Multi-sport participation: The pathway to health for a lifetime

Dr. Michelle DaCosta, USTA Sport Science Member and Dr. Karl Davies, Sr. Manager of Research, Sport Science, and Adult Learning

There is a pervasive belief in the current youth sport culture that, to be a high-performing athlete, players must specialize at a young age.


Sports specialization is the rigorous, year-round training in a single sport and the exclusion of all other sports (Jayanthi, Pinkham, Dugas, Patrick, & Labella, 2013). On the contrary, there are many examples of elite athletes who did not specialize early, and they have encouraged youth to do the same. Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Sloane Stephens, and John Isner are successful, highly-ranked tennis players who valued their involvement in other sports during their youth. In 2017, 90 percent of the NFL Draft picks played more than one sport in high school (USA Today, 2017).


Additionally, research shows that multi-sport involvement and exposure to diverse environments promotes long-term athletic success, minimizes overuse injuries, and reduces the risk of experiencing burnout and/or dropping out of sport altogether. Thus, a key aspect of the USTA’s American Development Model (ADM) is the understanding that many pathways exist in one’s tennis involvement, and the ADM will serve to support all pathways to provide positive and enriching experiences. 


Multiple sport participation can have an impact on mental health and development of the athlete. Playing multiple sports helps avoid mental staleness, limits burnout, encourages better social behaviors and builds stronger individual identities (Baker, 2003). Multi-sport athletes usually experience more comprehensive social and psychological growth (Baker, 2003).


Research suggests that proper psychological growth of a young participant through sport has a lasting impact (Roetert, Woods, & Jayanthi, 2018). Also, the development of an athlete’s ability to handle stress while balancing life and sport develops a healthy mental state that can aid in burnout prevention (Roetert, Woods, & Jayanthi, 2018). Sport participation could promote a positive impact on healthy psychological development through decreasing depression and high-risk behaviors, increased positive behavior with peers, and improved self-concept (Roetert, Woods, & Jayanthi, 2018). 


Early single sport specialization may have an adverse psychological impact from increased stress to become an elite player (Baker, 2003). This can lead to high rates of attrition, overemphasis on winning, and inappropriate expectations (Baker, 2003). They may miss out on different opportunities for emotional and psychological development, and the added pressure of a one-sport-only mindset can lead to mental staleness and burnout (Baker, 2003).


When youth participate in a variety of sports, it benefits their overall development. A review of research highlights the following:

  1. Sampling sports is connected to a longer sports career and has positive implications for playing a sport for a lifetime.

  2. Sampling sports results in participation in a range of settings that promote positive youth development.

  3. A lot of deliberate play during sampling years facilitates intrinsic regulation and solid foundation of intrinsic motivation through involvement in enjoyable activities.

  4. A range of motor and cognitive experiences are generated through deliberate play in the sampling years and can be transferred to their principal sport.

  5. Sampling sports does not impede elite participation in sports where peak performance is reached after maturation.

  6. Around the end of elementary school with the sampling of sports practice, children should be at an opportune time to specialize in their favorite sport or stay at a recreational level.

  7. Through diversification, older adolescents will develop the physical, cognitive, social, emotional, and motor skills required for investing their time into highly specialized training in one sport (Balyi, Way & Higgs, 2012). 


Baker, J. (2003,). Early Specialization in Youth Sport: a requirement for adult expertise? High Ability Studies, Vol. 14, No. 1

Balyi, I., Way, R., & Higgs, C. (2013). Long-Term Athlete Development. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Jayanthi N, Pinkham C, Dugas L, Patrick B, Labella C. (2013). Sports specialization in young athletes: evidence-based recommendations. Sports Health; 5(3):251-7

Roetert, E.P., Woods, R.B., & Jayanthi, N.A. (2018). The benefits of multi-sport participation for youth tennis players. ITF Coaching and Sport Science Review, 75(26), 14-17.

USA Today. (2017). Study: Nearly 90 percent of players chosen in NFL draft played multiple sports in high school. Retrieved from


Michelle DaCosta is originally from Dayton, Ohio. She went to the University of Michigan for her undergraduate degree, majoring in biopsychology with a minor in biology. After that Dr DaCosta attended medical school at Wright State University BSOM in Dayton, Ohio. She did her internship in Cincinnati, Ohio at the Jewish Hospital of Cincinnati, residency in anesthesiology at Allegheny General in Pittsburgh, Pa., and her pediatric anesthesiology fellowship at Washington University, in St Louis, Mo. She also completed a combined pediatric cardiac and adult cardiac anesthesiology fellowship at Emory University. DaCosta also completed her MBA with a healthcare administration certificate from the University of Cincinnati - Lindner College of Business in December of 2017. She is also a new member of the United States Tennis Association (USTA) Sports Science Committee. She is currently practicing pediatric and cardiac anesthesiology in California, Arizona, and Texas.


Karl Davies (Ph.D.), is currently the Sr. Manager Research, Sport Science, and Adult Learning for the USTA. His responsibilities look at identifying evidence-based research to create and implement training programs designed for increasing youth and adult participation through the lens of the USTA’s American Development Model. Before his move to the USA, Karl served with the International Tennis Federation (ITF) as a programming consultant working with National Tennis Federations and National Olympic Committees in over 50 countries worldwide. To fuel his passion for coach education, he has been a presenter at ITF Coaches Workshops; is an ITF Level 3 certified coach, the highest qualification; and delivered ITF coaching courses worldwide. Karl has a doctorate degree in human movement science.

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