To Play Multiple Sports or to Specialize?: The Dilemma Faced by Female Athletes
By Emily R Pappas, MS
With knee injuries in female athletes occurring upwards of 2 to 5x the rate compared to male athletes in some sports (6), the relationship between sport specialization, sports success, and sports injuries is a conversation we NEED to have.
Although the topic is hot, the answer to the question: “should females athletes play multiple sports or specialize early?” is not so cut and dry...
The answer: It depends!
What it really comes down to is this: (total: 14 min read)
Understanding the benefits of multi-sport play (3 min read)
Understanding when playing multiple sports is detrimental (5 min read)
Deciding when to play multiple sports & when to specialize (3 min read)
Preparing the body for the sport (3 min read)
The benefits of multiple sport play
Multi-sport play has been emphasized for youth athletes above early specialization for good reason.
In studies regarding female adolescent populations, a positive correlation is apparent between early sport specialization and increased risk of knee injuries including patellofemoral pain syndrome (PFP), Osgood Schlatters, and Singing Larsen-Johansson compared with multisport athletes (3).
As youth athletes are exposed to multiple sport, they are exposed different skill sets and physical demands (a sprint down the field for a soccer ball is very different demand than swinging a softball bat).
Varying the physical demands through multiple sport play means exposing athletes to different types of stress.
This stress can be good or bad depending on the amount and novelty.
The human body enjoys a state of balance or homeostasis. If your body is exposed to new stress that pushes the body outside of its homeostatic capacity...the body must adapt!
As a youth female athlete, these adaptations help her gain strength and power, improving her ability to both produce and absorb force (4).
With this adaptation or fitness improvement, the athlete improves her capacity to handle the large demands she is exposed to in sport.
When considering injury risks, the greater the capacity for the body to absorb high loads of stress, the lesser the chance of injury!
Even more, multiple sport play helps introduce different types of stress that stimulate the neurological system to adapt.
Let’s refer back to the example of sprinting for a soccer ball versus swinging a softball bat.
Although both movements involve the generation of force from the lower body, repeated sprints require different muscles to act in coordination than the muscles that contract to help transfer force from the lower body to the upper body in a softball swing.
By exposing athletes to multiple sports, they are exposed to multiple skill sets!
Learning skills is a stress that stimulates neuromotor adaptations that helps athletes develop a wider base of movement competency while also developing body awareness and coordination.
As if that wasn’t enough, playing multiple sports helps your athlete psychologically adapt in terms of expanding social groups, learning different team dynamics, and engaging in different types of competitive play!
Sounds like multiple sports is the winner right……?
The detriments of multiple sport play
Remember how we said stress can be good or bad depending on the amount and novelty…..well now it's time to talk about the BAD side of stress.
In our previous article “why less is not more and more is not better”, we explain how athletes can only handle a certain amount of volume before they break down (maximum recoverable volume or MRV) (1).
Think of this concept as a cup:
If the stress is always too little and our cup is never filled, our athletes will never improve!
If the stress is too great and always overflowing, our athletes will get injured and burned out.
If the stress fills the cup right to its brim with a couple of spillovers and time for the line to recede, our athletes adapt and their cups get bigger!
When we are trying to improve specific characteristics like developing faster runners, higher jumpers, or more agile athletes, we have to introduce directed stress that fills to the top and spills over a bit (the overload), is given time to recede (the recovery), our athletes improve (bigger cups and improved characteristics)!
When we first expose athletes to different sports (think the 6th-grade girl that wants to play soccer and softball) our athletes get better because these sports introduce NOVEL physical stress and motor skills.
Think: just enough stress to push us to the brim.
Remember, kicking a soccer ball and swinging a bat are new to the athlete and she will get better just through exposure to novel stimuli!
Here is the kicker:
If our athletes continue to play multiple sports throughout their career, the stressors of the multiple sports become less novel.
This means, their bodies are not stimulated to adapt because the movement patterns of the kick and the swing are no longer NEW, but already learned skills.
This means less spillover.
“SO what’s the problem? She is still staying in shape right?”
Yes, playing multiple sports is definitely a great way to help an athlete maintain her current fitness level! The saying if you don’t use it, you lose it, holds true here!
By playing soccer, we ensure the athlete keeps her cup filled high enough to deter any loss of fitness!
However, if your athlete really wants to get better at softball, but is missing the power she needs to slam homeruns…… let’s think about how playing soccer will contribute to this goal:
TRUE: “Soccer is a different stimulus than softball and will help my athlete train her aerobic system in a way that softball does not.”
Improved aerobic system allows for improved recovery! Athletes need to recover from stress in order to adapt!
Soccer for the win!!!
TRUE: “The workload introduced in soccer training is going to add to the total amount of volume your athlete my handle.”
Adding soccer on top of batting practice and lifting weights is going to require the athlete to do LESS batting practice and lifting to stay within this MRV and allow her body to recover
TRUE: “The specificity - and consequently stimulus - of soccer is not high enough to help my athlete develop the strength she needs for home run hits!”
