Should Athletes Cross Train? Or Specialize?

Sometimes, for young athletes especially, competitors are pressured to specialize in a certain sport or event. When an athlete is very gifted, this is often thought to be the best advice; but are we robbing our stars of key opportunities to get better?

“Focus on basketball,” a Varsity coach tells a star Freshman recruit; “you’ve got the height and talent to earn a scholarship.”

Athletic development models, though, show that might not be the best plan for success. The more sports scenarios a player experiences, the more movement patterns he/she can master. This is especially true for developmental, youth athletes. Track sprinters might learn the best methods for building straight line acceleration, but the basketball player will master lateral agility, and the baseball player will develop elite hand-eye coordination.

Even as adults, cross training has a ton of value. Still, even in a fully developed body, mastering new movement patterns or sports techniques increases neural drive. Basically, that means that learning new skills makes you stronger and more athletic. Also, changing up your routine can be key to long term and sustainable fitness; you’ll work out more if you’re not bored!

It’s true that it’s important to train for your sport. However, there are limits to that. Trying to be too specific in your training can cause you to miss out on a lot. That’s true of general S&C as well as cross training. If my sport requires me to be strong, like football, then squats are pretty sports specific (even if you’ll never squat in a game); because they make you stronger! In the same way, if increased sprinting speed will help me in my sport, then cross training in things like track events will make me better!

I knew one athlete that wouldn’t even go outside for a walk, because she was always “saving her calories and effort for training”. Wow! While I admire that kind of dedication, how long can a person function like that before getting burned out?

If you want to be successful in anything, it will take lots of dedicated focus on that one thing. You’ll have to be a little obsessive. In the case of sports and training, though, be sure not to neglect variety! The next time that you need to do some conditioning, try a game of basketball, instead of the treadmill. If there’s a cross training activity that you really love, share it with the rest of us in the Members Forum!