Boys participating in more than one sport before age 12 are more physically fit and have better gross motor coordination than those who specialize in a single sport early, says a new study by researchers in Belgium.1
Whether they are more physically fit and coordinated because they play multiple sports or because the best athletes choose not to specialize early is unclear and requires further study.
Researchers tested a total of 735 boys in three age groups (6-8, 8-10, 10-12) for body mass and height, muscular strength and strength endurance, flexibility, speed and agility, cardiovascular endurance, and gross motor coordination.
Boys in the 10-12 year age group who played multiple sports performed significantly better on standing broad jump and tests of gross motor coordination than boys specializing in a single sport.
Spending many hours per week playing sports was found to have a positive effect on explosive strength and gross motor coordination among all age groups, supporting the theory advanced in earlier studies. "[S]ubmitting young athletes to a stringent training regime with many hours of sports per week" is therefore a "sensible choice," the authors concluded.
The positive effect of early sports diversification on explosive strength, speed and agility, cardiovascular endurance, and gross motor coordination was found mainly in the group of boys aged 10-12 years. The reason, wrote lead author, Job Fransen, a member of the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences, Department of Movement and Sports Sciences at the University of Ghent, is that, "when diversifying early, improvement in performance is slower than when specializing early. Also, boys participating in more than one sport were exposed to a greater number of physical, cognitive, affective, and psycho-social environments than boys participating in one sport only."
As a result, children who sample multiple sports before age 12, Franzen says, possess a broad range of physical, personal, and mental skills that allow them to be successful when they do start specializing in a single sport during adolescence.
The study's findings, however, "do not necessarily imply that better physical fitness and gross motor coordination are the direct result of sampling. It might also be that the best athletes choose to participate in more than one sport because their excellent physical fitness and motor coordination allows them to cope more easily with new and challenging environments."
To establish a clear causal relationship between sampling of more than one sport before the age of 12 and physical fitness and gross motor coordination would, Franzen said, requires longitudinal research (repeated observations of the same variables over long periods of time).
Sampling sports recommended for most
Based on their findings, the authors said it was "important that children before the age of 12 years [be] encouraged by their coaches, parents, and other training professionals to participate in sports other than just their 'primary sport', preferably in combination with many hours per week spent in their sports."
The study also recognized, however, that the fact that those who specialize early may experience a more rapid improvement in performance provides some support for those who argue in favor of early specialization, at least in the case of sports, such as figure skating and gymnastics, in which athletic careers are shorter and attaining peak performance at a younger age may be advantageous.
It therefore concludes that "an awareness on the part of coaches, parents, and training professionals of the advantages and disadvantages associated with early specialization and early diversification" is essential.
1. Franzen J, Pion J, et. al. Differences in physical fitness and gross motor coordination in boys aged 6-12 years specializing in one versus sampling more than one sport. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2012; DOI:10.1080/02640414.2011.642808 (available online ahead of print: 03 Jan 2012).