If your athlete needs to develop power, she needs to improve her strength first. Soccer will definitely introduce a load to the athlete as she runs (yay, physical stress), but the stress is not novel if she has been playing for the past 2 years, nor is it large enough to tell her body...HEY we have to get stronger!
OK so should your softball player play soccer? Let’s consider the options with this visual:
In the second cup, the athlete needs to balance the workload she is exposed to between soccer, batting practice, club softball, and lifting.
Will this athlete stay in shape? YES.
Will this athlete be efficient in improving her strength for softball? NO.
The human body can only handle so much stress! Your cup is only so big!! Without enough directed stress to improving her strength, the athlete will never improve her power.
In the first cup, the athlete is able to fill more of it with the intention of getting stronger while maintaining her skills of batting and the tactile components of the game.
Will this athlete stay in shape? YES.
→ will she be in better shape than if she played soccer? Probably not...but that is not her goal….
Will this athlete be efficient in improving her strength for softball? YES.
Maximum recoverable volume is a way to understand that your athletes can only handle SO MUCH stress…..
If you have a goal like improving your power or agility, the stress of playing multiple sports is not directed enough to help your athlete improve these specific qualities.
Rather, they just take up room in the cup, add to the volume, but lead to no real results.
If we keep adding to our athlete’s cup with no true purpose, direction, or overload mechanism, how will her body know to adapt in a specific way?
It won't. Rather, we call this type of stress “junk volume” (1).
The volume that is felt by the body and used to fill your cup, but not directed enough to push directed overflow that helps your cup to get bigger!
As our athletes continue to play multiple sports, the initial new stimulus of the sport becomes less new and just adds to this “junk volume”
This type of volume becomes a problem athlete’s exposed to high amounts of training load without the capacity to handle those training loads are at a high risk of experiencing overuse injuries.
Fun fact: non-contact ACL injuries are simply OVERUSE INJURIES (5).
We can reduce the chance of experiencing these injuries by improving the capacity of your athlete! For the softball player, this means less time playing soccer and more time participating in the directed stress of strength training to improve her body’s movement quality and capacity to handle high loads.
To specialize or not to specialize: deciding what is best for your athlete
When deciding if playing multiple sports or specializing is right for your athlete, you have to first consider WHAT IS HER GOAL?
With more and more athletes choosing to specialize early, we see an increase in injury and burn out not because they are not playing multiple sports, but because they are not introducing novel or overloading stimuli to IMPROVE.
If athletes choose to specialize early (8 months of play specific to one sport with the exception of other sports), they need to understand this may come at a cost (3):
Decreased in physical adaptations
Decrease in motor skill acquisition
Decrease in movement competency
→ all leading to increased risk of overuse injuries & burn out
If athletes choose to play multiple sports, they also need to understand this may come at a cost (1,5)
Decreased adaptive potential overtime due to lack of novel or directed stimuli
Decreased ability to improve a specific skill or physical characteristic
Increased total workload leading to an increased risk of overuse injuries
When making the choice to play multiple sports versus a single sport, understand the best choice will be based on the individual and time!
If your athlete is at a young training age (<2 years of training), exposing to her multiple sports is a great way to help reduce the chance of injuries by exposing her to new stressors that force her body to adapt and improve! Even better, she is exposed to new movements that help her develop different skill sets both tactically (sport specific) and technically (physical characteristics) (3).
If your athlete has been playing sports for >3 years and has fallen in love with one in particular, sport specialization could be the best option! By focusing on one sport, the athlete will be able to develop specific sport skills that will enhance her performance without overloading her with fatigue due to multiple sport play.
However, please know with both scenarios there is one very important concept we need to understand: COMPETITIVE SPORT IS STRESSFUL and playing sport by itself is NOT ENOUGH to prepare the body for the stressors of sport (5).
Preparing your athlete for competitive sport
When we think about sport, we think of all the wonderful things it brings to female athletes: competition, hard work, dedication, teamwork, support, camaraderie.
What we often forget is that it also imposes STRESS: both physical and mental.
Think about the amount of load your athlete experiences every time she runs on the soccer field:
Her body weight x gravity x the velocity of her movement x the number of steps she takes = a heck of a lot of stress!!!
Like we talked about before...stress is necessary! Stress + recovery leads to adaptation!
However, the type of adaptation depends on the type of stress imposed on the body!
When you start playing soccer, the stress is novel enough to get your body to adapt! AKA Improvements for the win!
However, as you continue to play soccer and competition increases, the stimulus of soccer is no longer novel enough to get your body prepared for the high loads you will be exposed to.
If you do not SPECIFICALLY and INTENTIONALLY prepare your body to handle high loads, your body will eventually break down (5).
Overuse injuries anyone?!
When we think about long term athletic development, we have to understand that athletes who last longer in sport are not athletes who simply play multiple sports, rather athletes who prepare their bodies’ for the demands of their sport!
Like we explained above, multiple sport play will initially contribute to the long term athletic development of an athlete as the novel stimuli they introduce helps athletes physiologically and neurologically adapt!
But, playing multiple sports is not enough to prepare athletes for competitive sport - and in some cases can be counterproductive!
