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Children and Young Adults Don’t Need to Specialize in a Sport, Research Says

In January, the Women’s Sports Foundation published its research report “Teen Sport in America: Why Participation Matters.” One of the research’s key findings was that participating in more than one sport has a multitude of positive effects on teens.

Now, a new study from the Penn State College of Medicine, released last month, adds to these findings. The research centered around the athletic backgrounds of professional and collegiate ice hockey players and found that the vast majority of the athletes played multiple sports as children and did not focus solely on ice hockey until their teenage years.

The research comes at a time when kids are specializing in one sport earlier and earlier which, related research has shown, comes with a higher risk of injury. Our research set forth recommendations that encourage young athletes to participate in as many sports as possible for as long as possible, including season length and practice time limits.

In a world where athletic scholarships and professional sports opportunities are becoming increasingly competitive, this research is important because it dissuades the pressure that parents might feel to encourage their child to focus on one sport.

“In many sports, there’s a belief among many parents and coaches that in order for your child to make the team or have the best chance for a collegiate scholarship, you have to pick a sport really early in life and only focus on one sport,” Matthew Silvas, one of the publishers of the Penn State research, said in a press release put out by the university. “That actually runs counter to what we think in terms of sports medicine and sports performance, and this study supported our line of thinking.”

WSF research, which found that only 37.4% of teens participate in more than one sport, aligned with the data from Penn State, which saw teenagers moving to sport specialization at a mean age of 14.5 years. This was consistent across professional and collegiate players analyzed

While the Penn State research analyzed only male athletes, it is just as if not more important for girls to get involved in two or more sports. Because girls are less likely to participate in sport – per WSF’s report, 38.6% of girls do not play any sports compared to only 25.1% of boys – they are also less likely to reap the benefits of playing two or more sports, which range from the health, social and academic positives that “Teen Sport in America” examines to the Penn State study’s assertion that sports diversification makes young athletes better at their sport when they do choose to specialize.

“If you only play one sport, you also miss out on sports diversification, which is the idea that being a really good soccer or tennis player may help you be a really good hockey player,” Silvis said. “We’ve seen a lot of professional athletes coming out in support of this.”

To learn more about WSF’s research on sport specialization, teen participation in sport and sport’s effects on physical and psychological health and academic achievement, click here.