We hear about how Tiger Woods has been 100% focused on his sport since he was knee-high to a grasshopper and the lesson seems clear: if you want your child to have a professional sports career, you have to get them to focus early. Or is it?
Wayne Gretzky is arguably the greatest hockey player in history. Did you know he also ran track and played baseball?
So, is Tiger the norm, or is Wayne? Do the best of the best get there by playing only one sport? Or do they develop athleticism across multiple sports? I decided to run a little test: I took lists of the top 10 players in 2012 from the four major team sports in North America, and let Google help me to see what sports were in each of their backgrounds. For the sake of consistency, I went with lists compiled by ESPN. You may not agree with their list, but I felt it was best to go with a single source for top 10 lists for the NBA, NFL, MLB, and the NHL; and ESPN seemed the best option.
Time for wagers: Do you think you need to focus on a single sport to make it to the elite level? Or can you make it to the top of the NHL, NFL, NBA or MLB after having played more than one sport as a kid? How many of the players do you think grew up only playing one sport?
Would you believe me if I told you 7 out of 40? Only 18% of the top professional athletes were single-sport athletes. Or to look at it another way, 82% played multiple sports.
It may actually be more than that: for the 7 professionals listed as playing only one sport, I was not actually able to confirm this: I just wasn’t able to find any reference to them playing other sports. You can see the full list of players on each top 10 list as well as the other sports they played at the bottom of this article.
I don’t really know where the current push toward single-sport came from. Maybe parents remember seeing Tiger Woods on The Mike Douglas show swinging a golf club at the age of 2, and think they want to give that opportunity to their kids. Or maybe it’s that the sport associations themselves are vying for a bigger share of athletic registration dollars. Something else entirely?
What if early specialization can actually be harmful?
Now that we have debunked the myth that your child needs to specialize early to make it, it’s time to consider another important question: Is it important for your child’s development to play multiple sports?
Playing the same sport too often and all year long can lead to an increase in overuse injuries and burn out. The body will adapt to the stresses we put it through, but in some cases, those adaptations lead to muscular dysfunction, which can lead to injury. Playing multiple sports puts the body through different movement patterns, which can help to counter this effect. The body also needs time to rest and recover both for optimal performance and to avoid overuse injury, meaning an off-season is definitely advisable. There is a reason professional athletes don’t play their sport year round.
Playing only one sport may also cause you to lose out in terms of overall athleticism. Every sport requires multiple skills and physical traits, but no sport develops every skill and trait equally. By playing multiple sports, we can optimize development of those skills and traits. Some sports are based in short bursts, others require long bouts of effort; some sports are about rotational movement, others are more linear; some sports have a heavier focus on cutting and direction change; others require more flat out speed; some sports involve vertical power; others are about rotational power. When an athlete plays multiple sports, they have the potential to develop fully as an athlete, and to transfer skills from one sport to another.
Here’s an interesting comment on this topic from Tiger Woods:
“That’s what I’ve said all along, these guys who have played other sports, these guys are both really good basketball players and they both have been able to dunk, and they both have been able to play hoop. And then they decide to play golf instead. So it’s neat to see these guys transform into our sport, the power, the transition; they are doing things no one has ever seen on TOUR before. ” 
And from Kobe Bryant:
“I’m comfortable (with basketball) footwork because I played soccer,” said Bryant. “From changing up rhythms to foot speed, to being comfortable with having my right foot as my pivot foot and my left foot as my pivot foot.” 
More than 80% of the top players listed below grew up playing more than one sport, although despite that, most probably still hit their “10,000 hours”, a concept popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers (The theory is that if you look into the backgrounds of those who truly excel, odds are they put in at least 10,000 hours into their trade before reaching that level).
Maybe there is an element of the 10,000 hours rule that is overlooked. Is it really just the time, or does there also have to be passion? People who are enormously successful do seem to get their 10,000 hours early in life, but in each example that Gladwell presents, there is also an inordinate amount of passion for what they do. Bill Gates didn’t spend all of his free time working on a computer because his parents wanted him to have a better shot at an incredible career; he did it because it’s what he loved to do. Is it the passion or is it the practice that vaults these people to the elite levels? Or is it both?
