Don’t specialise too young: why a multi-sport approach is best


I got into sport at a young age – not really young like some but just before I was 10 years old. I loved gymnastics at school; collecting my BAGA badges for a perfect forward roll was exciting, so I asked my parents if I could join Rugby Gymnastics Club. They agreed, so every Saturday I was taken in the back of our blue Ford Fiesta. I loved it.

The grounding that the sport gave me was invaluable, especially in terms of variety. The different apparatus kept my interest and gave me an opportunity to see what I enjoyed most and what potentially I was best at.

So when I gracefully ‘retired’ from gymnastics for athletics some months later, I was keen to submerge myself in all the different events that athletics offered. This to me was very important, again to keep my interest, and to help me find the one I enjoyed and excelled at the most.

“I have two children myself now and will be encouraging them in all sports – whatever they want as long as they enjoy it”

Anything speed based I was a fan of. Sprinting, long jump, hurdles to name three, and to be fair to Rugby Athletics Club, they encouraged this. Aged 12 I was number one in the under 13 UK rankings in seven different events. So not only was I getting a variety of events to keep my interest but, looking back, most importantly, I was also developing a base, a grounding for sport with training for events that required different skill. And isn’t speed the main element in many events, in many sports?

I enjoyed all the events and showed great promise in many but had the somewhat uncomfortable task aged just 13 of choosing my favourite. Why did I have to choose? I was finding it tough to train for them all. I had a coach for every event. A sprints coach, a high jump coach, a long jump coach… unlike our Olympic Champion Jessica Ennis-Hill now, for example, who has her coach for all events, with some input from other specialists, there was no one multi-event coach available. My time therefore was being split between too many coaches wanting me to concentrate on their event.

A decision had to be made and one I sometimes wish I hadn’t had to make. By age 12 I’d long jumped over 6 metres, high jumped 1m 69 and sprinted very quickly. How was I to choose? I went with the one I enjoyed the most, sprinting.

I don’t have many regrets in a 20-year athletics career that ended with an individual Olympic sprint medal, but who says I couldn’t hvae won a better one in another event? I should have kept up maybe just one of the other events longer.

This is very important to me, and a soap box issue if you like. I passionately believe that you should give kids opportunities to try all events, and to encourage them to maintain variety.

I did ultimately make my own decisions – no one pushed me – but looking back a multi-event approach – a multi-sport approach, if possible – is a great grounding for young athletes.

“A multi-sport, multi event approach, allowing a child to discover and enjoy something they may never thought they would, is priceless.”

I have two children myself now and will be encouraging them in all sports – whatever they want as long as they enjoy it. I think it is important to have variety and of course there may come a time when they want to specialise in just one because they enjoy it more or are better at it, but I like to think that this will be after they have experienced several.

It’s not easy though, is it? How do you guide your child without potentially pushing them? Point them in the right direction? What is the decision based on – talent or enjoyment?

I see a lot in my sport of athletics – parents making decisions for their kids, pushing them the way they want things to happen – that’s not for the good of the child. Having gone through a decision to specialise in one sport and one event at an early age I would advise parents just to listen. Be a sounding board, ask your child questions and ultimately let them decide.

I followed this approach and even though there were times when I felt pulled pillar to post, my parents allowed me to decide. I just wish it hadn’t been such a tough decision.

A multi-sport, multi-event approach, allowing a child to discover and enjoy something they may never thought they would, is priceless, and if they are like me, they will take so much from sport which will stay with them throughout their entire life. I’m really excited about Parents4Sport because it will help parents to be informed and help their children enjoy, learn and achieve through sport, as well as stay healthy.

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