One Sport Athletes – Part 2

Before I start with actual content today, I have to share this link first.  My wife and I are both Saturday Night Live nerds.  The cold opening Deflategate parody of A Few Good Men had me rolling.  Feel free to skip to the 3:35 mark where the good stuff begins.

My intention this week was to write about the role of officials and their link to coaches and parents using a video clip of an angry youth hockey dad that circled the interwebs last weekend.  However, after the massive and unexpected response to last week’s blog, I felt it was important to revisit that today.  For those of you that I promised to write about the physical effects of sports specialization, it’s still coming; I’m just pushing that back another week.

There were many common themes throughout the comments following last week’s blog.  Because the content of the post struck a nerve in the athletic community, it was read by many people who hadn’t been to my blog or are unfamiliar with my philosophy of high school (and other youth) sports.  I’ve tried to keep up with responding to everyone who commented, but I realize that those messages would reach individuals rather than the whole.  Because of that, I wanted to use this week’s post to address my thoughts on some of those recurring comments.  In no particular order, here are those themes:

1. Yes, I realize that the athletes Coach Meyer recruits are extremely special athletes.  They were no doubt targeted by multiple coaches in their high schools and probably had every opportunity to play every sport they could.  And, yes, I wouldn’t be surprised if many of those athletes’ second sport in high school was track and field.
2. Yes, I realize that some athletes need to specialize early in order to obtain the skill level needed to play beyond high school.
3. No, we shouldn’t be forcing kids into playing sports they don’t want to play.
4. No, this theory isn’t a “one size fits all” theory that will work for or apply to every kid.
5. Specifically to gymnastics parents…I hear you; I get it.

Here’s the deal.  If you look through other posts in my blog, you’ll see that my efforts are to run an educational based athletic program that services the majority of our kids.  I realize that last week’s blog looked like I was focusing strictly on the 3%’ers, and I suppose that I mostly was.   To that end, it’s important for our best athletes to know that the opportunity for growth exists in other sports as much as it does in specialization (without the same level of concern for burn out, disappointment, or injury).  Speaking from my own philosophy and thoughts, here’s how I reply to those five themes above.

1.  Meyer’s recruits are athletic freaks, so I wasn’t suggesting that it was strictly their involvement in other sports that landed them on OSU’s roster.  The chart was just a way to take a popular, current picture to spark this conversation.  The point I was trying to get across was that cross training is loaded with benefits to all athletes that can’t be obtained through specialization.  Those benefits are available to D1 kids, NAIA kids, JH kids, and everyone in between.
1a. In terms of risk and reward, multi-sport participation raises the chances of our 97%’ers having a positive high school athletic experience.   The vast number of kids that are specializing hasn’t changed the finite number of college roster spots available.  We’re seeing more kids putting their proverbial eggs into one basket, but that hasn’t statistically increased their odds of earning a scholarship.  Too many times I hear from parents who feel like their investment in specialization was wasted when a kid doesn’t make a college roster (or a high school roster!).  We need to get back to allowing kids, and encouraging kids, to do lots of stuff just for the sake of being able to do lots of stuff.
2.  I’m sure that many of us can find a specific example of a kid or two who specialized early and became skilled enough to make a roster (or even better, like a Tiger Woods type).  But what about the kid who specialized and didn’t get a roster spot because of some other kid who specialized?  From an AD standpoint, those are both of our kids, and I need our program to be a positive experience for both of them when they’re done.
3.  If a kid really doesn’t want to play something else, I’m not suggesting that we force the kid to play.  The benefits of any activity are largely negated if the participant isn’t a willing participant.  As a parent, I struggle trying to force my kids to brush their teeth and wash their hands; I certainly don’t want to force them into a sport where I can watch them pout about playing that, too!
4.   Many of you brought up other activities, family time, kid stuff, jobs, injuries, etc. as a reason to not be in multiple sports.  I wasn’t trying to undervalue those things.  If your kid enjoys fishing/hunting/skiing/hiking/whatever, I’m not saying he should stop those things.  My stance is more anti-specialization for those kids who are dropping sports to “focus” on one, not an indictment of kids who have other interests.
5.  Gymnastics is the one sport that I really struggle with inside this philosophy.  Kids and parents, I completely get it.  I understand, and I feel badly about it.  You are stuck in a huge Catch 22 that essentially forces you into year-round gymnastics if you’re going to improve.  (Again, this isn’t true across the board!  I know we have plenty of gymnasts who compete in other sports.)  For those gymnasts (and other sport athletes) who choose to stay in the sport year-round for advancement purposes, just be honest with yourselves.  Your increased time, cost, and effort commitment is not a guarantee that anything awaits you down the road.  If you’re going to fully commit yourself to any sport, you have to be comfortable knowing that the end will come at some time, and probably sooner than you were hoping.

