Can more practice make athletes worse?

Whether sport specialization is the most effective way of training


The Battlefield Girls Soccer Team in a group huddle before their game against Patriot. Photo by Bill Kamenjar via InsideNOVA.

Ashley Donohoe, Author

One of Battlefield’s claims-to-fame is their wildly successful high school sports teams, with a variety of both the boys and girls teams reaching the state level. Behind these teams, however, are the school’s athletes, who have recently started to develop unusual training habits in order to reach success in their sport. This is through the process of sports specialization, or participating in one sport with a large amount of training instead of participating in multiple sports.

As reported by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFSHSA), 82% of athletes believe they need to specialize in a sport if they want to make their high school teams. According to a majority of current day athletes, specializing in a sport is important to achieve success at a younger age when recruiting for college begins. On top of that, a specialized athlete will be able to join selective programs with access to top-level coaches.

In fact, USA Today reports that a majority of Division I men and women’s soccer players, men and women’s tennis players, women’s gymnasts, and men’s hockey players all specialized by the time they turned twelve. By specializing in these sports, many players have been able to hone their skill set to meet the exact requirements expected of them by higher-level teams. Yet, that does not seem to explain how a majority of Division I football players, lacrosse players, and runners all remained multi-sport athletes throughout their adolescence and were still able to achieve prominent success. If specializing in one sport is so important for an athlete’s success, why do so many succeed regardless of specialization?

According to these multi-sport players, by switching up the games they play, they are able to limit muscle overuse injuries, experience less pressure and subsequent burnout, and accumulate cross-sport skills that inevitably lead them to be more successful in their dominant sport. One of the most developed and proven issues with specialization is the risk of injury, as the NFSHSA reports that 85% of highly specialized athletes experience an increased susceptibility to tendonitis, stress fractures, and broken ankles. Both students and parents alike have started to develop the opinion that in order to preserve an athlete’s health, they must participate in multiple activities.

Junior Nicole Javier is an attacker on the Girl’s Soccer Team and has focused all of her energy into the sport since starting high school. “When I was little, my parents signed me up for multiple sports,” she shares. “I think people should try out multiple sports until they find the one they like the best.” As a specialized athlete, Javier feels that the increased energy she puts into playing soccer is well spent because she has found an activity she is truly passionate about, and to spend time participating in activities she is not particularly excited about to the same extent is not productive. Even though multi-sport athletes argue that they need to participate in a number of sports in order to remain invested, Javier believes athletes just need to keep exploring activities until they find the one they love and can stick with.

With more and more statistical evidence regarding becoming a specialized athlete surfacing, athletes need to make the tough choice on whether to remain a well-rounded athlete by being involved in a number of sporting activities or to focus in on one particular game. For the overall health benefit of sporting participation, becoming a multi-sport athlete may be the answer, but if a player is looking to achieve high-level success in the sporting industry, they may need to specialize in order to beat out the peers they are competing against. However, these specialized players will need to take extra precautions in order to prevent injuries they are more susceptible to.