The Game on the Brain

Story and graphics by Makenzie Easton.

Ryan Hancock, a former BYU quarterback and California Angels relief pitcher, grew up playing close to every sport imaginable. 

“I just loved sports from a very young age,” Hancock said. “I loved every aspect of it.”

Hancock spent his childhood in Cupertino, California, and was first introduced to sports when his parents signed him up for soccer— probably the easiest sport for any child to pick up. Then came little league baseball, throwing the football, with basketball and wrestling following in junior high and full-on tackle football beginning in Hancock’s teenage years.

“The first time I put on (football) pads was in high school,” Hancock said. 

From an outside perspective, doesn’t high school seem a bit late in life to start with and really succeed in football?

Not for Hancock, and not always the case for athletes looking to make it in the big leagues. 

Former BYU basketball and volleyball player Sara Hamson took this same multi-sport approach.

Hamson started playing basketball in kindergarten. Looking to explore her athletic talents as she got older, volleyball became a key interest and something she was quite good at. 

Having a profound love for both sports, Hamson decided to get serious by starting rigorous training schedules, traveling to tournaments and playing in high school.

This desire to be good at both sports only grew, and when Hamson entered the recruiting era of her life, playing both sports at a Division-I level was a requirement. 

“I didn’t want that to be off the table,” Hamson said. “I wasn’t ready to decide I was going to play one sport.”

The Discussion

Sports specialization is a hot topic in the world of athletics. The dilemma of “should I stick to and heavily train in only one sport” or “should I play a plethora of sports” plagues the mind of players, coaches and parents alike.

The discussion of what approach is more physically favorable — the specialist approach or a generalist approach — has been debated, researched and tested. 

Yet less is known about its impact on the brain. 

This is no consistent definition for early sports specialization, but it is generally thought to be  “year-round training in a single sport at the exclusion of other sport or non-sport activities.” Researchers found that the average age of sports specialization for elite athletes is about 14 years old. 

But what drives specialization at such an early age? And who or what is behind it?

A 2019 research analysis on athletes in NCAA Division-I athletics discovered that “although the reasoning behind specialization may be complex and multifactorial, much of the decision may be secondary to a widespread belief that early, single sport participation will heighten the chances of excelling or playing at an elite level.”

But among the potential benefits of specialization lie the known dangers to the developing mind.

A study on the psychosocial implications of sport specialization reveals the less thought about consequences of such actions. Specialization, the study explains, “requires increased training hours and may predispose young athletes to social isolation, poor academic performance, increased anxiety, greater stress, inadequate sleep, decreased family time, and burnout.”

Potential scholarships, potential recognition, and a potential for an enhanced skill set are coupled with anxiety, stress, isolation, and burnout. 

Not the ideal combination for a kid. 

Fueling Passion and Finding Identity 

Dr. Craig Manning, a performance enhancement specialist at BYU and former professional tennis tour amateur, has worked with college athletes, the U.S. national ski and snowboarding teams and multiple NBA teams, teaching and educating his athletes on the importance of mastering the mind to increase performance. 

Grounded in finding your identity and doing what you love, Dr. Manning argues for dabbling around in different sports when athletes are young.  

“Establish what your greatest strengths are, find your real passion, then from there start to specialize a little bit more as you get older to develop on the specific skills you need to build huge competency in those respective areas,” Manning said.

As Hancock got older, his strengths and passions gravitated toward baseball and football. He described himself as a “thrower” and “the guy with the ball in his hands.” Hancock was named the California state player of the year in both football and baseball his senior year and was recruited to play both sports at BYU.

“There’s plenty of schools that won’t let kids play football and baseball, but the smart ones do,” Hancock said.

Dr. Tom Golightly — Associate Clinical Director for BYU Counseling and Psychological Services and sports psychologist — agrees with Hancock. He noted the irony of asking kids to specialize before they’re fully developed.  

“I think of what I was really interested in at 11 to 12 years old, and it was not the same things I was interested in at 17 or 18 years old,” Golightly said. “If we’re choosing how I’m going to spend all of my time as an adolescent before I get there, your identity is really going to wrap around (that).”

