I had a professor in college who said you can almost always answer any question with “it depends”; the more and more I come across conversations on anything- that’s usually what my conclusion ends up being. Are there some statements that I believe to be true more often than not? Yes, but I’m also not numb to the fact that in many situations, the answer isn’t cut and dry and might simply be dependent on a person’s individual situation. Everyone has a different perspective and there isn’t anyone on this planet with all the answers. My goal in writing these articles is to offer a perspective that is different than the commonly accepted narrative; it’s not always necessarily my opinion, the writing isn’t designed to push anyone in a certain direction, but to help invoke critical thinking.
If kids want to play multiple sports at any age, they should. At young ages in particular, I think it’s very healthy for kids to try numerous sports and figure out what they enjoy the most. Playing multiple sports helps increase motor development/ coordination at young ages. Among other benefits that I believe to be true are less emotional burnout, and exposure to different roles. I played basketball year-round in high school and I loved every single second of it. I wouldn’t have traded it for anything. I also ran cross country two years in high school after a good friend convinced me to, and I also have zero regret on that; I had a great experience. Generally speaking, I would lean towards being an advocate for multiple-sports (absolutely before high school) and I think there are positive benefits, but I also believe, like with anything, it’s not always cut and dry. I think this underlying, commonly accepted narrative that all kids should automatically play multiple sports has more to it. If kids don’t want to play multiple sports, should they have to? Who’s to say it’s the best thing for every kid?
According to a recent NCAA study on specialization, 68 percent of Division I male soccer players and 66 percent of tennis players specialized by the age of 12. 32 percent of baseball players, 33 percent of football players and 49 percent of basketball players said they were specializing at the same age. 67 percent of Division 2 soccer players and 59 percent of Division 3 soccer were also specializing by age 12. For females, the study showed similar numbers across the same sports, with a slightly higher specialization number than men. The one sport where there was a big difference was in gymnastics. 87 percent of female Division I, II and III gymnasts said they were specializing by the age of 12.
Every year after the NFL Draft, the high amount of 1st round draft prospects that were multiple-sport athletes is publicized all over social media. Not pointed out, however, is data from other sports. If we are going to talk about professional athletes (which I’m not saying everyone is going to become or that should even be 99% of people’s goal), would gymnastics have the same numbers? Soccer? Basketball? Tennis? You can take almost any data and skew it in the direction you want. There are very few club/ year-round options for football, so it’s pretty easy to point out that data and use it to push kids toward multiple sports.
The question to ask is, why are kids specializing? There are many potential theories to this, but forthcoming are some scenarios to consider.
One of the top basketball players in the state of Wisconsin committed to a Division 1 school (he’s not a freak athlete and he’s under 6’0’ tall) said this about specialization, “This isn’t a hobby for me. There is this small town mindset of overvaluing the 3 sport athlete who is good at all 3 instead of great at one.” As I stated before, the goal of high school athletics for most shouldn’t be to go pro and such a small amount of kids play collegiately, that obtaining the opportunity to play at any level in college is going to be a difficult quest. Does that mean that we should automatically tell a player that they should then participate in multiple sports? The part of this situation that I can respect and understand is that the game of basketball is his deepest passion. He found something he loves and he’s pursuing it. Numerous adults are constantly preaching to “find something you love to do everyday” or to “follow your passion and go all-in on it”. Every coach tells their kids that they should have big dreams and strive to be their best- isn’t that what this young man has done? Is he in the wrong because he decided not to play multiple sports? Are the people in his life wrong for supporting his dream in the game of basketball? Should they have forced him to play more sports?
The other side of the argument would be, would this athlete be significantly worse off in basketball if he played another sport? I don’t think so. Some would say that he’d even be better at basketball if he played other sports. How do we know that? How do we just automatically accept that notion? Is playing shortstop for his baseball team really going to make him a better shooter in basketball? That’s a really hard argument to make in my opinion.
This past winter I had a young man on my basketball team who played soccer during basketball season. Soccer is this kids’ favorite sport (his words) but does enjoy basketball and is good at it. There were about 3-4 instances (full tournaments and practices) during the season where he missed because of his traveling soccer schedule. As a team, we had policies in place for any unexcused absences. Him, myself, and my assistant coach had an open conversation about it before the season started. The player would serve the consequences for any misses outside of the allotted number- no further punishment would be made outside of the team policy. Further punishment would have potentially made this young kid have to decide whether he wanted to play basketball or choose soccer; we didn’t want him to have to make that decision.
However, was it fair to the other players who were at all practices that this kid missed practices for a sport that is technically considered “out of season”? A part of me questions who determines what is in-season. Just because the high school plays at a certain time of the year, does that automatically mean that’s the sport that’s in-season? Virtually every sport has become year-round in the activities that they offer.
Hypothetically speaking, if he would’ve gotten injured playing the other sport that would’ve had a very negative effect on our team seeing that he was one of our best players. As a basketball coach, should I have put my foot down and told him that basketball will always have to come first until the season is done? Should I have asked him to give up club soccer? The same situation has occurred multiple times in teams that I have coached in youth, high school, as well as club seasons. For me, I’d rather have the athlete playing my sport as a secondary sport than having them quit anything they enjoy- especially before high school. Some coaches, however, think it is a slap in the face to the other kids on the team and to them if a player participates in numerous other activities for another sport during “their season”. Can you blame those coaches? Shouldn’t you want full commitment from every team member- isn’t that something we always preach to our kids? If that’s the case, aren’t we putting that kid in a decision where they have to pick one sport over another?
A couple other scenarios to think about:
You’re a third stringer in one sport and a top player in another sport. You don’t feel valued in the sport you’re a third stringer in or you don’t enjoy the sport for whatever reason. On top of that, consider the fact that there were opportunities in the other sport that you were better at during the season where you were competing as a third stringer. Would you turn down other opportunities in the sport you were good at to play third string in another sport? Some might say, “Well they aren’t going pro anyway, they should embrace just being a good teammate.” On the flip side, what about the message we send to kids about “being a competitor”? Could that be considered settling? Again, I don’t know the right answer here, I just believe that there are a lot of mixed messages that we send to young people.
As I mentioned previously, among the benefits talked about frequently in playing multiple sports is a new role within a team and a different coach giving a young person a different message. Isn’t it possible that a kid can get this same benefit from playing the same sport within a different team? They could have a different coach with a different style, they could have a new role (either increased or decreased) as well.
Overall, the point I’m trying to make here is that there are many things to consider when it pertains to anything, which includes multiple sport athletes. I do believe there is benefit- especially before kids get to high school- they should be trying multiple things and figuring out what they enjoy. I think as time continues, however, there is room and reason for an expanded conversation on an individual’s situation. It’s not always cut and dry, and in many cases, we can always come back to “it depends”.