Ask the Coach: "Do I Need to Choose Just One Sport?"

Coaching

To specialise or not to specialise ... the answer, says Norway's Gjert Ingebrigtsen, lies in asking yourself four key questions.

Last updated: 27 January 2022
6 min read
Choosing to Specialise in Sports, According to Coach Gjert Ingebrigtsen

Ask the Coach is an advice column to help you keep your mind in the game.

Q:

Hi Coach,

Growing up, I played football in autumn, basketball in winter, lacrosse in spring and baseball in summer. I guess I just really liked doing a different sport every few months. And it didn't hurt that I was pretty good at all of them. But last year, a basketball coach told me I had university-scholarship potential—seriously! So I dropped everything else and now I'm one of the best players at my secondary school. That status was cool for a while, but I'm not really feeling it any more. I miss playing and training for different sports with different teammates and coaches every season. TBH, I don't know if I even care about the scholarship any more. I think I just want sport to be fun, like it used to be. What would you do if you were me?

Feeling Unsure Now,
15-year-old basketball player

A:

I can't say whether you should go all in with basketball, FUN. No one can make that decision for you. What I can do is give you a whole new set of questions to ask yourself. If you answer honestly, you might just find your own way—which is the only right way.

Start with the fundamentals: "Why am I playing sport at all?" If it's for the friendship, the fun and the thrill of always learning something new—all perfectly valid reasons—there's no point in thinking about specialisation. Go play every sport that brings you happiness and don't bother reading the rest of this.

... ask yourself, "Am I ready to choose?" And really be honest, because you're the one who's going to live with the choice.

However, if you want to become a university or professional athlete or if you've got that particular itch that's scratched only by competing and winning at high levels, then eventually you're going to need to choose one sport. OK, maybe two—but one is better. It's much harder to be the very best in any one sport when you're dividing your efforts.

Next, ask yourself, "Am I ready to choose?" And really be honest, because you're the one who's going to live with the choice. Some athletes know what they want to do from the beginning. Some don't figure it out until university. I've seen both scenarios first-hand in three of my sons, all elite runners whom I coach.

Choosing to Specialise in Sports, According to Coach Gjert Ingebrigtsen

My first boy, Henrik, was a very talented cross-country skier, we just lived on the wrong side of Norway, where there wasn't enough snow. Filip, my second eldest, was a gifted footballer, he simply drifted towards running over time. Both of them gained a lot of skill and knowledge from diversifying early on. But they also gained a lot of focus when they decided to concentrate on running as they grew up.

And then there is Jakob, my youngest. When he was around 11, he told me, "I want to be the best runner in the world". He'd already worked it all out in his mind! And since that day, he's never wavered.

I want you to know that each one of my children made their own decision about which sport they'd choose—or whether they'd choose a sport at all! (I have seven children and I'm just as proud of the ones who never wanted to compete.) I didn't stand in Henrik's or Filip's way when they wanted to ski or play football. And I didn't tell Jakob he had do it all in order to become a "well-rounded athlete".

It's unfortunate, but this is a choice that many, many kids never get to make. They just do what their parents tell them to do as soon as they're able to pick up a ball or run in a line.

Since you didn't mention your parents, I'm guessing you have their support no matter what you choose. But it does sound like you've taken your basketball coach's words as gospel. During a game or training, that's exactly what you should do. When it comes to life decisions, though, you need to be asking, "Am I doing what I want to do or what my coach thinks I should do?"

Choosing to Specialise in Sports, According to Coach Gjert Ingebrigtsen

Now, you might be wondering about that scholarship. You might think of it as a ticking clock. And I think it's absolutely fair to let that influence your decision. For Henrik, I should mention, receiving an athletics scholarship was a big factor in his decision to go the running route. You'll have to weigh the pluses and minuses of choosing this particular means to that particular end.

One way to do that is to ask yourself, "Do I love this sport enough to be bored most of time?" Because the daily training? The practice? The recovery from injury? These aren't things athletes would usually describe as "fun".

Many years ago I told my children, "This is not for joy. This is only for results". That's a bit of a paradox, though, because those results—winning at the highest level—are one of the greatest joys you can have. The only reason my boys can get through all that work is because they know that it's all leading up to joy. They love competition so much that they've taught themselves to enjoy training ... to some extent. You can't expect constant fun because professional sports are not like that.

Sport can be excruciatingly boring—and unbelievably thrilling. It can be utterly confusing and it can provide you with moments of perfect clarity. It can be filled with moody solitude and with joyful connection.

Everything I just mentioned also applies to life. So, one more question: Do you want to experience life's ups and downs on a basketball court? On a lacrosse field? In an office? On a stage or in a studio? Like I said at the top, I can't give you the answer. I can help only with the questions. These questions, in turn, can help you feel more informed, empowered and in touch with yourself. But in the end, the choice is yours.

Coach Ingebrigtsen

Gjert Ingebrigtsen is a Norwegian athletics coach and trainer to his elite-level sons, Henrik, Filip and Jakob. The family is dominating middle-distance running in Europe, with all three men having been crowned 1,500-metre gold medallists at the European Championships. Jakob also won the 2020 Olympic gold medal in the 1,500, holds a European gold medal for the 5,000 and is the youngest runner to run a mile in under 4 minutes. Having had no background in running, Gjert has developed his own coaching philosophy based on rigorous process and constantly verified results. He was named Norwegian sports coach of the year in 2018.

Email askthecoach@nike.com with a question about how to improve your mindset in sport or fitness.

Photography: Constantin Mirbach

Choosing to Specialise in Sports, According to Coach Gjert Ingebrigtsen

Take It Further

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Take It Further

For more expert-backed guidance on mindset, as well as movement, nutrition, recovery and sleep, check out the Nike Training Club App.

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