Instead of pushing kids to specialize in one sport, sports clubs would be better off expanding their portfolio of sports offered. More options means more kids will find an activity they like.

Challenge //   Sameness and specialization


Encourage sport sampling.


The Boys & Girls Clubs of America serves 3 million children ages 12 and under, including many in some of the most challenged urban areas. Most keep programs affordable, $25 a year, so the primary challenge for the clubs is “diversity of opportunity,” Wayne Moss, senior director of health lifestyles, told a Project Play roundtable. Basketball is popular with kids, but as they move into high school there are only so many varsity roster spots. Clubs want to expand their portfolio of sports offered, to better accommodate the full range of interests and talents of children.


Options are better in more affluent areas. Still, most children flow into only a handful of the more than 120 sports played in the United States.(18) And, as early as the grade school years, those identified as having the most promise get the message from coaches and others that they must specialize in one sport at the exclusion of others in order to fully develop their talents and play at a college, pro, or other elite levels. It’s a myth.


In a survey conducted by the U.S. Olympic Committee at the request of Project Play, 7 out of 10 Olympians said they grew up as multisport athletes, and nearly all called it “valuable.” In lacrosse, data from the last four U.S. national teams shows that just three of the 102 players surveyed played only lacrosse in high school. A UCLA study found that college athletes were actually less likely than other former high school athletes to specialize in one sport. The emerging research says that a sport-sampling pathway leads to less burnout, less social isolation, better performance, and, most importantly, more lifelong enjoyment in sport.(19)




Debunking the myth of early specialization presents a real opportunity for elite and community sport organizations to align behind a common experience for kids through age 12. It buys oxygen for the notion that the development of physical literacy should be the priority, fostered by sport sampling. But that commitment needs to be made to all children, with special efforts designed to reach the sedentary and those who may not be aware of, or have the resources to afford, activities outside the mainstream. We need more initiatives like Fencing in the Schools, which has introduced the sport to 20,000 kids in Harlem, Newark, and other areas by providing equipment and training for physical education (PE) teachers.(20) We need more programs like Surfers for Autism, which works to unlock the potential of kids with developmental disabilities. While team sports should embrace all, individual sports can also be more welcoming than team cultures to some kids, LGBTQ or otherwise.


Grow the menu of sport options, create better connections to vulnerable populations, and more athletes-for-life will emerge. 


Fig.9 [Citation]

Benefits Of Sampling a Variety Of Sports

It's better to try a few than to focus on one early


Parent Resources


“Cast the net really wide. Make sure your kids can enjoy all types of sports. That way they’re not burned out playing one, single activity.”

— Cari Champion, ESPN

Find Complementary sports

Focused on one sport? Our tool developed with the Hospital for Special Surgery offers recommendations on other sports to try, for skill development and overall health.

FIND local programs offers a search directory, sortable to age and gender, to find a wide variety of programs where you live, plus learn-to-play guides in several sports.


questions to ask sport providers

Project Play is working with the Association of Chief Executives for Sport to help sport organizations develop policies and partnerships that support sport sampling. Below is a list of commitments made of August 2019, in which we asked, “Does your organization …”. Learn more.

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Encourage Sport Sampling: an Introduction

Moderator: Peter Davis, Director, Sports Performance Management

Panelists: Steve Boyle, Director, 2-4-1 Sports; David Esquith, Director, Office of Safe and Healthy Students, U.S. Department of Education; Tim Morehouse, Olympic silver medalist, and Founder, Fencing in Schools; Mary Wittenburg, CEO, New York Road Runners.

how to Bring Swimming to Minority Communities

Moderator: Gary Hall Jr., Olympic Gold Medalist in Swimming

Panelists; Nikki Cobbs, Aquatic Coordinator, Baltimore City Rec & Parks Aquatics Division; Tim Fristoe, Founder/General Manager, TeamUnify; James Nicholson, Board Chairman, YMCA of Metropolitan Detroit; Reece Whitley, 17-year old Swimmer, Philadelphia.



Moderator: Jon Solomon, Editorial Director, The Aspen Institute’s Sports & Society Program

Panelists: Michael Kanters, Professor and Coordinator, Masters of Parks, Recreation, Tourism & Sport Management at North Carolina State University; Michele LaBotz, Member, Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness, American Academy of Pediatrics; Laura Robbins, Senior Vice President, Hospital for Special Surgery

“My earliest memories were just playing, all kinds of different sports. I didn’t compete in track until high school. I’m really grateful for those early experiences, a little bit of everything to find out what I was good at.”

Allyson Felix, four-time Olympic gold medalist


The Aspen Institute recognizes select organizations that take new, specific, meaningful action aligned with each play. Learn how to be a Project Play Champion.


One of the more novel summer camps is 2-4-1 Sports in Connecticut. Its tagline is, “Life is too short for just one sport.” Campers learn several sports of their choosing. The camp was created by parents — both former college athletes — after their young daughter’s invitation to join a travel soccer team was rescinded because she didn’t want to quit lacrosse to make the multi-season commitment to soccer. Readers of Hartford Magazine voted the camp the state’s best in 2012; the founders’ daughter went on to play lacrosse in college. Founder Steve Boyle shared lessons learned at the 2015 Project Play Summit (WATCH). 

  Do you have a success story or creative solution of your own? Share it with us on Twitter.