Manning described an athlete’s identity as “so limited and so narrow, that if they don’t live up to the expectations that they, their parents, or the world put on them, it really leads to perfection and it leads to some of these mental health crises that we see.”

The generalist approach allows the player time and space to develop their interests and passions. Athletes develop in multiple areas of sport, growing their skill sets, expanding their mental capacities, and extending the substance of their identities.

Development of Mental Skills. The Good

Ask anyone in athletics — the mental game of an athlete is just as important as the physical game.

“The mind is the mind no matter what sport you play,” Manning said. “The fundamentals of the mind, the psychological side of mental toughness, and emotional skills, it doesn’t matter. But any skill in any physical realm is still really a mental skill.”

Athletes strengthen their mental game and tone their mental toughness through a variety of techniques: Visualization, goal setting, tracking progress, relaxation and more. Developing mental skills is essential and directly correlated with the success of athletes.

“There’s quite a few,” Manning said when asked about the most important mental skills an athlete could develop. “The biggest one is belief… If I had to put three, I’d say belief, being present and being assertive. Those are massive skills.”

Manning teaches the importance of self-belief as a necessary skill set. Having a can-do mindset, proactive self-talk and power statements all fall under the skill of self-belief. Such a skill creates positive energy in the mind and leads to action.

“If you stay in the right mindset, you don’t have to be a superstar at 16,” Manning said. “It’s okay to do all these other things and find what you love.”

Multi-sport athletes often have an increased feeling of self-belief or confidence, allowing them to excel above those around them and keep their identity intact. 

“One thing sports does is it can increase your confidence,” Hamson said. “So even if you are going through a slump in one sport, you still have that baseline of confidence from the other sport.”

Hancock expressed similar feelings. When he was a young athlete and throughout the rest of his career, he “had an inner confidence that (he) was better than everybody else.”

Golightly argues that “grit is a very, very important characteristic,” a characteristic that could under-develop due to early sports specialization.

“One of the predictors of lack of grit is early success,” Golightly said. “So if you are successful early and you’re specializing early, when you face a little bit of adversity that leads to someone that wants to quit the sport at that point. And what we’re also finding is if they quit a sport, they don’t move to another sport. They quit the movement.”

A study on grit, mental toughness and motivation in both single and multi-sport athletes found that both types of athletes will exhibit these characteristics in their careers, but multi-sport athletes will develop and display mental toughness more often.

“This may support previous research that fewer experiences limit the opportunity to develop (mental toughness),” the study noted.

The Not So Good

A recent study warned that a possible effect of early sports specialization is burnout. The characteristics that contribute to such burnout include “perfectionism, a need to please others, nonassertiveness, unidimensional self-conceptualization (focusing only on one’s athletic involvement), low self-esteem, and a high level of perceived stress.”

Burnout has long been a concern with athletes who begin to focus on one sport too early in their lives, sometimes without exposure to other potential interests inside and outside of the sports world.

Golightly coupled athlete burnout with excessive pressure to perform. He described this as “outcome-based worth”, where an athlete feels such intense pressure to excel in their sport, and that when they falter or don’t meet expectations, anxiety and depression are the outcomes.

University of Utah sports psychology professional Dr. Nick Galli supports this claim. “What tends to be related to that early specialization is an inordinate amount of pressure to perform at a young age that takes away from the passion that you would like to see these kids having at the age of 10, 11 or 12.”

The primary focus of sports should be finding enjoyment, developing physical skills and progressing in social situations like working with others or learning how to resolve conflict. But these should-be focal points of sport have “(taken) a backseat to the performance outcomes,” Galli said.

Psychological Flexibility 

If you grew up playing sports then you have probably heard this analogy. “Sports is an absolute laboratory for life.” Hancock says he heard it a lot.

Everything you do in sports, from working together as a team to developing essential communication skills and everything in between, prepares you for life. The more experiences you have, the more knowledge you gain. The more sports you play, the more flexible you are in not just your physical skills, but your mental skills as well.

