Facing the challenges of multisport implementation through research

Why are young Canadian athletes less interested in trying multiple sports than they were a decade ago? What has changed, and can we change it back?

These are the questions driving Alyssa Cox, head basketball coach of the University for Winnipeg Wesmen and academic researcher in the field of multisport. Recently, Cox participated in a Sport for Life webinar called “Multisport: Is Playing Multiple Sports Moving Against the Tide?” alongside quality sport specialists Christian Hrab and Richard Sylvester, and shared her findings with a group of sport professionals from all over the country.

“My project was called Sample or Specialize?, and it was intended to dive into and get a sense from the coach’s perspective on the topic of sampling versus specialization, and so looking at their practices and how do they navigate these issues given the research that exists that outlines the dangers of specializing early and how it can lead to overuse injuries and burn out. I found that to be quite troubling as a coach and an educator,” Cox said.

Cox is a veteran coach at both the high school and provincial level, and now works as the head basketball coach for university women’s basketball. She noted that many of her athletes categorize themselves as single-sport, and she wanted to understand this cultural shift. To tackle this subject, she completed semi-structured interviews and distributed questionnaires to examine the perceptions and practices of youth basketball coaches regarding the specialization of their athletes. She wanted to understand how they were applying the recommendations contained in Sport for Life’s Long-Term Development in Sport and Physical Activity (LTD) framework

In total, nine coaches participated in this study – eight males and one female, working with athletes in the Train to Train stage of the LTD model (females aged 11-15, males aged 12-16). All of them were from the Winnipeg area, with coaches representing three teams of male athletes and six teams of female athletes. 

She was able to sum up her findings into five themes.

#1. Athletes should sample

Every participating coach agreed that their athletes should play other sports in addition to their main sport and cited benefits to support this perspective. They believed that sport sampling leads to the positive development of fitness, movement skills, and sport-specific manipulation skills which lead them to be more well-rounded. They also believe the skills developed in other sports would benefit them in their main sport, and would help prevent injuries.

#2. Athletes are doing too much 

According to coaches, athletes are currently taking on more training than athletes of the past. Since there is availability of year-round training in a single sport, athletes have been taking on too much training without making time for rest and recovery. However, coaches noted that their athletes tend to enjoy this heavy training, even as it means prioritizing different teams and sports at different times of year. The coaches also noted that parents are a primary influence on athlete’s decisions to specialize.

#3. The system is broken

Many of the coaches in the study believe that other people are to blame for the perceived problems with the sport system and the trend toward specialization. They believe other sports, other levels of competition, and other sport contexts such as school sport, are responsible for encouraging specialization. They believe better collaboration between sport organizations could create a more cohesive system that reflects the values of LTD. 

#4. Coaches prefer practical training

The coaches participating in this study had limited knowledge of how to apply the LTD framework. Their awareness came primarily from coach education courses taken through the National Coaching Certification Program (NCCP). They appreciated the practical component of the course work but required additional support for implementation. They also noted that most coaches only take formal course work when it is required by their organization.

#5. Coaching practice reflects sport participation beliefs. 

This study found that coaches’ stated beliefs regarding specialization and sampling were in line with their practice. Coaches provided examples of how they accommodate samplers (e.g. modifying practice plans) while maintaining expectations of commitment, communication, and hard work. Many participants spoke enthusiastically about their intrinsic motivation for coaching and their passion for the sport, which is a driving force that connects coaches’ beliefs and values with their coaching practice decisions. 

Overall, Cox felt the findings of the study could lead to systemic changes.

“As coaches participating in this study believe that athletes should sample and provide flexibility in their programming to accommodate athletes who play multiple sports, yet many athletes continue to specialize and overtrain, systemic factors remain in the youth sport system that prevent coaches from effectively implementing the LTD model,” she said. 

“These results have potential applications in coach education as well as for sport organizers and governing bodies that make programming decisions that impact athlete development.”

For Sport for Life’s Director of Quality Sport Development Carolyn Trono, the message is clear: early specialization does not offer the same long-term benefits as multisport.

“Alyssa Cox’s research highlights both the opportunities and challenges associated with implementation of multisport programming. As a sport system  it is time to examine and address the challenges identified in this research to ensure multisport programming and participation is the new normal, not the exception,” she said. 

“This will be part of un-siloing the sport system to take action on aspects of sport, which we believe is important”.