I have a lot of conversations about kids and young athletes and their development with parents. They talk about the sports their kids play and the things that they have done that have helped them. I grew up playing sports year around from age 5 through high school and I firmly believe that the wide variety of sports that I played set me up to succeed in my chosen sports at a higher level. I also see tons of kids and former athletes come into the gym and I can usually pick up on the sport that they play or used to play pretty quickly after watching them move. I have spent a lot of time thinking about this topic (both for my future kids and for current young athletes) and I have come up with a rough prescription for kids that I think sets them up best for success in whatever sport they decide to play. I'm also a big believer in sports carrying over into every other area of life and I believe that following this mix of sports will also set the athlete up to succeed outside of the realm of sports as well.
I want to discuss a few topics before I dive into the specific sport prescriptions. First is that this is meant to be a way to expose a young athlete to the widest variety of skills as possible. I believe that by following this specific mix the athlete will be well prepared for any sport that they decide to undertake at an older age. They will have developed an incredibly big base of athletic ability (see my previous article on training a sport specific athlete) which will set them up to have a much higher peak in their chosen sport. Second, I believe that these sports should be played from about age 4 or 5 until at least age 12, but ideally up until high school. They should not be specializing in one sport until they reach the high school age. Early specializing will greatly hinder their peak potential in a given sport, which I also discussed in much more detail in the article previously mentioned. In addition, none of these sports should be played year around. They should have an offseason every year of at least 3 months. I have seen the results firsthand time and time again of year around sports playing for kids. They end up injured and/or burnt out by the time they reach high school. By jumping from one sport to another throughout the year the kids can remain engaged in the sport they are currently participating in and also are looking forward to their season starting back up once their time off is over. Another variable is whether the kid actually likes the sport. If they just absolutely do not enjoy it then finding an alternative might be a good option. This is all theory and is what I would think would work best taking most of the variables, including preferences of the kid, out of the equation. Finally, this list is in an ideal world where money and time are of no object. Obviously different families have different amounts of money and time that they can commit to their kid. If a family is limited in resources then I would encourage the family to commit to one or two of these sports and try to get their kid to play other sports at home with their friends as often as possible. Remember, variety is the key here. The more sports they are playing the more skills they will be acquiring.
I want to briefly walk you through my sports background. I started playing soccer and t-ball around age 5, and continued to play soccer and baseball for about 9 months of the year each until college. I started running races (mostly mile fun runs with a few 5ks mixed in) in third grade and did that until 7th grade. I added basketball and football in 5th grade and continued with football until college and basketball until 11th grade. I also ran track from 7th to 11th grade. Outside of these formal sports I also spent a lot of time outside playing sports with my friends. From street hockey, soccer, football, wiffle ball, basketball, and many others, I was always playing some sort of sport. I also spent most summer days at the neighborhood swimming pool, swimming, playing games, and jumping off of the diving board. This wide variety of sports set me up to be able to pick up new physical skills very quickly. It also allowed me to have a much higher performance peak in the sport I chose, which ended up being baseball. I played baseball in college at Millsaps where I was a 3 time All-American, and went on to play two years professionally after that. I say all that not to brag but to give an example of how the time that I spent playing multiple sports growing up set me up to succeed at a higher level once I ultimately focused on one sport. Another thing of note is that I did not specialize in a sport until college. I played 5 sports until my junior year of high school and then 3 sports for my last two years of high school. I firmly believe that if I would have specialized earlier then I would not have had as much success. I also saw that with some of my peers who decided to focus on one sport in junior high. None of these ended up being the best players on our team, as the best players all played multiple sports.
Let's get down to the sport specific prescriptions. I am going to speak as if this were my kid, but this applies to any person. If there is only one sport that I would have my child play it would be gymnastics. I would start them as young as possible (my niece has been going since before she was 1) and keep them in it until at least 12. The benefits that you get from gymnastics have the most carry over to every other sport than anything else out there. The amount of body awareness, body control, flexibility, core strength, mental toughness, and self reliance that I see from former gymnasts far surpasses anything else I have seen from other sports. I can always spot a former gymnast when they come into the gym because they are very flexible, move well, pick things up very quickly, and progress faster than anyone else. When it comes to the hierarchy of sports, then gymnastics is at the top.
The next sport I would have my kid play is swimming. I would also start my kid as young as possible and would have them swim until at least 12 as well. Swimming has tremendous cardiovascular benefits and will develop powerful shoulders, core, and legs. You also must be very flexible to swim well, and the discipline required to be a good swimmer will carry over into any other sport played. Former swimmers are some of the most successful athletes I see in CrossFit, especially in the longer aerobic workouts. This will translate to any other sport, especially the more enduring sports
The first team sport that I would have my kid play would be soccer, and I would start them around age 4 or 5. I believe this sport should be continued until high school when they athlete might decide to specialize in one or two sports and want to focus on them. I firmly believe that kids should be playing both individual and team sports, and soccer as many tremendous benefits. There is not nearly as much structure to the games as other sports, so the athlete has to learn how to be confident and creative in this environment. They will also develop tremendous cardiovascular benefits as well as hand foot coordination. Rarely can a single player take over the game which means the athlete will learn a lot about teamwork. You can't be lazy and play soccer, which will teach the athlete the value of hard work. Finally it is a very fun game which the athlete will most likely enjoy playing (it was my favorite sport to play).
The other team sport that I would have my kid play is baseball or softball. This is a team sport with a lot of individual aspects. Perhaps the greatest thing the athlete will learn is dealing with failure. A great baseball player gets out 6 or 7 times out of ten, which teaches the athlete to get back up when they are down and not to dwell on their failures. This sport will also help the athlete develop tremendous hand eye coordination, and will teach them how to throw correctly (there are not many things more cringe-worthy than seeing an adult unable to throw a baseball or football). This is a very structured game, which will be a good complement to soccer, and will teach the athlete the importance of knowing and following the rules. There is also a lot of down time in baseball which will help the athlete learn how to develop good relationships with their teammates. I believe starting to play this sport around 5 or 6 and continuing until high school will be a great idea.
Finally, I would have my kid practice a martial art. I believe that it is very important that they become comfortable with contact and to learn to defend themselves. I also believe that it teaches discipline, structure, the ability to learn, and self confidence. I have seen a lot of great benefits from jiu jitsu from some of our young athletes at the gym, but I think that any martial art will have great benefits. This can be picked up at a young age and only a few years will do the trick, but if they enjoy it they should continue on as long as they like.
If you notice there are two individual sports and two team sports (along with the martial art) and this was by design. I am a big believer that kids should be playing both individual and team sports. You learn a lot of lessons from each of these and I do not believe any athlete should only be doing one or the other. I only played team sports growing up and I wish that I would have played one or two individual sports because I know that it would have helped me out. On the flip side I see a lot of kids who only played individual sports who do not know how to be on a team. A lot of times they cannot be counted on in a team setting because they don't feel that they are responsible for their teammates. They also do not respond well if a teammate plays poorly. I think that a good mix of individual and team sports is vital.
In conclusion I think that playing a vary of sports is crucial for young athletes. They will learn a wide variety of skills and will learn a wide variety of people and practical tools. As they get older they might try other sports and will be able to pick them up much easier by following this blueprint. They will also be set up to achieve a much higher peak performance in whichever sport they choose, whether it is one of these or another sport. A high school athlete with this background will be able to compete at an extremely high level no matter what sport they choose, whether it's football, cheerleading, basketball, or underwater basket weaving.