“What we develop in playing multiple sports is that ability to adapt certain skills to certain areas,” Golightly said.

This concept has manifested in Hancock’s life. 

“You can’t recreate the situations in one sport that you do in another,” Hancock said. “You can try harder in football and do better… I’m going to run faster, I’m going to hit harder, I’m going to throw harder. In baseball, you can’t do that. You have to think better, you have to be smarter.”

Hamson described a similar experience playing collegiate volleyball and basketball. 

“For volleyball, you have the opportunity to celebrate each point and celebrate all the good,” Hamson said. “In basketball you don’t necessarily have that time, which is also good in a different way because you don’t have time to dwell on things. So I like to take the positive bits of both and apply those to the other one.”

This psychological flexibility that multi-sport athletes develop allows them to quickly learn how to change their mental approach when it is not working in a certain situation. It also promotes quick problem-solving methods.

“The highest level of intelligence is being able to transfer it from one realm to another realm.. Could you take the truths, concepts, and principles in one area and transfer them into another area? Because if you can, then you know how to apply it, ” Manning said.

In this case, taking those skills and abilities that have been developed in one sport and transferring them to another sport. 

“Most sports aren’t mutually exclusive, meaning there are transferable skills,” Galli said.

The increased time spent developing footwork in soccer can be transferred to basketball. Time spent training your vertical jump in volleyball will surely assist in jumping higher in basketball. The steady grit that it takes to push through tough things in basketball is the same grit needed in football. The fervent focus it takes to kick extra points in football, it takes to kick a penalty kick in soccer, and knock down free throws in basketball.

The Need for (and timing of) Specialization

Researchers and sports psychologists almost universally agree that early specialization has more downfalls than upsides, but that isn’t to say that all types of specialization are like that.

Tennis phenomenon Roger Federer played all sorts of sports growing up: skiing, basketball, soccer, badminton and so on. Federer delayed specialization and is now known as one of the greatest tennis players of all time. Golf legend Tiger Woods took the opposite approach, swinging like a pro at two years old and 20 years later was the best golfer in the world. 

So when should an athlete specialize? What approach should they take?

There are sports that actually demand that type of specialization from an early age if the athlete wants to make it big. Specializing in individual sports like golf, gymnastics, figure skating, and swimming may actually give the athlete the upper hand at a younger age than their peers.

Manning’s countless hours working with athletes reveals a consistent pattern: Athletes who have played multiple sports begin to focus their efforts in the area where they would have the greatest success as they get older.

One study surveyed 325 athletes across 19 NCAA Division-I sports in two institutions and concluded that “early sports specialization is uncommon among NCAA Division I athletes for most team sports, while individual sports…tend to have athletes who specialize earlier.”

On average, individual sports have athletes specializing as early as 12 years old, while team sport athletes specialized later in life, between 16 and 17. It was also found that “some 45% of athletes played multiple sports up until the age of 16 years.”

Specialization may be considered inevitable, but the age at which it happens could be life-changing.

The Choice to Specialize

So, when did Hancock and Hamson specialize? Did they ever specialize? 

Hancock suffered a career-ending knee injury in the final game of BYU Football’s 1992 season.

Well, a football career-ending injury.

He bounced back a year later and focused solely on baseball, being drafted shortly thereafter by the California Angels.

Hamson played volleyball her freshman season at BYU and sat on the bench her sophomore year after tearing her meniscus just days before the season started. This was a factor in her decision to solely devote her time and talents to basketball.

Since graduating, Hamson has played professional basketball abroad in Australia for the Knox Raiders and currently plays for Romanian-based CSM Alexandria.

The generalist road taken through their childhoods, teenage years and college experiences eventually led Hancock and Hamson to a single-sport destination to focus their careers.

As athletes ride the wave of generalization, there is more room for exploring passions and encountering strengths, for mental growth and psychological flexibility, and for life skill development and success in late adolescence and early adulthood. 

“The argument isn’t about whether to specialize, it’s about when to specialize,” Galli said.

A choice that will impact athletic careers — physically and mentally — forever. 

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