Hopefully, those comments are a little clearer than last week.  This is, more or less, an expansion of the last paragraph of last week’s post, something that I would have done last week except I was already getting wordy (English dork problem).

As always, any thoughts/questions/suggestions, please comment!  For those of you asking how to follow my blog, there are four boxes on the home page just below the cover picture that will take you to the feeds for Facebook, Twitter, or an email registration page.

16 Responses

  1. Thomas

    I was a 2 sport high school athlete who was able to accomplish the rather unique feat of being able to participate at the division 2 level in 1 one my sports, and after a transfer occurred, able to participate at the division 1 level in the other. If I were given the opportunity to go back in time and do it over again, I would have been a 1 sport athlete and tried to better myself in only 1 of the 2 sports. What do you feel is the problem with this?

    My experience as a college athlete showed me that those who did specialize earlier and put it more time on sport specific training were more successful. How is it logical for a basketball player with potential to spend a 3 month football season, a 3 month track and field season, and a 3 month summer baseball season participating in those sports, and not improving on the sport where they actually have an opportunity and drive to get to the next level?

    Also, as a person from North Dakota, I disagree that it is incredibly challenging for a one sport athlete to get a collegiate scholarship. There are several NAIA and junior college schools in this state, and those who do put the time in are often rewarded with these scholarships.

    I look forward to your response.

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      Sure – but you’re talking about specific examples from a specific demographic of athletes who were already in the 6% of high school athletes who have the opportunity to play college sports. Would you, specifically, have been a better athlete in your single sport had you specialized in it? Maybe…without doing it, you won’t know for sure. If you had specialized in just that sport from elementary school, would you have still had the passion for it through high school? Maybe…without doing it, you won’t know for sure. I think that your points are easy to make from the standpoint of an athlete who played in college, but that isn’t the majority of our high school athletic population.

      Your second paragraph is the most dangerous attitude that we have among athletes, parents, and coaches today. We tell the kids that “if you do this,” they’ll have a chance to get to the next level. What we don’t tell them, is that only 6% of high school athletes will play college athletics. Diversity makes some athletes better; specialization works for others. My point is that the statistics show us that the majority of high school athletes don’t advance beyond high school, so let’s focus our programs on those kids. The college sport bound kids will thrive regardless of our programming.

      Your opinion in the third paragraph is another dangerous ideal that is being passed down to parents. The amount of time that kids put into a sport isn’t an indicator of their ability to earn a scholarship. Opinions like that circulate among parents and kids, leading kids to focus all of their time and effort into the sport in which they want to earn a scholarship. Those are the kids and parents I speak to later who are disappointed when they don’t make it and feel like “their investment” didn’t pay off. The harsh reality is that a kid’s genetic code, work ethic, ability to learn, etc. are FAR more important factors than the amount of time they put in. I would have loved to play football at Notre Dame, but nobody wants a gangly 6’3″ kid who runs his 40 on a sun dial in D1 athletics. I love my parents, but my chance to D1 football was ended in the womb. I walked on to four sports at an NAIA school, had a blast, earned my degree, and found what I love to do. Because I grew into a kid who was 6’3″ 210lbs, I had that opportunity. The majority of my high school teammates didn’t have that chance.

      Statistically speaking, your odds to play college sports at any level aren’t greater or less than anyone else’s because of your state of residence. There will be fewer ND kids playing college sports than most states simply because there are fewer kids in ND than in most states. I’m not stating or holding an opinion on whether I think it’s easy or tough for an ND kid to make a roster, I’m just pointing out that only 3% of high school kids make college rosters with an athletic scholarship. I won’t argue with your opinion if you feel that those numbers means it’s easy to get an athletic scholarship, but I’m not going to run my entire athletic department’s philosophy based on what might help 3% of my population get a small amount of money to play sports in college.

      Thank you for the feedback. Diverse opinions are good for discussion.

  2. Thomas

    My issue with your initial response is that while it is valid that 94% of high school athletes will not advance beyond high school, another 6% do. I am on the opinion that it is selfish of a high school coach to tell the 6% that they are doing a disservice to their school by not participating in more sports, when it is to the benefit of the 6% to focus on a sport. I was chastised by several coaches in my ND high school for not playing football for our struggling team and instead choosing to focus on the sports I was good at. Why is this ok?

    Also, to your point that I may not have been better if I specialized… When you hit college you specialize. I got better in college. I feel specialization and improvement go hand in hand. For example, you do not get better at basketball by playing football. Coaches can talk toughness as much as they want, but you don’t get better at basketball playing football. It is reality.

    Additionally, to your point in the original post that college coaches want to know which sports other kids play… In my current profession, I deal with D1 and D2 coaches on a consistent basis, including the ones in GF. To quote one of those staff members, “Is Player X an athlete or a x-sport player?”

