Home » Early Sport Specialization: Some Benefits, But Many Drawbacks

Early Sport Specialization: Some Benefits, But Many Drawbacks

10,000 hour rule debunked; early sampling of many sports strongly recommended by experts

Question: What are the benefits and drawbacks of playing multiple sports (early sampling)?

Answer:  Research suggests that sampling and playing multiple sports at an early age, instead of specializing, has numerous benefits, including long-term talent development.

Specifically, an early sampling pathway has been associated with:

  • longer playing careers
  • enhanced peer relationships as college athletes
  • increased physical capacity and motor skill base
  • increased ability to transfer motor and pyschological skills to other sports; 
  • fewer hours being required to reach top levels; and
  • increased motivation, confidence, and self-direction.

As the Aspen Institute research brief notes, "a fair amount of research has supported [the idea] that [skill] transfer may be the most compelling argument that could be made for athletes to engage in sport sampling, especially at a young age."  It cites in support a 2002 study by conducted for the US Olympic Committee showing that a majority of Olympians from the 80's and 90's cited playing multiple sports as young athletes and teenagers, and that having access to multiple sports programs as kids was very beneficial to their development and training.  Similarly, a 2013 study surveying college athletes reported that only 30% of those surveyed specialized in just one sport prior to the age of 12, while 88% played more than one sport as a child, consistent with a 2010 study of female Division 1 college athletes which found that 83% played more than one competitive sport as a youth.

Perhaps as important to the development of elite athletes was quality coaching at a young age, with excellent coaches ranked by US Olympians from 1984 to 1998 as the third-most important factor that contributed to their success as an Olympic athlete, just below dedication and persistence and support of family and friends, and a 2010 Australian study reporting that 67% of 673 elite athletes in that country (including 51 Olympians) citing the "critical and highly influential" role their coaches played in their talent development as young athletes at the junior and local club level, especially their ability to motivate and encourage.  


de Lench B. Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (New York. HarperCollins 2006), pps. 25-32.  

DiFiori JP, Benjamin HJ, Brenner J, Gregory A, Jayanthi N, Landry GL, Luke A. Overuse Injuries and Burnout in Youth Sports: A Position Statement from the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. Clin J Sports Med. 2014;24(1):3-20.

Sagas  M. What does the science say about athletic develoment in children? Aspen Institute research brief. 2013 (http://www.aspeninstitute.org/sites/default/files/content/docs/pubs/Proj...)(accessed March 22, 2014).  

Tucker R, Collins M. What makes champions? A review of the relative contribution of genes and training to sport success. Br J Sports Med. 2012;46:555-561. 

Brooke de Lench is Founding Executive Director of MomsTEAM Institute, Inc., Director of Smart Teams Play Safe, Publisher of MomsTEAM.com, author of Home Team Advantage: The Critical Role of Mothers in Youth Sports (HarperCollins), and Producer/Director/Creator of the PBS documentary, "The Smartest Team: Making High School Football Safer." Brooke is also a founding member of the UN International Safeguards of Children in Sports coalition.

She can be reached by email delench@MomsTeam.com, and you can follow her on Twitter @brookedelench.