It may be tempting for parents or coaches to urge young children to specialize in one sport early on to help maximize their chance at making it to the big leagues, but that might not be the best path to success.

In a study that looked at the sports histories of professional and collegiate ice hockey players, Penn State College of Medicine found that on average, the athletes played multiple sports as children and waited until around age 14 to focus solely on ice hockey.

Matthew Silvis, professor of family and community medicine and orthopedics and rehabilitation, said the results help to believe that kids had to specialize in a sport at an early age in order to succeed.

"In many sports, there is a belief among many parents and coaches that in order for your child to make the team or have the best chance for a collegiate scholarship, you have to pick a sport really early in life and only focus on that one sport, "Silvis said. "That actually runs counter to what we think in terms of sports medicine and sports performance, and this study supported our line of thinking."

"If a child participates in one sport, they're only working certain muscle groups," Silvis said. "You are consistently placing your body through the same movement patterns and demands, it puts you at risk of an overuse injury."

Sports Participation

The researchers gave 91 professional, NCAA Division I and NCAA Division III ice hockey players to survey about their personal histories in sports participation. The participants noted when they started participating in sports, which sports they played, and when and why they decided to specialize in ice hockey.

After analyzing the data, the researchers found that the mean age of the beginning of sport was 4.5 years, and the mean age of specializing in ice hockey was 14.3 years. Only 12 percent of the athletes specialized in their sport before 12 years of age. Most of the athletes played two to four sports as children, with soccer and baseball being the most popular in addition to hockey.

Additional findings 

The mean age of specializing in ice hockey – around 14 – was consistent across professional, NCAA Division I and NCAA Division III players. Silvis said he was surprised by some of the additional findings, which were recently published in the journal  Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach.

"If you only play one sport, you also miss out on sports diversification, which is the idea that you are a really good soccer or tennis player, may help you be a really good ice hockey player," Silvis said. "We've seen a lot of professional athletes coming out in support of this, saying that by playing a lot of sports you'll learn many skills and work different muscle groups that will help you if you specialize in one sport later on."

Additionally, Silvis said that if parents are encouraging their children to specialize in a sport in the hopes that they will go to receive a collegiate sports scholarship, there are other avenues they could consider.