Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Dr. Doug Kuhlman, CMAA, director of activities and development, Lutheran High School of St. Charles County in St. Peters, Missouri; and Eric Mossop, athletic director and assistant principal, Pennsauken (New Jersey) High School, regarding encouraging multi-sport participation by students in high school athletics.
Question: Why do you encourage multi-sport participation at your school? Why is it important to the philosophy of your athletic program?
Kuhlman: At Lutheran High School, we strongly believe in the benefits of multi-sport participation and actively encourage our students to do this. Each sport may challenge athletes in different ways and the skills developed such as agility, balance and coordination may help them in other sports as well. In addition, the exposure to additional coaches, different teaching methods and new teammates may increase mental toughness, appreciation and humility, which is important in the overall development of the athlete.
Multi-sport participation is part of the fabric and culture of our school, since it fosters the development of mental, social, emotional, physical and spiritual aspects. While young people may tend to stick with things that they are good at, playing another sport allows the athlete to work at skills that they may not have mastered and success may not be immediate. Having choices helps athletes decide what they actually enjoy and it might be another sport.
Due to our enrollment of 350 students, it is also crucial that athletes play more than one sport to fill roster spots. High school athletic careers only last four years; therefore, we want to see young people compete as much as they can and to enjoy their experience. Fortunately, our coaching staff is aligned with the importance and benefits of multi-sport participation. Nearly 50 percent of our student-athletes participate in at least one other sport, with 20 percent participating in three sports per year.
Mossop: Athletics and activities are significant in establishing the culture within a school. I have found that at Pennsauken High School, students who participate in multiple activities tend to be the visible leaders in the hallways and in their classrooms. In order to help all students reach their highest potential – not just in the classroom and on the playing field, but as a leader – athletic and activities administrators owe it to our communities to push as hard as possible to develop those qualities in our students. And multi-sport participation increases the opportunities to achieve this goal.
Question: How do you inform and educate the parents of your athletes in your school district about the dangers of specialization? What is the most successful method or approach that you use?
Kuhlman: It is impossible to predict the physical and emotional or mental development of a young athlete, and their enthusiasm about a particular sport may increase or decrease. Therefore, we spend a great deal of time and resources helping our families understand the troubling national trend of specialization and try to keep students and their families focused on the benefits of education-based athletics.
To accomplish this goal, we use parent meetings, credible testimonials from experts using statistics and data, social media, and personal conversations. And interpersonal communication is perhaps the most powerful. Also, as parents accept this message, they share it with other families. There is a trickle-down effect and new parents are, as a result, indoctrinated into our culture.
Mossop: Social media postings and face-to-face interactions have been most successful in our setting. When an article or one of my quotes subsequently gets shared on a community page, the conversation really gains momentum. Speaking to parents at games, sitting in the stands talking to them about what their goals are for their children has gone a long way to build the credibility of the department as a partner with parents for their children.
Question: There is belief – at least among some parents and coaches – that specialization is the best path for a young person to earn a college athletic scholarship. What information and facts do you share about this theory?
Kuhlman: In reality, only four percent of athletes, despite how much they “specialize,” will earn an athletic scholarship. At LHS, the majority of our athletes who ultimately earned an athletic grant did participate in multiple sports. And this is the message that we share. Our coaching staff helps guide families with the decision and provide the brutal realities of specialization versus scholarships. They need to remain informed on how scholarships are earned and what college coaches and recruiters are looking for in an athlete such as attitude, effort, intelligence, coachability and leadership. These traits are developed and cultivated through multi-sport participation.
Mossop: This is my third year as the athletic director at my school and 85 percent of the student-athletes who have signed scholarship agreements – whether it be athletic or academic – have been multi-sport student-athletes. As the head wrestling coach for 10 years prior to moving into my current position, every single student-athlete who I coached and earned a scholarship was a multi-sport athlete. Community and non-school programs, and other pay-to-play type businesses, have made a lot of money off of parents who believe in the specialization myth, but peer-reviewed research confirms that being involved in multiple sports in high school is the best way to succeed both in athletics and in life.
Question: What specific steps do you take to get the message across to your coaches about the importance and value of multi-sport participation?
Kuhlman: Since participation in interscholastic sports is a vehicle for building positive relationships, fostering personal growth and perseverance, and learning ethical behavior, it is imperative that we identify and hire individuals who embrace this concept. Part of our interview process, therefore, includes questions that surround multi-sport participation and the importance of developing the whole child. We want our staff to appreciate the fact that we share athletes. Additionally, we want to keep students involved in as many activities as possible and not put them in a position to “choose” one sport over another.
Mossop: Besides sending out pertinent articles in our department Google Classroom, coaches nominate and vote on student-athletes to be honored for playing more than one sport in our program. We also have a partnership with the Positive Coaching Alliance, which stresses the value of multi-sport participation and character building through education-based athletics.
Question: What do you do to monitor the efforts of your coaches to prevent them from steering athletes toward specialization? How do you ensure that a coach doesn’t monopolize athletes with summer-time workouts, camps, summer leagues and other activities so that young people also can enjoy time with their family and other sports?
Kuhlman: While this is generally not an issue, we do use a continuing process of educating all of our stakeholders, and not solely our coaches. However, we also have contact parameters for our coaches with their athletes during the pre-season, the season, post-season and the off-season with other programs in mind. We work together, as a staff, to schedule camps in order to minimize scheduling conflicts and limit each team to 15 days of contact during the summer. Also, it helps to have coaches who “cross-platform” or coach more than one sport. It is common for our football and cross country coaches to also coach track, or our baseball coach to also coach basketball. When coaches have to literally “share” their time between sports, it illustrates the importance that we place on multi-sport participation for our athletes.
Mossop: Much of the monitoring approach with the coaches regarding specialization comes in our end-of-season meetings. This past year, in collaboration with our superintendent, we developed a summer enrichment program that incorporated SAT/ACT prep courses with a choice of music programs or strength and conditioning programs. This program met four days per week, Monday through Thursday, from 8:00 a.m. until noon. Summer practices are done on a rotating basis and in collaboration with all coaches in order to ensure that student-athletes do not spend all of the summer workouts in one specific sport.
Question: Do you have any special recognition efforts that you use for athletes who participate in multiple sports at your school?
Kuhlman: Even though each program has its own set of criteria for recognizing multi-sport athletes, it is the norm at our school to participate in more than one sport. Because of this, we don’t have a special award or recognition for something that is a universal goal. Although, for our senior awards, we do place an emphasis in our voting procedures for those athletes who have participated in multiple sports during their careers.
Mossop: At Pennsauken High School, students who participate in three sports in a school year are designated “Renaissance Student-Athletes.” Last year, after admittedly seeing some great marketing efforts from other athletic departments in our state, I began to highlight some of these “Renaissance Student-Athletes” on our athletic department Facebook and Twitter accounts. We have set up the following recognition levels for this program:
In addition, we present two additional special awards associated with multi-sport participation:
Dr. David Hoch is a former athletic director at Loch Raven High School in Towson, Maryland (Baltimore County). He assumed this position in 2003 after nine years as director of athletics at Eastern Technological High School in Baltimore County. He has 24 years experience coaching basketball, including 14 years on the collegiate level. Hoch, who has a doctorate in sports management from Temple (Pennsylvania) University, is past president of the Maryland State Athletic Directors Association, and he formerly was president of the Maryland State Coaches Association. He has had more than 550 articles published in professional magazines and journals, as well as two textbook chapters. He is the author of a book entitled Blueprint for Better Coaching. Hoch is a member of the NFHS High School Today Publications Committee.