    I understand that your focus must be on all student athletes, but I think a disservice is done to the exceptional by ostracizing them for choosing to go against the grain in pursuit of success in their chosen sport.

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      I obviously can’t speak to your personal experience, but I think you’re misconstruing my message.

      To your first and last paragraphs, I’m not talking about chastising or ostracizing athletes for choosing to only play one sport. If that’s what happened to you, that’s a pretty crappy experience…but that’s not the message I’m sending out. My point is to not encourage kids to specialize early. If kids come to that conclusion on their own for whatever reason, so be it. I wouldn’t try to force a kid to start an activity any sooner than I’d try to force a kid to quit one (except for my own sons in swimming lessons; they have to be in those). Here’s the irony in your statement regarding the 94 and 6 percenters – how do you know you’re a 6%er until you’re actually a 6%er? I’ll agree with you (to a small extent) that it might be beneficial to a college sport bound kid to specialize and hone his craft, but how do you know that a kid is college sport bound? That’s directly my point. We’re in a culture that’s encouraging kids to specialize in a sport *in the hopes of* being able to make a college roster. Every single year I see kids who have specialized whose athletic careers end in high school; granted, some of them chose to specialize, but for the ones who were nudged in that direction, we certainly didn’t do them any service during their high school careers.

      You keep wanting to use yourself as a specific example to support your opinion, which is fine, but I can do the same thing with myself. I played four sports throughout high school and was fortunate enough to get a taste of four sports in college at the NAIA level – no athletic scholarship until my 5th year of football. Had I chosen to specialize in anything in high school, it would have been basketball. The worst case scenario – because I was in a small town and my dad was the coach, the odds of my burning out and quitting are slim to none. However, there’s a really good chance that even after specializing, the best I could have done was still walking on to an NAIA team…just like I did. Best case scenario – the best case scenario had I specialized in basketball was maybe making a D2 roster at a local school…maybe. Five years later, I still would have been teaching high school English and coaching high school sports, just like I did; however, look at what I would have missed: no experience in college football/track/baseball, no opportunity to learn that football was actually my best sport, no opportunity to learn that I really liked coaching baseball, none of the experiences that came with high school football/track or legion baseball, etc. etc.

      You mention that once you specialized in college that you improved. Of course you did, but how much did that have to do with specialization, and how much had to do with just being a male college athlete? I didn’t specialize in college at all. I played football/basketball/baseball my first year, football/basketball/track the next two, and football/basketball/coaching baseball in my last two years. I improved in all of them despite never specializing. I improved because my strength training program was better; I improved because practices were more individualized by position; I improved because there were more coaches with eyes on me throughout practice; I improved because of film study; mostly, I improved because I was a 19-23 year old male going through the peak of testosterone driven late adolescent development. I also saw improvement in my knowledge and performance in English, math, science, history, and Playstation Madden.

      As far as cross sport training: Being a tight end made me better as a small/power forward, and vice versa. Being a mid-distance sprinter made me a better wide receiver. Being a sprinter and a basketball player made me a better outfielder. All of those skills were translatable. The body positioning and hand fighting drills I had in the fall as a tight end gave me an advantage as a 6’3″ power forward trying to defend guys who were 6’6″ in the blocks. The drills I did to run the 400m and a leg in the 1600m relay made me a better wide receiver by teaching me stop to start explosion, closing speed, and finishing speed. I could go on and on. Would working on rebounding year round have made me a better rebounder, too? Of course it would have, but I don’t think it would have taught me to be as physical as I had to learn to be to play on the offensive line. In addition, I wouldn’t have been able to experience playing football…which is central to my point about encouraging kids to play multiple sports.

      Again, you won’t see me speaking against athletes who choose to specialize in a sport – whether it’s because they only like one sport or because they are choose to focus on one for improvement – but the disservice is to our masses if we continue to encourage specialization. You and I clearly aren’t going to see eye to eye on this, which I’m fine with, but I’m going to continue sending out a message that I believe is the healthier environment for the majority of our kids.

      I appreciate the debate. It’s good to hear other points of view; thank you for sharing yours.

  3. grainman64

    I too have lived in ND all my life. As a small town boy, specialization wasn’t even an option. To compete in any sport, at least half of each class had to participate. You played football in the fall, when the season was done, you forgot about it and either wrestled or played basketball. Into spring, many participants played both baseball and ran track. It was something we accepted, but here is some differences..IMHO. Our practices were reasonably short, our parents rarely got involved with the coaches or our own participation. Rarely did any of us play a sport for a college scholarship. In my class, I can think of one that received an athletic scholarship. However, I can think of four(out of 12) that received honor scholarships. High school athletics never took away time from other activities..i.e deer hunting, fishing, family, holidays. Why? Because we balanced our lives, our parents knew the importance of being a kid, of family. Multi sport athletics gave me so many attributes that I carry with me today, I never regret anything of my younger years. Another aspect of being in other meet so many other people. You get to know your classmates, maybe a classmate you didn’t understand, now becomes a friend. Variety and balance in your life is so important.

