Want to play sports? Good. Sports can be great for your health. But don’t focus. It will be better for you, your health, and your sports career. That’s one of the findings of the just-released report from the Women’s Sports Foundationreport Teen Sport in America: Why Participation Matters.
In this case, focus means playing just a single sport. Playing one sport versus multiple sports was one of the questions that the Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF) report addressed. The report was an analysis of results from surveying 14,049 twelfth‑graders between 2010 and 2015. Roughly half (50.2%) of the sample were female. The sample was also spread through the U.S. with roughly 36.6% from the South, 22.8% from the West, 22.7% from the Midwest, and 22.7% from the Northeast. Nicole Zarrett, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Psychology from the University of South Carolina, Philip Veliz, Ph.D., Assistant Research Professor of Nursing at University of Michigan, and Don Sabo, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Health Policy at D’Youville College were the authors of the report. I helped write the policy recommendations. Marjorie Snyder, PhD, WSF Senior Director of Research, was the guiding light and leader behind the project.
One major finding of the report was that teens who participated in two or more sports were much more likely to have healthier behaviors than those who participated in just one sport. The majority (62%) of those playing multiple sports exercised vigorously each day, compared to 39% of those who just played one sport. You may think that those who played multiple sports got less sleep because they are busier. But you’d be wrong. A larger percentage (37% versus 32%) of multiple sports players got at least 7 hours of sleep. Similarly, more (44% versus 38%) ate breakfast every day. Oh, and players of multiple sports were and less likely to smoke (13.4% versus 15.0%) and more likely to eat green vegetables (45.4% versus 40.0%) and fruits (57.3% versus 47.5%) every day.
Thus, treating sports like a salad bar is better than treating it like a keg of ketchup. (Side note: if you have a keg of ketchup, you are probably using too much ketchup.) As they say, variety is the spice of life. It is better to encourage kids to sample various sports rather than chug a single sport. Sports sampling may be literally the smarter thing to do, as further evidenced by the report. Sports samplers were more likely to average an A or A- in school (39.4% versus 36.7%), graduate from a four year college (65.4% versus 64.0%), and attend graduate or professional school (26.1% versus 25.8%).
Of note, the WSF analysis found that all of these numbers were better for those who played one sport versus those who played no sports. So don’t abandon all sports just because you can’t play more than one.
Feel better about sports sampling? Sports samplers do. They rated significantly higher in self-esteem, self-efficacy, and social support but lower in fatalism, loneliness, and self-derogation than those who focused on one sport. If you don’t know the term self-derogation, don’t beat yourself up. It means unrealistically disparaging yourself or mocking yourself and arises from an inappropriately low opinion of yourself.
In reality, many of the World’s top athletes did not just play one sport, but instead “sports sampled.” Take Wozniacki. Even prior to her recent breakthrough at the Australian Open, she has been pretty darn good at tennis: winning twenty-seven Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) singles titles, being two-time runner up at the U.S. Open, and reaching number one in the world. But check out her mad soccer (or football as it is called in the rest of the world) juggling skills:
Oh, and Simona Halep, whom Wozniacki beat in the Aussie final can juggle too:
As you can see both Wozniacki and Halep have juggled other sports, and they are among the best of the best. In fact, Wozniacki certainly got exposure to multiple sports while growing up as her mother Anna was a member of the Polish women’s national volleyball team and her father Piotr was a professional footballer.
Paradoxically, among the majority of teens this is not the case. Only 37.4% of teens in U.S. participate in more than one sport. This number is worse for girls (29%) than boys (47%). Why is this occurring? Darn adults. They are the cause of most of the problems of this world. Overeager parents and coaches may think that focusing a child on one sport as early as possible can make him or her the next Kobe Bryant, Elena Delle Donne, Lionel Messi, or Alex Morgan. In fact, as high school sports and youth leagues become more competitive, those who aren’t perceived as stars may be weeded out early. Of course, the overwhelming majority of people will not become top shelf Olympic or professional athletes. And even the superstars played multiple sports as kids and teens.
Encouraging more sports sampling is part of the Aspen Institute’s Project Play Playbook and an important focus of Project Play 2020 (although it is one focus, not the only focus). At the Aspen Institute Project Play Summit, former Major League Baseball (MLB) players Rick Ankiel, Harold Reynolds, and Jake Peavy discussed how they played multiple sports. Playing multiple sports can help expand your skills set, prevent injury from overusing a particular body part, avoid burnout, and introduce you to different people and perspectives. Each sport has its own culture, personality, and mindset (for example, in high school, soccer players felt that people who played soccer during the Fall season have culture and people who didn’t do not).
Recommendations from the report include the following:
- Fund, support, and implement research to determine the barriers to multi-sport participation in different communities, school types and sizes, and populations,
and design and develop strategies to overcome these barriers.
- Increase availability of equipment, facilities, and coaches for a wider variety of sports.
- Place limits on the lengths of seasons and practice times for a given sport. Longer and overlapping seasons and practice sessions make it more difficult for youth to participate in multiple sports.
- Limit early scouting and programs that track youth into a single sport at an early age.
There is almost nothing in life in which doing the same thing over and over is good (except for things like breathing and leaving the toilet seat down). Sure eating broccoli can be good for you. But an all-broccoli diet, not so good. Similarly, while playing a sport is certainly better for your health than not playing any, multiple sports will bring multiple benefits. Even and especially if you want to be the next Caroline Wozniacki.