This passion is also evident within the list of athletes below. The time they put into their sport wasn’t just about training camps, coached practices, and refereed games. It was playing with friends or siblings on the outdoor court, or the local ballpark until their parents made them come in, or sleeping with their skates on. Is it really 10,000 hours that is needed for exceptional success? Or is it 10,000 passionate hours?
If you are a parent, ask yourself: are you pushing your kid to go to training camp or to join the traveling team? Or is your child relentlessly begging you to let them play more? If it’s not the latter, then it’s probably time to rethink.
As promised, here are ESPN lists of current top 10 players in each of the NBA, NFL, MLB, and NHL. Under each player, I’ve identified the sport or sports they played in addition to their professional sport. Where no specific reference is indicated, the information was taken from either Wikipedia or Jockbio.
Top 10 players in the NBA
Single sport athletes: 1 out of 10.
- LeBron James (Football. All-star wide receiver in high school). 
- Dwight Howard (Looks to be just basketball)
- Dwyane Wade (Football)
- Chris Paul (Football)
- Dirk Nowitzki (Tennis and team handball)
- Kevin Durant (Football)
- Kobe Bryant (Soccer)
- Derrick Rose (Baseball)
- Deron Williams (Wrestling)
- Blake Griffin (Football and baseball)
Blake Griffin: “Everything you play helps to whatever you pick in the end“
Top 10 players in the NFL
Single-sport athletes: 0 out of 10.
- Tom Brady, New England Patriots (Baseball. In the 1995 draft, the Montreal Expos picked him in the 18th round)
- Peyton Manning, Indianapolis Colts (Basketball and baseball)
- Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints (Baseball and basketball)
- Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay Packers (Soccer, basketball and baseball)
- Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers (Basketball and baseball)
- Adrian Peterson, Minnesota Vikings (Track and field: 100, 200, triple jump and long jump)
- Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh Steelers (Baseball and basketball)
- Chris Johnson, Tennessee Titans (Track: 100 m)
- Philip Rivers, San Diego Chargers (Baseball and basketball)
- Michael Vick, Philadelphia Eagles (Baseball and basketball)
Top 10 players in Major League Baseball
Single-sport athletes: 3 out of 10
- Albert Pujols (No evidence of other sports)
- Roy Halladay (Basketball and cross-country running)
- Mighel Cabrera (Basketball and volleyball. He was offered a pro contract from a volleyball team in Switzerland)
- Justin Verlander (No evidence of other sports)
- Felix Hernandez (Basketball)
- Ryan Braun (Basketball, soccer, football)
- Clayton Kershaw (Soccer) 
- Troy Tulowitzki (Basketball. He averaged 22.6 points per game his senior year of high school)
- Tim Lincecum (Likely a single sport athlete)
- Robinson Cano (Basketball)
Top 10 players in the NHL 
Single-sport athletes: 3 out of 10
- Sidney Crosby (Baseball) 
- Jonathan Toews (No evidence of other sports)
- Evgeni Malkin (There was a reference to playing volleyball, but it was weak so I listed him as single-sport) 
- Pavel Datsyuk (Soccer)
- Claude Giroux (No specific sport listed but: “I played a lot of sports when I was a kid and I was always pretty good. Hockey was definitely my favourite and at some point I decided that I wanted to see how far I could go with it”)
- Steven Stamkos (Baseball, soccer, golf and lacrosse)
- Shea Weber (Baseball. He was a pitcher and shortstop until he was 16)
- Alex Ovechkin (Soccer and basketball)
- Zdeno Chara (No evidence of other sports. But a commitment to exercise and training outside of hockey.)
- Daniel Sedin (Soccer)
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 Arroyave, Luis (2006). “NBA’s Kobe Bryant almost became a soccer player”.Chicago Tribune.