If you watched the NFL draft, you might have come across this staggering stat: 224 out of the 253 players selected (86 percent) played multiple sports in high school. If that’s not striking enough, the number in the first round alone was even higher: 28 out of 31 (90 percent).
The NFL draft presents an interesting idea: could playing more than one sport actually help an athlete’s development instead of hindering it?
Yannick Laflamme, a UOttawa masters student in human kinetics and former Queen’s varsity hockey player, seems to think so.
In an article he wrote for SciencePerfo — a site dedicated to bridging science and sport —Laflamme highlighted the perils of early sport specialization and the overwhelming benefits of sport diversification in young athletes.
The concept associated with sport diversification is that physical and cognitive abilities may develop more quickly by being involved in a multitude of sports.
Laflamme explained there is a potential crossover effect due to the diversity of the playing environments of different sports. In other words, skills acquired from one sport are transferrable to another.
“By playing only one sport, an athlete will likely just learn the skills required for that sport,” he said.
For Laflamme, there are multiple examples to support his thesis:
“In basketball an athlete will learn how to jump and throw, but just because they know how to jump and throw does not mean they can play good baseball — because baseball requires more than both of those skills. For instance, in baseball, a player needs more hand-eye coordination than basketball. If the two are combined and played at a competitive level, the athlete’s intelligence is enhanced.”
Of course, he added, the more similar a sport is, the more the athlete uses the same skills — and the faster new skills are developed.
Moreover, the diversification method values playing over practicing because the more a young athlete enjoys competing, the more likely they are to continue playing sports later into their 20’s and 30’s.
“Playing brings a pleasure of the game to kids that practice does not,” Laflamme said. “When mature enough to specialize, the athlete is willing to dedicate more effort on his sport of choice — so practice becomes more important and critical.”
In some cases, however, specializing is imperative in attaining athletic success. Gymnastics and figure skating require an unparalleled amount of physiological skills, Laflamme said.
The problem with single-sport specialization is that it seemingly blocks the potential of reaching your best athletic self.
But if sport diversification is so widely accepted as the most effective way to develop an athlete’s cognitive skills, it certainly begs the question: why do so many multi-sport athletes discontinue playing two sports at the collegiate level?
While in high school multi-sport athletes have become the norm, in university they are scarce.
Director of High Performance and Sport Operations at Queen’s, Sean Scott, thinks the scarcity of multi-sport athletes in universities is a product of competing academic commands and a desire for a social life.
At Queen’s, the lack of multi-sport athletes is readily apparent. Gill Pegg, a member of both the rugby and wrestling teams, is the only dual-sport athlete in the school.
It was only after being cut from the women’s hockey team, Emma Chown was able to start for the rugby team. She wouldn’t have been able to play both sports at Queen’s, since their schedules overlap.
Laflamme credits this trend to time.
“Two-term sports draw a thick line between what you can and can’t do,” he said. “Athletes on the basketball or hockey teams simply don’t have the time to do nordic skiing or ultimate frisbee.”
The days of successful dual-sport athletes in both college and the pro levels have likely faded, but that shouldn’t limit young kids from participating in different sports to achieve their true athletic potential.
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