By Bruce Brown, CMAA, AIC
Coaches Look Back on Their Own Multi-Sport Opportunities
As part of our athletic department mission, we are constantly striving to provide a quality educational experience for our student-athletes through their participation on our various athletic teams. With that focus, we have encouraged and honored many of the young people who have chosen to participate in multiple-sport (two or more) programs each academic year.
Although this culture tends to “buck the system” when one looks at national trends, we do feel as though we have made some in-roads to encourage this type of participation. One of the keys to any success we’ve produced with these multi-sport athletes often comes down to how our very own coaches perceive and promote the multi-sport experience to our students.
In a day and age when the athletic focus and media attention tends to spotlight the myopic approach to “specialty” athletic development, we have intentionally asked our coaches to collaborate and encourage multi-sport participation. It’s often a fine line to ask our coaches to allow our students those types of options; in today’s interscholastic environment, there is increased pressure (from a wide range of sources) to not only win contests, but to serve as a conduit for what many parents hope will be the next level of athletic achievements.
This past fall, we were in the midst of a conversation with several coaches when someone asked the question, “If you had the chance to play high school sports again, would your view of playing multi-sports be different than today?” From that chance conversation, we thought it would be interesting to pull data from our coaches, many of whom had post-secondary athletic opportunities.
The following is an overview of the responses our coaches provided. The feedback came from 78 different coaches (from a staff of more than 100 people, including volunteer coaches).
Sports participated in during high school:
Single sport: 21
Two sports: 20
Three (or more) sports: 37
Coaches who participated in athletics in college:
Single sport: 18
Two (or more) sports: 11
For those coaches who participated in more than one sport while in high school (57 of the respondents), we asked the following questions:
Reflecting back, what was the greatest benefit for you by participating in more than one sport?
- The wide range of experiences along with the variance in coach and teammate personalities. It forced me to have to figure out ways to get along with a divergent group of individuals. The same thing applied with playing against a broader range of competitors.
- Kept me from burning out on one sport. I always looked forward to starting a new season.
- I was forced to stay organized and on top of my school work.
- Playing year-round was better than training year-round!
- Greatest skill I ever learned: TIME MANAGEMENT. I had to be great with handling my time or I wasn’t going to excel at anything.
- At the time, athletics was a way to gain recognition among your peers.
- Competing in different venues and under different circumstances helped me think creatively using different skill sets.
- Each team I played on compelled me to figure out new pathways to achieve our collective and individual goals. It was like 12 different classes over my high school years that taught me how to work as a unit to achieve goals. That’s pretty amazing when I think back on it!
- There were no camps or combines back then. It was just exciting to transition from one season to the next though football and basketball were easily my favorite.
What was the greatest challenge in juggling multiple sports?
- Finishing homework!
- Time. Between training and participation, I had to balance that out with family, friends and school.
- I was tired, a lot. It was sometimes difficult to transition quickly from one sport to the next.
- It was especially difficult for me to find time with some friends who did NOT play sports.
- I sometimes felt that while I was in one sport, I might be “missing” something in another. Eventually, I stopped worrying about it and just “played.”
- Figuring out how I would fit in all of the “off-season” (summer) expectations from multiple coaches. My coaches usually worked this out, though.
- There is definitely a greater challenge to keep up your academics when you play three sports. On the flip side, I liked having that “carrot” out in front of me, though.
- My greatest challenge was trying to play two sports in the same season (baseball and track). Although I wanted to just play baseball, my football coach was also the track coach . . . guess what was “suggested” I also do? Although I felt pretty ordinary in track, I’m still glad I did it.
Did you experience any additional pressure or expectations by participation in multiple sports (e.g., from peers, parents, coaches, academics, etc.)?
- I went to a small school where athletic students were expected to play more than one sport. Our school culture didn’t create any additional pressure. Playing multiple sports was the norm.
- Since I made the choice to play multiple sports, I didn’t feel much pressure. My family actually expected me to compete in something year-round.
- The only pressure I felt was during my senior year when I was trying to earn a volleyball scholarship; during basketball season, I was playing J.O. volleyball and my basketball coach was NOT cooperative! I really felt no pressure. The key for me was my support system; my parents never pushed me into anything but always encouraged and supported my interests.
- I didn’t feel pressure. Eight of our 12 players on the basketball team played football (in the early ‘90s). However, I think there is more pressure to specialize today.
- The only pressure I measured was the pressure I placed upon myself to be at my best in anything I did.
- My parents did put “positive pressure” on me, to make me better. The greatest pressure came from myself as I was pursuing an athletic scholarship.
- I would have experienced pressure if I HADN’T participated in another sport. In my school, “taking a season off” was looked at almost as if one “didn’t care.”
- The pressure I experienced from coaches came primarily from those coaches who didn’t think I was maintaining my strength or conditioning. It was important that for whatever sport I played, I always needed to have a good maintenance program for my strength.
Would/Do you encourage your own child to participate in multiple sports while in school?
- Because of the lessons I learned first-hand, I would want my children to be a part of those sports that promote good habits. I really believe sport participation keeps you more engaged with school, peers and adults. The work ethic that is developed from going to classes and then playing sports can’t be replicated in my estimation.
- My kids currently play in five different sports. The use of ALL of the muscle groups and the conditioning will help them with whatever sport(s) they choose to pursue later. I encourage a different sport as being the “break” between other sports.
