The United States Tennis Association (USTA) recently held an event with the purpose of raising awareness about the importance of introducing kids to a variety of athletic pursuits rather than committing exclusively to one.

Young girl hitting tennis ball
Credit: Courtesy of USTA

At the U.S. Open championships in Flushing Meadows, New York last week, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) held an unusual youth press conference. I say "unusual" because the main idea wasn't to promote the sport for young children. Yes, there was a youth tennis exhibition in which a bunch of fresh-faced kids from the area showed off their burgeoning skills. They used junior racquets and larger, low-pressure balls on a half-size tennis court—an approach the organization supports as a means to help children have early success and stick with the game.

But the event's real purpose was to raise awareness of the importance of introducing kids to a variety of athletic pursuits rather than committing exclusively to one. This may sound like a no-brainer, but it's not. In today's achievement-oriented environment, children are being pushed to specialize in a single sport—whether it's tennis, hockey, soccer, or gymnastics—at ever-younger ages. Tom Farrey, executive director of the nonprofit Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program, says year-round sports programs are now offered down to age 5, an absurdly premature age for a child to limit himself to a single activity. While parents naturally want the best for their child, they are being pressured by coaches to let him stick with one thing.

The result: More kids under age 12 are suffering repetitive-use injuries or, worse, burnout. According to the Aspen Institute's report, Project Play, fewer kids are staying involved with sports than five years ago, due in part to forced specialization. Today's children are already on track to live shorter, less healthy lives than their parents due to obesity and related diseases, and this trend is only exacerbating matters.

Multi-sport participation, by contrast, leads to better performance (because kids get a chance to develop different sets of skills) and greater enjoyment of the game, says Farrey. The headlining athletes at the event echoed the idea that having kids do more than one thing is a plus.

  • Ryan McDonagh, captain of the New York Rangers, won a state championship in baseball and was an all-state football player in high school before narrowing his focus to hockey. "Playing other sports was good for my hand-eye coordination and strength," he says. "And it was positive socially, too: I hung out with a bunch of friends who played each sport." He's grateful that his parents never pushed him to pick one, and urges others to take the same tack. "There is so much out there for your kids to explore, and you should let them," he says.
  • Laila Ali, former boxer (and daughter of fight legend Muhammad Ali), surprisingly didn't grow up playing sports and was never pressured to do so. She plans to make sure her kids, ages 7 and 4, try a number of athletic pursuits. "It's important for kids to be active, and to teach them to stick with an activity, but not push them to get serious unless you see they have real passion for one thing in particular," she says.
  • Nastia Liukin, former Olympic Gold Medalist in gymnastics, says she "tried everything"—tennis, running, skiing—as a kid. Her father, Valeri, a former Olympian who coached her to greatness, initially steered her away from gymnastics because he knew how challenging the training regimen was. She chose it anyway but continued to cross-train by playing other sports on her off day. "Expose your kids to different things, and then let them do what they love—not what you love or their coach wants," she says.
Six kids with tennis players
Credit: Courtesy of USTA

Of course, many great athletes were pushed by their parents to be successful. Take tennis. Venus and Serena Williams were preordained to become tennis champions by their father, Richard. Luckily, both possessed the love of the game, athleticism, and talent to make his prophecy become a reality. Andre Agassi's dad drove him so hard that he had a love-hate relationship with the sport for much of his career. However, without his father's driving force, Agassi almost certainly wouldn't have won eight Grand Slam titles.

For every such story of a champion, though, there must be 1,000 cases in which a child gets seriously injured or gives up a sport for good (and never picks up another activity). That is exactly what Project Play is trying to prevent. The initiative is supported not only by the USTA but also a number of sports leagues and national governing bodies, including the NFL and Major League Baseball. "The idea is to have a variety of athletic experiences to make sure kids have the childhood they deserve," says Farrey. Sounds like a good plan—and a smart move by the USTA, which would love more homegrown U.S. Open champions but is even more concerned with growing the game of tennis.

David Sparrow is a senior editor at Parents and a dad of two.