacket, I was all in,” McKandless said. “I eventually went to to Q-School, played in some state opens, and ended up teaching golf as my profession. If I hadn’t been open to trying new sports, who knows what I’d be doing now.”
A Case for Sports Diversity
According to McKandless, specializing in one sport too early is like choosing a college major at the age of nine, before you know all the possibilities. A well-rounded approach is a better approach—in sports and in life.
“I think it’s important for kids to play both individual and team sports,” McKandless said. “Individual sports like track, golf or karate give the young athlete a sense of personal accomplishment. Team sports teach kids what it feels like to rely on someone else, be relied on—and how to interact with other people—all important skills.”
In the world of golf, McKandless finds that new students who play other sports pick up the game of golf faster.
“So many sports involve balance and tempo, both of which are critical to golf,” McKandless said. “If you play tennis, you’re going to be good at closing the clubface on impact, which is something a lot of golfers have a hard time doing. Basketball players can shift weight. And, honestly, juniors and adults who are active and fit are going to have an easier time learning every sport, because they’re already more in tune with their bodies.”
It’s important to note that the goal is not to play every sport at the elite level. A regular pick-up basketball game at the local Y or a rec center’s summer swim team still gives kids the experience, without the monumental expense.
A Doctor’s Perspective
But, what about the medical implications of specializing in one sport at a very young age? Does the multi-sport approach have any health benefits?
“I absolutely agree that kids should play multiple sports. It’s important to allow young bodies to work all muscle groups to sustain good mechanical function as adults,” explained Peter Stack, M.D., FACP, of Dallas Diagnostic Association in Plano, Texas. “Overusing some groups and underusing others can create imbalances in muscular strength, flexibility and joint function that can lead to problems with pain and impaired function later in life. “
Later in life could mean age 18.
“The classic example is the kid with the good arm. Parents have visions of their child being a pro pitcher, coaches encourage them along and before you know it, the kid has either worn out his or her shoulder from overuse or gotten so burnt out on baseball that he or she never wants to play again,” Dr. Stack said.
A variety of sports, like a variety of life experiences, can make for a better athlete, and, potentially, a more well-adjusted human being.
“Cross-training can improve skill, strength and coordination in ways that may not be achievable by repeatedly performing one task or a set of tasks,” Dr. Stack said. “In addition, the broader the athletic experiences, the greater insight and perspective young people will have about human nature, how to work with teammates, and about their own talents and weaknesses. All of that is valuable to overall well-being.”
One Is Not Enough
If you’re still skeptical; if you still think that zeroing in on one sport at a single-digit age is the only way to develop a successful athlete, maybe these two words will convince you otherwise.
In an interview with Purpose2Play last year, Jordan’s mother, Chris Spieth, talked about how she and her husband, Shawn, made sure that Jordan had the experience of participating in multiple sports when he was younger. He was a left-handed pitcher for his baseball team, a football quarterback, a member of the swim team and yes, when summer rolled around, he played golf, too.
“We wanted to make sure he didn’t focus on a ‘loner’ sport too early, because there’s a lot that can be learned from competing as a team. I think having that experience really grounds you and prepares you for other things in life beyond sports,” Chris Spieth said in that interview. “I think, sometimes, when kids show an aptitude for golf at a young age, their parents push them into spending all of their time on that one sport. They get burnt out and they don’t have the opportunity to explore all the other things out there.”
Is Jordan Spieth a golfing phenomenon because he played multiple sports early on? No one can say for sure.
But, with a string of major tour wins, a coveted green jacket at the age of 21, and favored status entering this month’s British Open, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who believes that Spieth would be a better golfer today if he would have specialized sooner.
So, let the games begin.
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