Multilateral development is a theory which urges young athletes to participate in several sports over their childhood and adolescent periods prior to specializing in one. The basis is that varied athletic stimulus will serve to broaden the youngsters' 'warehouse' or 'portfolio' of general athletic ability and develop a thorough or expansive base on which to build and eventually specialize. While the concepts are well known and the research citing success far reaching, it is still not an embroidered reality within North American youth sports.
By examining elite athletics, you can most certainly see the impact that multilateral development can have –
Michael Jordan – played baseball and football as a youth
Dave Winfield – a multi-sport phenomenon drafted by the NBA in addition to MLB
Gary Roberts – an esteemed NHL veteran, played lacrosse at a high level as a youth
Kurt Browning – 4-time world figure skating champion was an avid hockey and baseball player
While these are just a few examples, the reality is that elite athletics is dominated by individuals who participated in more than one sport as kids. By no means am I suggesting that excelling in more than one sport is important, but actively participating in a variety of athletic endeavors as you grow physiologically and psychologically is key. These realities extend beyond just developing good athletic ability. In fact, one of the problems I've encountered and often explained to parents and coaches in youth training seminars is that there is more than just a physical burn-out associated with specialized sporting endeavors.
The obvious key is that specialization will result in a reduced amount of overall athletic ability which will inevitably become a hindrance as young athletes mature. In my experience, the athletes with the most diverse athletic history are often better equipped to learn and develop skills at the higher ends of a given sport once specialization has been determined. Above and beyond that however, there is also a mental stimulus component to athletic development. If baseball is a 12 month sport, for example, at what point does a 9 year old begin to lose interest?
To answer that question, just think about the average 9 year olds attention span in general. That's not to say that your 9 year old is not really enjoying every second of playing baseball through the year, but inevitably, he will be 'enjoying' the game and 'focusing' on it more at certain points and less at others – that's the nature of being a kid. It's in these down times that bad and lazy habits can be developed. Keeping a youngster truly energized and excited about playing and learning new skills is a key component to athletic development that is very often overlooked.
Another overlooked feature of why multilateral development remains the best option for young people is the tactical aspects associated with sport. Even if your son engages in numerous other informal modes of athletic stimulus, he is only being really challenged with the tactics and game speed of baseball. Baseball is a notoriously slow game, especially at the youth level. Developing optimal 'quick-wittedness' and 'game smarts' may best be done via participation is several sports. My point here is that the arguments either for or against multilateral development are typically waged on the physical spectrum. In reality, the successful development of a young athlete is also heavily influenced by items such as mental and emotional perspicacity and tactical (sporting) smarts.
While the multilateral development versus early specialization debate tends to wage endlessly in North America, other nations have adopted its concepts and applied its principals, due to both practical success as well as scientific research.
Dr. Michael Yessis in his wonderful book, "Secrets of Soviet Sports & Fitness Training", offers this input –
"Sports scientists. Have found athletes benefit from participating in sports other than the one in which they specialize. By doing so, the can tap a broader array of physiological skill, as well as take advantage of a psychological relaxing diversion. (Soviet trained athletes), for example, to play twenty minutes of basketball as part of a warm-up of their day-to-day training sessions, (even if they are wrestlers).
(In the west), the tendency is to believe that the way to become a good runner, for instance, is to run, run and run some more. The Soviets, however, know that during certain periods of the training program, there are other sports that can be used to help make a runner quicker and more flexible, thus developing the all-around physical qualities needed to be a champion. "
The former Soviet Union and other members of the Eastern Bloc are not the only nations that exist to developmental principals. Australia is perhaps the best current day example of the power of a strong, national development system. Guided by the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS), a National Talent Identification and Development program has been institute country-wide and in conjunction with state and territory governments. The Talent Search, as it is referred to, is a coordinated effort to search for the sporting talent in Australia's young people. The program is designed to help sports identify talented athletes (ranging in age from 11-20) and assist in preparing them for domestic, national and international competition. Young athletes are guided through development programs which facilitate giving them the best opportunity to realize their sporting potential.
In the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, the United States lead all nations in total medals won with 199. In fourth place, Australia's athletes collected 115 medals.
With a population of 19, 546, 792 people, Australia has 271,280, 551 fewer people than the United States. With 14 times fewer people, they won only 84 medals less than the United States.
Developmental strategies work.