Currently in youth sports, there seems to be an emphasis placed on learning tactile skills before technical skills. By this we mean athletes are taught where to position themselves for a corner kick in soccer far before they actually learn the technical skills of how to load their body in a hinge movement and properly brace their core before they kick the ball.
When we consider long term athletic development, teaching tactile skills before technical skills misinforms the athlete on the necessity of improving ATHLETICISM before SPECIFIC SPORT SKILLS (2).
If we keep pushing our athletes to play multiple sports and develop tactile skills before technical skills, we are increasing the change of injury for our athletes (2).
Think of it this way:
Soccer teaches my athlete the TECHNICAL skill of how to kick the soccer ball or change direction with it while dribbling. It also teaches my athlete the TACTILE skill of the game like where to position herself when her striker has a break away.
Soccer does NOT efficiently build the PHYSICAL qualities my athlete needs to kick the ball with power or the absorb force while cutting.
If we want our athletes to last in the long term, we need to prioritize the development their PHYSICAL abilities before we develop their TECHNICAL and TACTILE abilities.
Teaching an athlete the footwork of how to cut is TECHNICAL
Improving her body's capacity to handle the load imposed on her body as she cuts is PHYSICAL
For this reason, long term athletic development models suggest the introduction of resistance training as early as possible in young athletes’ development.
Several position statements on long term athletic development (2,3,4), resistance training for youth, and injury prevention advocate the use of resistance training as an “appropriate training method to improve sports performance and decrease the risk of injury in youth.”
This necessity is emphasized as female athletes experience adolescent awkwardness: the temporary loss in motor coordination that occurs during a period of rapid growth leading to greater movement variability and decreased movement proficiency (3).
For adolescent youth athletes, learning how to MOVE their body and improving their body’s capacity to handle HIGH LOADS during this time is FAR more important than exposing her to a different tactile sport skill set.
Multi-sport versus sport specialization is a hot topic for female athletes.
Before deciding which route is best for your athlete, it is important to understand the GOAL of your athlete and the best way to induce physiological and neurological changes to help your athlete reach these goals.
Improvement of tactile skill is paramount to long term athletic development
But without an improvement of the technical characteristics from which these skills transpire, you could be setting your athlete for a career filled with overuse injuries and unrealized success.
Multiple sports introduces a novel stimulus to help athletes develop a wide array of motor skills, movement competency, and physical strength
Multiple sports comes at a cost of increasing the total workload of the athlete while diminishing the potential to realize success is specific areas
Sport specialization introduces a specific stimulus that could lead to overuse injuries and a lack of movement competency and motor skills
Sport specialization enhances an athlete’s ability to improve a sport specific skill while monitoring training load more efficiently
Sport is stressful and playing sports is NOT enough to prepare the body for the stressors of sport
Resistance training is paramount to the long term athletic development of any athlete as it introduces technical characteristics from which specific sport tactile skills develop
(1) Blumenstein, Borris, et al. “Fatigue, Overreaching, and Overtraining .” Integrated Periodization in Sports Training & Athletic Development: Combining Training Methodology, Sports Psychology, and Nutrition to Optimize Performance, by Tudor O. Bompa, Meyer & Meyer Sport (UK) Ltd., 2019, pp. 154–176.
(2) Faigenbaum, Avery D, et al. “Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From the National Strength and Conditioning Association.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, vol. 23, 2009, doi:10.1519/jsc.0b013e31819df407.
(3) Lloyd, Rhodri S., and Jon L. Oliver. “The Youth Physical Development Model.” Strength and Conditioning Journal, vol. 34, no. 3, 2012, pp. 61–72., doi:10.1519/ssc.0b013e31825760ea.
(4) McCambridge, TM, and PR Stricker. “Strength Training by Children and Adolescents.” Pediatrics, vol. 121, no. 4, 2008, pp. 835–840., doi:10.1542/peds.2007-3790.
(5) Sargent, D., Clarke, R. (2018). Strength and Conditioning for Female Athletes. Training Young Female Athletes. Marlborough: Crowood. pp 171-183.
(6) Shultz, Sandra. “The Effect of Sex Hormones on Ligament Structure, Joint Stability and ACL Injury Risk .” SEX HORMONES, EXERCISE AND WOMEN: Scientific and Clinical Aspects, SPRINGER, 2018, pp. 113–138.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Emily holds a M.S. in Exercise Physiology from Temple University and a B.S. in Biological Sciences from Drexel University. Through this education, Emily values her ability to coach athletes with a perspective that is grounded in biomechanics and human physiology. Outside of the classroom, Emily has experience coaching and programming at the Division I Collegiate Level working as the assistant strength coach for Temple University’s Women’s Rugby team. In addition, Emily holds her USAW Sport Performance certification and values her ability to coach athletes using “Olympic” Weightlifting. Emily is extremely passionate about the sport of Weightlifting, not only for the competitive nature of the sport, but also for the application of the lifts as a tool in the strength field. Through these lifts, Emily has been able to develop athletes that range from grade school athletes to nationally ranked athletes in sports such as lacrosse, field hockey, and weightlifting.
Emily is also an Adjunct at Temple University, instructing a course on female athlete development.