Early sport specialization does not guarantee future stardom.
If anything, it may make eventually reaching an elite level in said sport more difficult.
A new study from the Penn State College of Medicine polled 91 professional, NCAA Division I and NCA Division III hockey players about their sports history. From ScienceDaily:
“After analyzing the data, the researchers found that the mean age of beginning any sport was 4.5 years, and the mean age of specializing in ice hockey was 14.3 years. Only 12 percent of the athletes specialized in their sport before 12 years of age. Most of the athletes played two to four sports as children, with soccer and baseball being the most popular in addition to hockey. The mean age of specializing in ice hockey—around 14—was consistent across professional, NCAA Division I and NCAA Division III players.”
“If you only play one sport, you (do) 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 ice hockey player,” Matthew Silvis, a researcher on the study and the team physician for the Hershey Bears minor league hockey team, told ScienceDaily. “We’ve seen a lot of professional athletes coming out in support of this, saying that by playing a lot of sports you’ll learn many skills and work different muscle groups that will help you if you specialize in one sport later on.”
This was a rather small sample size, but bigger studies have found similar results. For example, a 2017 study from the Rothman Institute at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital analyzed 3,090 athletes (503 high school, 856 collegiate and 1,731 professional) and found that the average high school athlete began specializing in their sport at 12.7 years old while the average collegiate athlete specialized at 14.8 years old and the average pro athlete specialized at 14.1 years old. One of the most telling findings in the study was that only 22.3% of professional athletes said they “would want their own child to specialize to play a single sport during childhood/adolescence.”
A 2017 study from the University of Wisconsin found that high school athletes with a “high specialization classification” had an 85-percent higher incidence of lower extremity injuries than high school athletes with a “low specialization classification.” Essentially, athletes who specialized were found to be at a much higher risk of lower extremity injury than athletes who play and train in multiple sports.
Six-time NHL All-Star John Tavares is a great example of how multi-sport youth athletes can ultimately blossom into superior hockey players. Growing up in Ontario, Tavares traded in his skates for a pair of cleats and a lacrosse stick every summer. He only began specializing at age 16, and he believes his background in lacrosse gives him a definitive edge on the ice.
“My mom never really believed in the summer hockey, all year-round. I needed a break and I always looked forwarded to the lacrosse season. And when hockey season came around I was really looking forward to that. It was good both ways to help myself in both sports,” Tavares told NHL.com in 2009. “The biggest is moving in traffic, shooting in traffic, making plays while guys are on you…When you’re able to do that, you’re able to draw guys toward you, make those plays in traffic, I think it creates a lot of chances offensively. Also rolling off checks — when you roll off checks or lean into guys, use your body to create room, you do a lot more of that in lacrosse because it’s such a possession game. You learn to make room for yourself, like in hockey…(It) definitely translates a lot.”
USA Hockey’s American Development Model, an initiative designed to help more American kids “play, love and excel in hockey”, strongly encourages kids to play multiple sports during their childhood and pre-teen years. “I like the fact that kids are encouraged to play other sports. Hockey is a great sport, but playing other sports definitely helps you become a better hockey player,” NHL all-star and 2014 U.S. Olympic captain Zach Parise said of the ADM.
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