fitness · Guest Post

To Sample or Specialize? Why Does it Matter Long Term? (Guest Post)

By Sarah Teetzel

What do we really know about the long-term benefits of sport sampling?

The risks and negative outcomes of early sport specialization are now well understood. From research on sport attrition and when and why people (particularly teenage girls) drop out of sport, researchers have identified several factors that contribute to negative sport and physical activity experiences.

Sport specialization involves high-intensity training in one sport to the exclusion of all other sports. While it was long believe to be a path to high performance success and advanced skill acquisition, the research literature and Canada’s Long-Term Development in Sport and Physical Activity framework agree that specialization prior to late adolescence can do far more harm than good.

Plenty is known about the risks of early sport specialization, particularly the connections between intensive training and negative outcomes with respect to overuse injury risk. Ample research also suggests that early specialization is linked to a greater risk of burnout, shortened peak performance, and decreased motivation to engage in activity. Yet the posited alternative to specialization, most often a multisport experience, where youth “sample” a variety of activities and in doing so gain myriad sport skills, is far less studied.

Also known as diversification, sport sampling refers to athletes who take part in more than one organized sport in a year as well as informal and enjoyable physical activities. Sport sampling is assumed to be beneficial and protective, but why?

Image description: a collage of 4 photos showing two kids frolicking along the shore of a lake, shooting hockey pucks, swinging a golf club at a driving range, and playing soccer in the snow. The word ‘multisport’ appears in yellow font in the middle of the image.

A lack of diversified activity may not allow young children to develop the appropriate neuromuscular and motor skills that are effective for participation in lifelong sport and physical activity. Some research supports the idea that children aged 6 to 12 who participate in a wide array of sports are more likely to be involved in sport as adults, suggesting that sampling has a protective effect against burnout and attrition from sport. Athletes who avoid specializing are also believed to be more physically literate and comfortable executing a wider variety of motor skills that are transferable across sports. The idea that sport sampling can be an effective pathway to both high-performance sport success and continuing sport participation into and throughout adulthood is increasingly prevalent. Yet we don’t actually know if or why sampling or diversification in youth correlate with physically activity levels and physical literacy in adults.

Does having a multisport experience prior to the first identified dropout point in sport (i.e., approximately age 12) correlate with being a physically active and/or physically literate young adult, and adult?

We are working with Sport for Life to see if research data supports this belief and assumption.

To do so, a survey addressing what you recall participating in prior to age 12 and what you enjoy today has been created, with the option of signing up for a follow-up interview with a member of the research team. Canadians aged 18-60 are invited to participate. (A separate study looking at similar themes in older adults is planned for the future.)

Image description: A poster advertising the study with a QR code to access the informed consent form for the survey at The background images feature people engaging in jogging, yoga, skiing and stand up paddleboarding.

More information about the study and access to the informed consent form to participate is available here or by scanning the QR code above. The survey can be completed in English or French.

The Principal Investigator of the study is Dr. Melanie Gregg at the University of Winnipeg, and the study has been funded by a SSHRC Partnership Development grant. The University of Winnipeg’s research ethics board has approved this study.

Sarah Teetzel is a professor in the Faculty of Kinesiology and Recreation Management at the University of Manitoba and a member of the research team working with colleagues at Sport for Life Canada on the Diversification for an Active Life study. She is a former U Sports swimmer who now spends her leisure time playing driveway hockey, hiking, and every so often remembering why she used to love to swim by visiting her local pool.

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