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)
MORE OPTIONS MEAN MORE KIDS WILL FIND A SPORT THEY LIKE
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.
Benefits Of Sampling a Variety Of Sports
It's better to try a few than to focus on one early
The Aspen Institute recognizes select organizations that take new, specific, meaningful action aligned with each play. Apply to be a Project Play Champion.
At the annual Project Play Summit, we advance the conversation on each play, identifying new opportunities. Learn about them by watching the sessions below.
2015 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
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.
2017 PROJECT PLAY SUMMIT
Encourage Sport Sampling: Golden Opportunity — Bringing 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.
“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
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.
In August 2015, led by the U.S. Tennis Association, 42 leading sports organizations — 28 national governing bodies and the U.S. Olympic Committee, five professional leagues, NBC Sports, ESPN, the NCAA, the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and other nationally influential groups — released a statement supporting multi-sport play. Since then, many local groups that embrace sport sampling as a value have shared the infographic with their networks.
Does your organization promote sport sampling? Email us to request an editable version of the infographic that you can use to share the message of sport sampling with parents, coaches, and youth.