What is the definition of a good athlete? Is it the pitcher who throws a great curveball? Or the elite 100m sprinter? How about the 3-point artist on the basketball team? How about the individual that does all of them well and easily picks up new skills - the one kid in high school who didn’t play basketball until his senior season and was easily the best player.
Perhaps the definition of an athlete ought to be someone who can easily adopt new motor skills and excels at being strong in weak and novel positions. Unfortunately, sport specialization at an early age yields kids who may be quite proficient at one particular movement but helpless when those movements become variable and unpredictable.
Multiple studies support the notion that children who play multiple sports are less likely to experience burnout or blow out an elbow or knee before finishing puberty. Injury rates in our youth are skyrocketing with a higher incidence of injuries such as fractures and sprains in those who specialize in one sport early in development. In my mind there is no acceptable reason for a 12 year old to present to my clinic with elbow pain due to repetitive throwing or for an ACL rupture (rates of which have gone up nearly 400% in the past 10 years according to some studies). Cutting physical education classes and sticking children in desks for 8 hours at school only serves to exacerbate children’s lack of skilled, variable movement.
So what do we do? The best way to drive athleticism and virtuosity of movement is to expose children to a variety of skills through free-play at an early age - expanding their motor skill repertoire. Waiting until adulthood to explore new movements (while still an excellent pursuit and a reason CrossFit is so powerful) will not suffice in driving athleticism and preventing injury in our youth. When a child is consistently moving poorly AND repetitively, the threshold for injury is much lower because they are out of movement options. Any extra perturbation, increase in load, increase in volume, or increase in stress and that poor position becomes an untenable one. Poor adaptability and less variability of movement are huge markers for injury and performance loss. The fewer weak or novel positions the child has, the less likely it is that injury occurs and performance suffers. The margin for error is greater. And by the way, the average Olympic athlete played two or more sports during childhood - so sport specialization at an early age will not likely even help a child become great at one sport anyway. And kids who specialize early in one sport are more likely to become physically inactive later in life.
From a motor learning perspective, our brains are designed to move us through, and interact with, the surrounding environment. Using our body helps us learn more quickly. The more sensory inputs that children experience through free-play, the better they understand this interaction. Kids who move well and move often throughout development have accelerated cognitive abilities and improved academic performance - it’s no wonder that children who suffer from autism do much better when performing motor tasks and altering sensory inputs. The beauty of safely exposing children to various motor tasks is they can understand what a new position feels like and inherently develop a way to adapt quickly and appropriately. And these movements don’t need to be (nor should they be) extraordinarily complex and skilled. Free-play and performing common variable movements - such as those in gym class, group exercise, and multiple sports - is all they need. Kids who delay sport specialization until at least age 12 are more coordinated and physically fit because they’re subjected to a variety of environments, inputs, and outputs.
Too often I see young adults who clearly have not yet mastered even the basics of human movement and it is not surprising to hear they did not play sports or only specialized in one and then burned out and/or were injured. We can do better - encourage kids to participate in recess, free-play, and multiple sports.