The United States Olympic Committee may have identified a common thread among Olympians: the majority of U.S. Olympic athletes played multiple sports at an early age.
The USOC conducted a study to "seek ways to improve the quality and effectiveness of programs focused on talent identification and development." A part of this was to identify predictors of success.
The USOC sent a questionnaire to athletes who participated in the Olympic games from 2000 to 2012. They received 309 responses—11 percent of the total. Seventy-one percent considered themselves multi-sport athletes at one point during their careers, and 97 percent of these multi-sport athletes believed that playing multiple sports helped their athletic development.
The conclusion: athletes who play multiple sports develop a more complete, well-rounded athletic skill set. Although they divide their time and effort among several sports, multi-sport athletes ultimately are more successful when they specialize in one sport later in life.
At some point most athletes need to specialize. Based on the responses, sports participation among these Olympic athletes gradually decreased after age 14, from an average of three sports to a little over one sport between the ages of 19 to 22. As teenage athletes find the sport they love and excel at, they gradually shift their efforts toward that sport and set long-term goals for success.
A problem arises when young athletes specialize in one sport during their development years. Some parents have their 3- or 4-year-old kids play a chosen sport in hopes that early specialization will give them an edge. And some kids don't want to play more than one sport, so they will have more time to practice and master their priority sport.
But what's interesting is that the Olympic respondents began playing their chosen sport at an average age of 11. Many began playing their sport at a young age, but others started much later. So early participation was by no means a key component of their success.
Bottom line: the priority for youth athletes should be to get exposure to multiple sports. This enhances overall athleticism by developing general movement mechanics, strength and coordination. Athletes can always master specific skills, but at the foundational level, their overall athleticism will determine their success. And playing multiple sports may be the key to building that foundation.
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