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What were Olympians doing at age 12?

04/24/2017, 3:30pm MDT
By Michael Rand

If the stereotypical image of an Olympic athlete is that of someone who has toiled for almost an entire lifetime, from a very young age, to hone his or her particular craft by training in one sport year-round, the athletes themselves would like to set the record straight.

According to results from the United States Olympic Committee’s Path to Excellence Survey, which looked at athletes who competed in the Olympics between 2000 and 2012, there is great value in playing more than one sport. You might even go so far as to say that if you are a 12U hockey player right now, the path to the Olympics is paved by variety instead of early specialization.

Chris Snyder of the USOC’s Coaching Education Program helps shed more light on the survey’s findings.

Survey says

The most recent Path to Excellence Survey was actually a follow-up to a similar survey conducted of athletes who competed from 1984-1998.

“One of the things we wanted to know was how many played multiple sports, and what they valued from a coach,” Snyder said.

While the survey wasn’t focused on specific sports played, the results were pretty clear.

“We found the majority who valued multiple sports and who played multiple sports, even up through college, were our elite athletes – and that specializing later was the big thing we found,” Snyder said. “It supported everything the American Development Model says, which was great.”

Is it just the genes?

A skeptic might wonder, Snyder notes, if Olympic athletes really benefited from playing multiple sports or if they were just good enough to play more than one sport.

“But these athletes were playing three or four sports as young kids. They became well-rounded enough to compete,” Snyder said. “I’m sure there are some sports genes and genetics involved, but the fact that they used multiple sports to cross-train, that just shows sports are part of their culture and that they love to compete no matter what sport it is. We’ve used that to talk to other early-specializing sports like gymnastics and figure skating. You can cross-train using multiple sports.”

The many benefits of sports diversity

A generation or two ago, when playing multiple sports was more or less a given, some of the benefits were probably obvious. These days, given there is a debate or at least skeptics, the reasons might need to be enumerated.

“The first benefit is that, by playing different sports, athletes are getting a break from using the same muscles and movements, and that break makes them less susceptible to overuse injuries,” Snyder said. “Instead of always having the puck at your feet from playing hockey, you play lacrosse and now the ball is in the air.”

More than that, though, is the benefit of transferred skill – physical and mental – from sport to sport.

“The other thing we’ve seen with elite athletes is it’s a different kind of decision making. They start to gain creativity and use their skills differently. Wrestlers who play other sports have that individual mentality of how to train and then go into a team sport and are able to apply that to encourage teammates to train for pressure situations,” Snyder said. “There are a lot of mental and psychological aspects of sports. You increase your mental sports IQ because you’ve been in different situations.”

Specialists who train athletes in a specific sport might bristle at that notion, but again the survey doesn’t lie.

“I find that the people who make their full-time living off one specific sport are shocked about that information – they’re more upset about it because they feel it’s something that’s moving in on their turf. Why would they tell an athlete to play another sport?” Snyder said. “The people who aren’t surprised are parents and athletes and the coaches who are building to gain a diversity of skill sets and get a different field sense. Doing different things allows you do add different tools to the toolbox.”

So you want to be an Olympian

Snyder said the USOC would like to follow up again with a new survey in 2020 to capture the next generations of Olympians. But he imagines the results will be similar.

“I would say the recipe for the Olympian going forward is to play as many sports as you can. When you start to get into high school, maybe then you focus in on one or two sports you really enjoy and spend time with,” Snyder said. “If we leave (12-year-old) kids alone to play two or three sports, they’ll be much better, well-rounded athletes that we would put on a field, or on the ice, later in life.”

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