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The value of variety

“Variety is the spice of life”. When it comes to youth sport, this old saying is apt for summing up the benefits which young people get from being exposed to a variety of sport and physical activity experiences. 

A key principle of the Balance is Better philosophy is: 

All young people should be supported to participate in a range of activities and play multiple sports. 

But why? Why should adults encourage and support young people to have a variety of experiences? 

The benefits of playing multiple sports 

Participating in multiple sports (i.e., sampling) has been shown to advantage young people in the following ways: 

  • Improved skill development, due to exposure to a wider breadth of movement patterns and tactical problems (in contrast to the exposure one would be provided from playing one sport). Elite athletes and coaches also recognise the added benefit a robust multisport background has on long term performance due to athletes being able to transfer skills and tactical problems from different sport domains.  
  • Improved psycho-social development, due to exposure to a variety of sport environments, which means exposure to different coaches, coaching styles, sport cultures and friend groups, etc. There is evidence to suggest this will contribute to young athletes becoming more resilient, empathetic, and coachable.  
  • Increased ‘match efficacy’ – by trying lots of different sports there is an increased chance that an individual finds the ‘right’ sport for them, i.e. one that matches their biological, social, and psychological make-up and needs. This in turn means that that person will be more likely to continue playing that sport throughout their life, and should they aspire to compete at a high-level, be successful.  

Ultimately, each sport has a unique set of characteristics (in the wider sense, i.e., the rules, the culture, and customs; the people; the places that training and competitions happen, etc.) which in turn underpin the experiences a young person is afforded. Playing multiple sports enables a young person to be exposed to a greater breadth of experiences. It is the breadth and variety of experiences which, as outlined above, is beneficial to young people. 

Read about some of New Zealand’s most successful athletes who attribute their multisport background to their success: 

Playing multiple sports counters, the risks associated with early specialisation 

There is an opportunity cost for specialising early in a sport. Young people miss out on the benefits outlined above. Additionally, research shows that specialising early in a sport can: 

  • Increase the risk of overuse injury 
  • Increase the risk of overuse syndrome and burnout 
  • Increased the likelihood of dropout 

While a few successful athletes’ development journey has followed an early specialisation pathway, the majority have not. And with a few exceptions, specialising early in a sport, may have short term benefits for performance at junior level, but does not correlate with increased performance at elite-level (i.e., it may help get you the best 12-year-old but not the best 22-year-old). 

Importantly, for coaches, sport leaders and administrators, avoid pressuring behaviour towards young athletes (perceived or real) to choose one sport. Where there are sport conflicts, coaches should try to be accommodating.  

What counts as a different sport? 

Another important consideration for adults to think about is ‘what counts as a different sport’? There are a multitude of ways to look at this. Some include: 

  • Physical differences, e.g., types of fitness required, movement patterns required 
  • Cognitive differences, e.g., tactical challenges, and constraints 
  • Emotional differences, e.g., temperament required, motivations for playing (socially verses competitively) 
  • Social difference, e.g., individual verses team sport, different social groups, different coaches 

Significantly, when young people play multiple sports that have similar movement patterns and fitness requirements, (e.g., netball and basketball; rugby and rugby sevens and touch; football and futsal, etc) they may still be susceptible to elevated risks of overuse injury and overuse syndrome. Adults should be especially cognisant of this for aspirational young people who train and compete in a high volume of organised sport, and actively encourage them to mix it up in their offseason.  

How can variety be encouraged within a single sport? 

Within the context of a single sport, coaches and sport leaders and administrators should consider how they enable variety. This can be achieved in a number of ways: 

  • Coaches know repetition and drilling can create boredom, and good coaches look at how they incorporate novelty into their training.  
  • For team sports, position specialisation is something that should be deferred until late adolescence (for much the same reasons outlined above about match efficacy and skill transfer). This means coaches of young people should consider how they actively enable position rotation across a season. 
  • Sport leaders and administrators who oversee participant development programmes, should consider how participants can be rotated between different coaches. While this will need to be weighed against whether this is: 
    • feasible from a practical standpoint; 
    • as well as consideration given to how much time is afforded to coaches to build rapport with young athletes; 
  • The advantages of doing this include: 
    • Exposing young people to different coaching styles 
    • Limiting the biases of one coach unduly effecting the development experience of young people 

How else should adults think about encouraging and enabling a variety of experiences? 

Across the development of a young person, encouraging them to play multiple sports is one way to establish an environment that provides a variety of experiences, which is ultimately conducive to supporting positive developmental outcomes. Aside from how sport is structured, adults should also consider how play, as well as other non-structured physical activity opportunities are supported. This doesn’t mean they need to be programmed by adults, rather, young people need to be encouraged or provided the space and permission to be able to do these types of activities. 

Did you know that the Australasian College of Sport and Exercise Physicians recommends that adults who are able to control or influence the training of young athletes should ensure that the ratio of hours spent in organised sport (training and competition) to those spent in ‘free play’ does not exceed 2:1? 

In summary: 

  • There are benefits to young people playing multiple sports due to the variety of experiences this exposes young people. The breadth of experiences is positive for young people growth and development. 
  • For athlete and talent development, playing multiple sports has been shown to have a positive long-term impact on skill development, and psycho-social development as well as improved match efficacy (i.e., picking a sport that is better suited to you). 
  • Playing multiple sports also counters some of the risks associated with early specialisation, such as overuse injury, overuse syndrome and burnout, and dropout. 
  • Adults should be cognisant of how different the various sports a young person plays, especially if they participate in a high volume of organised sport. Playing multiple sports with similar fitness and movement pattern requirements may still increase risks of overuse injury and overuse syndrome.  
  • Variety of experiences can be achieved within the context of one sport, and this should be a key principle that coaches, and sport leaders and administrators consider, for example  by discouraging position specialisation prematurely.  

Read more: 

How much is too much when it comes to youth sport? - A guide to understanding specialisation, playing multiple sports, and training load 

A parent guide to child growth and development in sport 

The risks of early specialisation 

Physio talk: what parents and coaches need to know about early specialisation and overtraining? 

What are the benefits of mixed playing experiences? 

Image Source: Sport New Zealand

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