By Kate Carr
Kate CarrWe all want our kids to be the best athletes they can be and to play the sports they love for a lifetime. But there is a growing debate about the best way to make that happen. Is it better to focus on one sport, or is playing a variety of sports the best way to help kids reach their full potential?

Some parents, coaches and athletes believe specializing in just one sport year-round offers the best opportunity for a young athlete to reach his or her full potential. After all, they figure, the more you practice and play one sport, the better you get.

But many experts will tell you that specializing in just one sport can actually do more harm than good. Kids who play the same sport and use the same muscles all-year round often suffer from overuse injuries and are more likely to quit before high school. On the other hand, young athletes who sample multiple sports have less burnout, better performance and enjoy sports for a lifetime.

Last year, as part of Safe Kids Worldwide’s Sports Safety 101 program, I had the opportunity to speak with some of the leading experts on this issue, including Dr. Brian Hainline, the Chief Medical Officer of the NCAA, Tom Farrey, the Executive Director of the Aspen Institute’s Sports and Society Program, NFL Hall of Famer Mike Ditka and U.S. Olympic runner Alysia Montaño.

They all agreed that playing several different sports throughout the year helps kids improve their overall athletic abilities and better develop muscles, coordination and skill sets.

“When it comes to sports,” Farrey told me, “the research really suggests that the best athletes are those who are playing multiple sports, certainly through age 12, but more than that, through high school.” Ditka and Montaño both credited playing multiple sports growing up to their later successes.

And if you’re thinking, this might all be true for other kids who are less talented, but my kid is on his way to a college scholarship, consider this:

Top college football coaches like Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Oklahoma’s Bob Stoops have publicly said that they prefer recruiting multi-sport athletes. And last summer, 42 major sports institutions in the U.S. including the NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL, the NCAA, the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition and the US Olympic Committee joined the U.S. Tennis Association in supporting multi-sport play for young athletes.

So what does all this mean for your children? Here are a few tips to help your young athletes avoid injuries, reach their full potential and continue playing the sports they love for a lifetime.

Encourage kids at an early age to play different sports throughout the year.

Wait until at least high school before settling on playing one sport.

Make sure to take at least one or two days off each week or two months a year from any particular sport, so muscles have time to recover.

Kate Carr is the president and CEO of Safe Kids Worldwide, a global nonprofit organization working to prevent childhood injury, the number cause of death of children in the United States.