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Was it specialising in one sport too soon?

In this series of Balance is Better articles, Sport NZ explores the myths surrounding youth sport and the shift in thinking needed to halt declining participation levels in kiwi teens.

We’re all familiar with the stories of young sporting prodigies such as Tiger Woods and Michael Phelps. If a child shows natural talent, it’s tempting to encourage them to focus on one sport from a young age. We all want our young people to succeed. However a significant consequence of focusing on one sport at an early age is that young people don’t get to reap the benefits that come from being exposed to a diversity of sport and recreational experiences.

Evidence continues to illustrate that those ‘child prodigies’ are a rare exception and that inappropriate early specialisation doesn’t increase the likelihood of success. It can actually be detrimental to the long-term wellbeing of our young people with an increased rate of burnout and drop-out. 

Over time, a considerable amount of evidence has demonstrated that the majority of elite athletes have had the opportunity to play a range of sports in their youth, helping them achieve a higher level of performance in sport. Elite athletes with multisport backgrounds often speak about how exposure to different sports as a child helped them develop skills and exposed them to different movement patterns that when transferred into the sport that they focused on later in life, supported them to excel. Elite athletes also discuss how playing a variety of sports meant they picked up valuable lessons through different coaches, team mates and cultures, which helped them be much more adaptable later in life.

Our New Zealand international athletes also demonstrate this. A study on New Zealand athletes found that most played a range of different sports as a teenager – with some not taking up the sport they excel in until their late teenage years. 

All Black legend Jeff Wilson is one example. Wilson represented New Zealand in both rugby union and cricket — a so-called ‘Double All Black’, an increasingly rare achievement in the professional era. He was also a basketballer and won national secondary school titles in track and field.

His career spanned nearly eight years with some time at fullback but the bulk of it on the wing. Wilson played 60 tests for the All Blacks, scoring 44 test tries and earning the nickname ‘Goldie’.  He first tripped off to Europe with the All Blacks in 1993, but Wilson believes his stellar career can be attributed in part to his childhood in Invercargill where he had the opportunity to be involved in a multitude of sports. 

“I always look back at when I was growing up and reflect on the number of sports that I played and how many things I was involved with, and how that shaped me as an athlete.”

Despite testing himself in a multitude of sports and being very competitive in each, Wilson never considered the possibility of turning professional until much later in his teenage years.

“I never had the belief that I would be an international sportsman. I was out there playing and competing and enjoying it and I just got a great thrill out of being around different people, playing different sports, getting different opportunities.”

“Playing every sport helped me in different ways.”

“The fact that I was able to play a game of basketball, play a game of cricket, play rugby and not feel constrained. I was involved with athletics, but then I’d pick up a volleyball or I’d do whatever I felt was around; swing a golf club. There was this transference between the sports, and there’s no doubt they complemented each other.”

“The one thing I don’t believe is that kids should have to make a decision early in life because you don’t know. The added pressure, the missed opportunities through making those decisions, I don’t think is positive for any young athlete.”

“Focus on the things that do help your kids. Don’t force them down one path.”

Image Credits: Sport NZ