For athletes who grow up in a small town, school athletics may be the standard once they age out of the YMCA. In my little Texas town, there were so few students that it was easy to play multiple sports and still be involved with other activities. My graduating class was 82 people and my husband’s class in a neighboring town was only 60. Now, he coaches at a school that has a higher population than his entire hometown, and the competition for playing time in middle school is already intense.
Because of the stiff competition, many parents want to offer their kids the best chance for success and think they need to specialize in one sport from a young age. But upper-level coaches are beginning to realize this might not be the best option. For example, just last year in the 2018 NFL Draft, 91% of those chosen in the first round were multi-sport athletes in high school. And the first question many Division 1 coaches are beginning to ask high school coaches is: "What other sports do they play?"
But I'm not sure parents are getting the memo.
Boys are now playing tackle football as young as age six. Girls can join a basketball team and play for 12 years straight if they choose. Some families may think complete and early commitment might be the magic formula for turning out a champion, but it might also be a path that leads to burnout or injury.
While our young athletes’ bodies are still growing and developing, playing one sport year-round can lead to muscles and joints being worn down by repetitive movements.
For example, most volleyball players use a dominant hand, leading them to swing over and over again with the same shoulder. Swimmers and baseball players can be plagued by tendonitis in high school, just when they want to be at their prime to earn college scholarships.
Playing other sports and utilizing other muscle groups gives bodies a break, while also building balance and greater bodily control.
As a middle or high school athlete, playing multiple sports also gives kids accountability for grades and time commitments year-round. Studies have shown that this sense of belonging can reduce instances of depression or suicidal thoughts. Consistent physical activity is one building block to positive mental health.
If young men finish their commitment to football in October and don’t feel like they have any further goals to work toward, they may slack off in class or find trouble in the after-school hours. Playing multiple sports offers a new challenge and a support network for the offseason months.
Being part of multiple teams also exposes students to different coaching methods and possibly a whole new group of teammates. They may be one of the best players in their primary sport, but a secondary sport can challenge them to fill a supporting role and develop their skills.
It may even offer your athlete a chance to develop greater humility and flexibility, which will benefit them far beyond just sports. Being coachable and capable of learning varied game strategies is a big draw for college recruiters and professional teams (perhaps the BIGGEST draw).
If you have athletes you see great potential in, let this be your encouragement to keep their options wide open. Imagine the skills they are learning and the character they are developing with each sport they participate in.
Families can find an appropriate balance that will give their son or daughter a well-rounded schedule and healthy habits. Whether your kid ends up with some impressive stats to put on their college applications or even ends up playing in the big leagues one day, being a multi-sport athlete is an investment toward a promising future.