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.
Thanks Chris. Been meaning to pick up that book – have heard lots of good things.
Great article. If you are looking for additional information on this topic David Epstein deals with this topic directly in his book “the Sports Gene”. “A large and growing body of scientific evidence says that early specialization not only is not required to make it to the highest level in many sports, but should perhaps be actively avoided” For anyone interested in this topic should pick up this book and read it.
I wonder if that is actually the case? (see my comment below in response to the other comment about soccer). Maybe I will have to do a follow up article and look into soccer.
I’m glad someone called me out on that! 🙂 I did actually try to add women, and in fact I was going to add golf and tennis so that I could have a more international flare and also include top female athletes. But truthfully I just ran out of steam on the research – it was very time-consuming! I actually think that for team sport athletes, women will be more likely to have played multiple sports as a kid, primarily because there isn’t the money driver that can lead some parents to make poor choices for their kids by “preparing” them for their future professional career starting at some ridiculously young age. On the flip side, there are sports like gymnastics, where girls are considered over the hill by the time they become an adult, meaning they have to specialize early. Sigh.
I suspect they would be the same. In fact I initially planned to look at soccer and tennis as well so that I could cover some sports that were more worldly and I could include women, but truthfully it just became too time consuming. My suspicion is that soccer in Europe would be just like hockey in Canada (where I live): every kid grows up playing hockey and dreaming of winning the Stanley Cup, but most also play other sports. As for why the US hasn’t produced great soccer players, I think back to a comment I read from Michael Boyle: that American kids grow up wanting to play American football, basketball, or baseball; and so the great athletes end up there. The American athletes who are that into soccer are such a minority. Meanwhile in Europe and South America, I suspect most of the great athletes grow up wanting to play soccer and so the best athletes in those countries end up there. This means the US soccer players (who are not the best athletes in the US), end up competing against the best athletes from Europe and South America, and they just don’t measure up. That struck me as an interesting perspective.
great article. I agree that young children should be exposed to a variety of sports, games, movements and that this is the basis for all excellence in sports (or just good habits for the average athlete)But what about soccer, a very complex sport. Most top soccer players have just played soccer their whole life (talking about EU and South American players)
any word on top female athletes? i missed seeing some female stats in your article.
Is there not a danger of assuming causation when correlation would be more accurate? In US sports, with the path from HS to College to Pro sports, most athletes will have played three sports in HS, as seems to be customary for sporty-type kids. My question would be – if you were to take the top 40 non-US Soccer players (Messi, Ronaldo, Suarez, Ibrahimovic, Beckham etc), would the findings be the same? I’m of the opinion that the results of THAT study would skew a little bit more towards specialization – not by rote, but by passion (as someone mentioned above). If this is the case, then can we then question why the US hasn’t produced a single great player in the soccer arena, despite having multiple-sport athletes in every generation – while Europe and South America have produced the majority, even though most players probably never paid anything other than recreational attention to any other sport? It is a big arena for investigation, I think, and I’m not sure the answer is easy to find. It could ultimately come down to an individualist argument rather than a generalist cookie-cutter one? It’s possibly more the case that specialization isn’t bad in itself, and in fact is good, but some variety along the way makes things better.
Thanks Rob. I suspect you’re right about Chara, but in absense of any specific reference to him doing other sports, I left him as a sole-sport athlete. Sad to hear about the 13 year olds getting pushed into one sport. I suspect we’ll see more and more of this even though it isn’t actually beneficial.
I’d be surprised if Chara didn’t do something other than hockey as a child given his height and stories that coaches recommended he play basketball. In addition, his father was an Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler …
… great article, btw. Unfortunately saw this at a previous school where a 13 year old ‘future soccer super-star’ only ever does that, but is also regularly played by soccer-induced injuries. Won’t play any other sport, and you can see how other boys who play at least three sports are developing dynamic ability better than him.
Thanks! I will take a look. Don’t suppose you have a url?
Thanks for the comment, Scott. Took me a while apparently to reply! For the record, we also ski up here. 🙂
Amen 10x! I appreciate the time that you spent researching the athletes and their backgrounds. That’s awesome information. In my experience, the very few hockey players that were specialists are from Canada where there isn’t much else to life other than hockey(relax Canucks, that’s not an insult). The majority of NHL S&C or performance coaches will tell you that their best athletes typically come from the Scandinavian countries who grew up in physical fitness based cultures.
The National Association for Sport and Physical Education has a research-based position statement on early sport specialization on their website that explains this pretty well. Check it out.
Great thoughts, Risto. I think for most of us, it comes down to time management and recognition of the importance of the rest of the world. For kids, it’s even more essential to experience because they are in a stage with developmental windows opening and closing. At some point you have to focus or you become a generalist who never truly excels. But focus shouldn’t be to the exclusion of all else. I hear many trainers say they never travel outside of conferences, saying they don’t feel a need to because they love what they do so much. This makes me sad for them: the world is a vast and amazing place. I couldn’t fathom missing out on that. I guess it comes down to how much you value life experience vs being great at what you do. Personally I strive for greatness, but not at the expense of life experience. There will always be periods when more of your time is focused on work, but there should be times when you spend more time and more energy (including reading time) outside of work. Otherwise we run the risk of burnout, and loss of perspective. It’s like with training: you would never suggest someone strength train 7 days per week: they need a break from training to be at their best. I believe the same is true of our careers.
Very interesting article, Elsbeth! I have some thoughts/questions that might go a little off-topic but not too much.
The debate of “specialization vs general knowledge/skill” is probably never-ending. This topic is about sport, but the same thing is relevant in all fields (life, in general).
Firstly, if you have a passion for one particular thing, then it’s very hard to get yourself to spend time on other things as well. For instance, I like training and nutrition and it’s just very difficult for me to spend any time on reading news, learning about business, or anything else that may be very beneficial to my overall health and success. Same with sport actually. Nothing is as exciting for me as soccer, so it’s pretty difficult to get myself playing other sports as well.
Second, there is so much information and so little time to learn it all. If you want to be truly smart and competent in something, it makes sense to spend a lot of time on it and little time on other things. Maybe just not all the time on that one thing because it does tend to get stressful and cause overuse as well as like you say, other things might offer some unique benefits that you can use in your speciality.
Any tips on how to get your mind to focus on some other things as well that look like they could provide some value to success but that you just can’t seem to like more than your specific passions (or even at all)?
Interesting! Thanks for sharing that Allan.
Tiger ran cross country for his high school team (Western High School, Anaheim, California). Fall is a down period for junior golf. Summer is obviously big for individual events, high school season is in the spring in SoCal, and he used to play some big events in Florida during Christmas break, so fall cross country was a good fit for his schedule.
His father once said, “Tiger would kick Michael Johnson’s butt in the 400m” if Tiger had stuck with running. Maybe a bit Earl Woods’ legendary hyperbole, but Tiger did at least participate in another sport up thru high school.