The pressure to specialise in sport, is it really the path to a professional career? Posted about 9 years ago

Photo: Mastereign Multisports

The New England Patriots’ recent victory over the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX was the most-watched event in US television history with an average of 114.4 million people tuning into the drama-filled showpiece but that is not the most impressive statistic to emerge from an American Football field in recent weeks.

Last month Ohio State upset Oregon 42-20 in the first College Football Playoff national championship game in front of an amazing 85,689 fans but the figure in question is not the commanding nature of the Buckeyes’ victory nor the amazing popularity of collegiate American Football.

This Twitter post emerged in the days following Ohio State’s triumph and it not only provided a fascinating insight into the make-up of their championship winning squad but offered a possible blueprint for success in other sports.

It illustrates that forty-two members of the Buckeyes’ squad assembled by head coach Urban Meyer played multiple sports in High School – while just five focused on American Football.

The pressure to specialise, or in other words get really serious, about a particular sport at the expense of others in the hope of boosting an athlete’s chances of making it as a professional in that chosen discipline is ever-present.

Research shows that such a narrow focus can bring significant improvement in terms of skill acquisition and overall performance and for many players, and parents, it may appear that an extra couple of training sessions a week or maybe a dedicated weights programme will edge them closer to fulfilling a professional dream.

Even unions appear guilty of encouraging this specialisation with the Irish Rugby Football Union’s own target – new strength and conditioning advice
including weight programmes for players as young as 12 years old.

But there is increasingly more evidence that suggests that a varied athletic outlook can be infinitely more beneficial.

Elite sport is awash with examples of athletes whose success can be traced back to a multi-sport foundation. Tennis legend Roger Federer was a keen football player in his youth, as were basketball stars Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, while ice hockey great Wayne Gretzky loved to play lacrosse.

Rugby union offers its fair share of evidence to support this claim. England fly-half Danny Cipriani was also a talented footballer and cricketer in his youth and shunned offers from Reading FC and Surrey to pursue his rugby career.

England scrum-half Danny Care was on the books of the Sheffield Wednesday Football Academy while England Saxons star Eliot Daly was another to opt against furthering a promising cricket career with Surrey.

Athletics loss was also rugby union’s gain with England lock Dave Attwood having represented his country at discus in his teens and wing Jonny May was a notable pole vaulter.

But perhaps England fullback Alex Goode is the finest example having appeared at the National Schools athletics finals, played county level tennis and been part of the Ipswich Town FC’s academy before settling on rugby.

A rare few attain legendary status by excelling in more than one sport like C. B. Fry, who represented England at both football and cricket, played in an FA Cup final for Southampton and once equalled the world record for the long jump.

His achievements are arguably trumped by Jim Thorp who won gold for the United States at the 1912 Olympics in the pentathlon and decathlon before going on to play professional baseball and basketball.

More recently there was Bo Jackson, a Heisman Trophy winner who went on to have Hall of Fame worthy careers in both American Football and baseball and he remains the only athlete to be named an All-Star in two major American sports.

Rugby has produced it’s own multi-sport masters through the years with the most recent additions to that exclusive club including the likes of Jeff Wilson, a New Zealand international in union and cricket, and Karmichael Hunt, whose career has included spells in league, Aussie Rules and then union.

Among the many fascinating articles on the subject, Dr Bhrett McCabe writes that the improvement that can be gained from specialisation can be ‘empowering’ for both player and parents and in turn raise confidence and fuel a ‘desire to compete more frequently, train harder and train better.’

Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, is one of those to "highlight the rise of competitive parenting and like McCabe points to the possible ill effects of such an intense focus – both physically and mentally.

The evidence is impossible to ignore.

Research has linked an increase in elbow surgery among young baseball players with pitchers throwing too much and too soon.

Similarly enthralling work has found that specialisation could have a detrimental impact on athletic performance.

Perhaps most alarming are the findings that show such a narrow focus can put the individual off playing sport in general for the rest of their life.

The benefits of mixing things up during a player’s formative years are just as persuasive.

Coyle is one of many to highlight the physical boost provided by playing different sports with that variety helping the athlete to ‘develop whole-body skills like balance, quickness, core strength’ which can be easily transferred between each discipline and boost performance.

He also stresses what he considers a much more important byproduct. “Multi-sport kids develop a far more useful skill: how to learn,” he writes. “They learn how to adapt to different situations, make connections, and to take true ownership over the improvement process,” and “they are free of the sense that, should they fail, they are at risk of losing their identity, and letting down their parents.”

This is not to say that specialisation should be avoided altogether. It warrants a place in a balanced training programme that is designed to harvest the benefits of both approaches.

It is also clearly worth remembering that only a small percentage of youth athletes go on to professional careers and so it is important that players, parents and coaches do not prioritise lofty goals over enjoyment. As McCabe writes, “Ultimately, when the athletic career is over, what will be remembered are the experiences and not the trophies.”

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Graham Jenkins is a freelance sports journalist who has been reporting around the rugby globe for over 20 years. A former editor of the leading rugby union website, he is a veteran of five World Cups and cites England’s 2003 triumph as the most memorable moment of his professional career - closely followed by a night out with Toulon owner Mourad Boudjellal.

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