- I’ve seen it over and over . . . multi-sport participants tend to have much less “burn-out.” I’ve seen that at the high school and the small college levels. To me, multi-activities = well-rounded kids.
- High school students are still maturing physically and may discover strengths they never knew they had early on. But, they need to keep exploring to find those opportunities. It is a real challenge to not get caught up with specialization. The counter comment is “Do you want to excel or just be ordinary” is a hard voice to overcome.
- My eight-year-old is into a wide variety of sports. I purposely want him to do an assortment of sports to avoid overuse injuries and to learn all of the valuable skills related to being a part of a team – any team.
- Hey, sports are fun! Why wouldn’t I want my kid to have FUN! More importantly, there are things he is going to learn in sports that he can’t begin to learn anywhere else.
- I absolutely believe the best athletes play multiple sports. They develop as total athletes and compete in many different circumstances which help them handle pressure. They also tend to have fewer overuse injuries.
To develop a point of reference, we asked those coaches who only participated in one high school sport to respond to the following questions:
What was the greatest benefit for you in playing only one sport?
- I was able to zero-in on just my studies and my sport (cheer).
- I was able to be successful; I believe that certain sports have a skill set that can be complemented by participation in other sports. Likewise, there are some sports unique that must be laser-focused for excellence (wrestling).
If you could “do it all over again,” would you have attempted to play more than one sport?
- Yes. I think I could have been a more responsible person and developed those skills. Although I enjoyed the spare time I gained, I also remember being “on the brink” with some things I shouldn’t have been doing!
- Yes. I know that learning skills involved with teamwork, respect, determination and dedication are areas I could have learned even more from playing other sports. Involvement with more than one team or sport would likely have amplified many of these same qualities and created other experiences I never was exposed to. Although I greatly enjoyed my sport, I do believe having played a few more sports would have deepened my experience.
“Sport Specialization” is a phenomenon that we have seen occur with more regularity in the past several years. How would you advise a young athlete (elementary, middle school or high school age) or their parent if the talk turns to “specialization” toward one sport?
- I know I have had parents ask me about that very thing; I do believe the conversation needs to include acceptance of participation in multiple sports if we’re really thinking about the overall benefit to the student. More importantly, as a school coach, I need to respect the wishes of the parents as well as the expectations of our other coaches if we are going to create an appropriate environment for success in the long run.
- Even though I was a one-sport athlete, I do believe that specialization should not really be part of the child’s mindset until they pass the 13-15-year-old mark. The key is providing plenty of opportunities for the student to play as many sports as he or she chooses. Likes and dislikes of any sport is a decision that only the student should be asked to make (not mom or dad).
- I still see too many kids being forced into a sport because the PARENT believes they will like it. No child should ever have to live their parents’ dream. School and friend choices are a big enough hurdle; allow the student the freedom to explore physically in the safe environment of school sports.
Some additional comments from the coaches included:
- Through junior high/middle school, my own kids played multiple sports. Once they got around their junior year, they started to focus their choices (I wouldn’t call it “specialized”) as they also started to ramp up their academic and college future.
- My motto to parents has always been, “Pick one, but play ’em all.” This means you can focus and have a favorite, but continue to participate in other sports and seasons. Keep playing those sports you may not have high skill levels if for no other reason than to help contribute to the high school experience, which you NEVER get to go through again!
- I have truly been blessed to have had contact and exposure to some great high school coaches. I don’t think I would be the person I am today if I hadn’t allowed myself the opportunity to expand my horizons and challenge myself to different sports.
What it means for the interscholastic coach?
Although every school and community culture will vary with regards to athletic expectations, the one common denominator is “How does school sports best serve the student?” If our coaches’ responses reflect a “typical” secondary school setting (Midwest location, 1,200+ students in grades 9-12, 22 varsity-level sports offered), then we could glean the following key points from their feedback:
- There appears to be a direct correlation between academics, multiple-sport participation and learning good time-management skills. The latter competency is a lifelong skill set.
- Physical and emotional balance tends to be underscored by the promotion of multi-sport participation. Use of all muscle groups, minimizing overuse syndromes and “burn-out,” and exposure to critical-thinking skills in varied sport/team exposure can be offered through multiple activities.
- There is usually a positive “high” resulting from the conversion and movement into different sport seasons.
- Multi-sport participants tend to recognize self-achievement more easily as a result from varying feedback opportunities (different coaches, different athletic stratagems).
- Managing a broader range of tasks (academics, training expectations, practices/contests and maintaining relations with family and friends) can strengthen personal talents in “rounding out” the high school student.
- Multi-sport participation and competition for many students is simply, FUN!
Each student should be encouraged to seek activities that elicit passion and excitement during their high school years. There are certainly some students in every school who can and should pursue a single sport based upon their skills and zeal for that sport.
As teacher-coaches, we should never lose sight of the primary objectives our interscholastic programs provide through student participation. Whether the choice is one or multiple sport activities by our students, we should be providing an athletic culture that encourages involvement without regret; the greatest reflection we would hope our students could offer 10 years after high school is, “I’m glad I played what I played . . . I’d do it all over again!”
About the Author: Bruce Brown, CMAA, is athletic director at Lake High School in Uniontown, Ohio. He has been involved in educational athletics for more than 35 years, including the past 11 years as athletic director at Lake High School. Prior to becoming an administrator, Brown coached baseball and basketball at several Ohio schools and won more than 200 games as basketball coach. Brown is chair of the NFHS Coaches Publications Committee.