  4. Sarge Truesdell

    Love it Mark! I was a 4 sport kid all the way through High School (Football, Wrestling, Hockey, Baseball) and a 2 sport college athlete (Wrestling and Football). I wouldn’t change any of that to have been a 1 sport Division 1 athlete. The experiences of being involved in multiple sports with multiple coaches and different cultures helped shape me into the person I am today. My son is a football, basketball, baseball player and loves being a part of those teams and those sports. However, a little bit like you gymnastics comments, my daughter is a dancer. She used to be the best soccer and basketball player in her age group but as she gets older her competitive dance becomes more intense and consumes more and more time. She is in 4th grade and on the 7th & 8th grade competition team. She dances from 3:30pm-8:30pm three nights a week and they travel all over the country. Anyway, great article!

  5. Ken

    Like grainman64 from ND I grew up in a small town where all the athletes played every sport, and if they hadn’t the school wouldn’t have been able to field teams in some. On the other hand, I’m now watching a 9th grader at a very large school go through soccer season, having already gone through football season, looking forward to baseball starting next month. The one thing that’s struck me is how much specialization has already determined the “fate” of many kids in their first year of high school: in football, for example, on a team of 40+ kids those who’ve been playing Pop Warner since they were 7 certainly got more playing time when the season rolled around. With four couches and 40+ players, there isn’t a ton of time for individualized instruction, and it’s really how well a player has prepared in the off-season that determines how well they’ll do on the team in-season. Likewise with Soccer, the kids who’ve been playing with clubs year round since they were 5 are those getting the playing time. It may not hold true in the long run, but at the early high school level playing time seems highly correlated with past experience, and I wonder how many kids who are on the bench in three sports might be starters in one if they’d specialized.

    It also strikes me that we have a generation of parents who grew up watching cold war, eastern block countries dominate in the olympics because they had extensive sports science programs to identify the “best sport” for young kids, then trained them year round in that sport. I wonder how many parents use that as subconscious rationalization to make their child specialize in some sport, when in fact they’ve chosen a sport not because their child is “built for it”, but simply because it’s the popular sport in their community, because they’re a fan of that sport, or because they played in their childhood and feel like they missed out an opportunity themselves.

    And how much of this specialization is driven by parents vs what kids themselves want? I don’t think most parents necessarily know what’s best for them to the extent that if a kids wants to play just one sport all year we should force them to play others, or if they want to play several sports we should force them to play just one.

    On a recent 60 Minutes Sports about overuse injuries among youth athletes, Prof Jake Coackley, author of Sports in Society, made the following observation…

    “When I was growing up, in high school for example, it was the three sport athlete that was idealized. If you had letters in three sports that made you the epitome of what an athlete was all about. As public programs have faded–beginning in the 1980s, through today–private programs have taken their place. And they’ve been developed by what I call “youth sport entrepreneurs”. It would be impossible to make your living as a sport entrepreneur just with a single season, so they’ve come up with a rationale for playing multiple seasons in a single sport during a given year, going to camps between the seasons, going to tournaments pre- and post-season, so that have dues paying members 12 months a year, which keeps food on the table for them and their families.”

    1. highschoolsportsstuff

      Thank you for the comments, Ken. I written about the difficulties of being a sports parent in today’s culture; we’ve put parents into a really tough spot. That said, I agree with you. There are far too many people who are willing to jump on specialization as an opportunity to chase a dream. I’m not against chasing the dream, but I think that we, as adults, can encourage a more healthy manner of chasing that dream.

  6. Tracey

    Great Article

    By all means. No one should specialize. How about the death of other sports because of specialization. Although some need extra time to develop skills but in all actuality how many get scholarships. It is really parents trying to make things easier on their pocket book. You will notice a lot of children will end up being bunrned out in the long run.

    Here is another interesting web site I ran across with NFL players and how many of them were multi-sport athletes.

  7. grainman64

    Another comment I’d like to make regarding this “new” attitude towards specialization. I see these kids in each of their respective sport during each season, then camps, and camps, and some more camps. All of this taking away from our summer programs. Some of this attitude I blame towards the coaches. They are expected to attend these camps if they want to play varsity. If this happened in my day….my father would’ve had a few choice words for these coaches. I worked in the summer. Money I spent was the money I earned. I wasn’t given an allowance. I can go on about our society’s values today but that is for another day. Parents, let your kids be kids. Enjoy all what our community has to offer….nature parks, lakes, golf, learn the piano, and on and on.

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