A Sporting Life: Should serious student athletes focus on one sport—or go out for more?

Playing multiple sports versus specializing in a single sport is currently a hot topic among high school athletics. Over the past few decades, there has been a sharp rise in the number of athletes choosing to specialize in a single sport. The trend, experts say, is driven by the coveted college scholarship. Interestingly, though, college coaches say they prefer recruiting student-athletes who play more than one sport.

Take Urban Meyer, for instance, head football coach at Ohio State. He recruits far more multi-sport athletes than athletes who have spent their formative years playing only football. The decision, however, of how many sports to play is a personal one. Consider the following advantages and disadvantages of each path.


Focusing on one sport fuels passion. This is true for the athlete who is passionate about one, and only one, sport. This athlete prefers to sacrifice having a social life, vacations and parties for the sport.

Specialization supports this kind of passion. Specialization also accelerates specific skill development. The single-sport athlete has time to focus on learning and developing expertise and provides opportunities for leadership within the sport. And, one-sport athletes often experience stronger bonds with their coach/coaches.

The increased skill level in single-sport athletes results in greater confidence and contributes to an overall higher level of competition in high school. Playing a single sport year-round also provides exposure to college coaches and—the carrot many seek—opportunities for scholarships.


Intense training, practice and competition schedules require repetitive muscle movement and can lead to overuse injuries and injuries later in life. Most common are knees, elbows and the effects of head trauma. “The total number of high schoolers coming to see me now outnumbers the college group and the professional group,” says Dr. James Andrews, a renowned orthopedic surgeon, quoted in The Fan Varsity Sports Network, national high school sports network.

Andrews attributes the increase to early specialization. Further, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, overuse injuries are responsible for nearly half of all sport injuries in middle and high school students. This intense schedule can also lead to burnout. “I think there are a lot of kids that elect to not even go to the college ranks because they’re just too tired of playing basketball all the time,” says Mike Lightfoot, head basketball coach for Bethel College, in Indiana.

In addition to these drawbacks, specialization is expensive. Consider the top-of-the-line equipment, private coaching, training, travel and team fees. Specialization also limits a student’s interaction (and advice) from coaches in other sports.


Playing multiple sports is great for cross-training. Janine Tucker, women’s lacrosse coach at John Hopkins University, has noted that playing multiple sports in high school allows athletes to develop a diverse skill set that leads to athletic success at the college level. As athleticism increases, so does the athlete’s diversity of skills.

Athletic IQ also increases, says Scott Marr, women’s lacrosse coach at University at Albany, New York, who says he believes playing multiple sports and learning different skills strengthens the mind. Playing on multiple teams creates more opportunity for athletes to take on leadership roles and allows athletes to stretch themselves. Being a superstar in a primary sport and then being average in a second sport allows an athlete to develop humility. There is tremendous value in learning how to support the “go-to” player in a second or third sport.

Multiple-sport athletes learn how to adjust to different coaching styles, while still providing exposure to college coaches and scholarship opportunities.


Increased risk of fatigue is a major con. There isn’t much time for rest moving from one season to the next and the multi-sport athlete can become physically and mentally fatigued.

Probably the major disadvantage of playing more than one sport is the risk of injury. Getting injured in a second or third sport can bench an athlete in their primary sport. This is an important reason why some coaches don’t support multiple-sport play.

Both paths are valid, with many advantages and disadvantages. The decision is personal for each athlete and many factors have to be considered in the decision-making process. It’s important for students to sit down with parents and trusted coaches and review all of the pros and cons to determine their personal best path.

Kathy A. Feinstein, M.S., is a licensed mental health counselor and certified sport performance consultant in Naples, Florida, working with children, adolescents, adults and families. Article originally published in July 2016 edition of e Bella Magazine. View the article here.