High school students sampling different sports each season, appears to be a diminishing reality. Many may know the stories of athletes like Steve Nash and Wayne Gretzky, who played a number of sports as a youth, and specialized in a sport later in life. But, when we look to our high school athletes today, it seems more are focusing on specific sports at a younger age, and this trend is one that is dramatically changing our high school sports. Recently, Cam Cole wrote an excellent piece around this in the Vancouver Sun about physical literacy and the decline in kids sports.
Of course, at its core, this is not really a school issue; it is far broader than that. There is an intersection of school and community in almost every sport today. While less than a decade ago there were often lines between ‘school sports’ (e.g. volleyball, basketball, rugby) and ‘community sports’ (soccer, hockey, baseball) the lines have blurred. Today, almost every sport is a 12-month sport. For some sports like hockey, this is almost 100 per cent in community; for others like basketball, it is more evenly split between school and the community. Many sports have complete organizations in schools and the community.
Personally, I think something is being lost in early sports specialization. A recent report from Matthew Bridge and Martin Toms out of the United Kingdom: “The specializing or sampling debate: a retrospective analysis of adolescent sports participation in the UK” tends to agree. The report indicates “individuals who competed in three sports aged 11, 13, and 15 were significantly more likely to compete at a national compared with club standard between the ages of 16 and 18 than those who practised only one sport.” This runs counter to what many athletes, coaches and parents seem to believe, and who go all-in on a sport from a very young age.
Another phenomena influencing multi-sport, high school athletics is the increased emergence of paid coaches in community programs. While still largely supported by volunteer staff, parents and community members, most major community sporting clubs have some paid staff, who are obviously invested in retaining athletes for their livelihood. When it was solely a system of volunteers, the parent who coached soccer in the fall often helped coach the school basketball team in the winter, as well as the softball team in the spring. Paid community coaches are often less likely to see their athletes sample school sports.
There is also a major overlap and growing competition between school and non-school sporting opportunities (in many ways, it follows the non-profit versus profit paradigm). Club programs run all year and coaches will often discourage “their” athletes (the issue of coaches and so-called “athlete ownership” is also very infuriating) from participating on school teams outside of their sport. So, the community soccer coach doesn’t want a player to play volleyball for the school, because they want to promote sport specialization.
As a parent, along with my kids, I do want to have more say in this conversation. I want my kids to have the opportunity to play a range of sports if they want to. I am less concerned with “development”, which is all the buzz in sports now, and more concerned with the “fun” which should be all the buzz.
I like the advice Stephanie Hauser, a high school athletic director from Wisconsin, recently shared on the topic of multi-sport athletes at Proactive Coaching:
- Be the final decision makers on behalf of your kids’ well-being. This means having to put your foot down and be willing to make the difficult decision to say “no” on behalf of your multi-sport athletic child. Injury, fatigue and burnout WILL happen if you are not willing to say “no” to some things. Know when it is the right time to make the decision for your child – don’t automatically give the kids the choice; most will opt to attend everything, not wanting to let any of their coaches down.
- Be willing to “shut them down” for a time period when you see fatigue or burnout happening. Last summer, we were seeing the signs of some nagging fatigue injuries with our daughter, and we were struggling as parents with how to best handle the situation. Then, the best thing for all of us happened – she twisted her ankle at Panther Fitness. This was the excuse that we needed to shut down for the remaining three weeks of the summer…what a blessing in disguise!! The results were amazing. Her shin splints went away, her knee and hip pain went away, she had time to hang out with friends, clean her room, read a book, and when volleyball season began three weeks later, she proceeded to have an all-conference season. The trade-off for her was a refreshed body and mind, rather than a few more weeks of training, and she came back stronger than where she left off.
- Let your actions speak louder than your words. Many coaches say that they support the multi-sport athlete, but it is evident that this is just “lip service” because in reality they are putting undue pressure on these multi-sport athletes to attend everything. Have regular conversations with these kids, so you will be able to sense when it is time to give them a little more breathing room. In reality, many of these multi-sport athletes are the most reliable, competitive and naturally athletic kids on your team. They are the “studs” – let them thrive in their other sports, and then come your sport and thrive there. I have witnessed this with our own daughter. There is no doubt that she begins each season looking a bit rusty. My husband and I call that the “three-sport athlete look.” Yet, within the first few weeks of the season she not only meets, but exceeds the performance of others who have spent countless hours in the off-season in the gym refining their one-sport skills. Coaches, spend the off-season time with the athletes that need you the most, those single-sport athletes who may have limited athletic ability. They really need you to help them fine-tune their skills because they may not have the strong athletic ability to rely on. This is the opportunity for you to really help them strive to be the best that they can be.
- Work with other head coaches to coordinate your off-season schedules and regularly talk with them about shared athletes. NEVER make an athlete feel like they have to choose between one coach and the other, and NEVER discuss or put down that athlete’s other coaches.
For Athletic Directors:
- Schedule time for head coaches to sit down together to coordinate the summer calendars, open gyms, contact days, and camps in a sincere effort to minimize the number of conflicts and difficult choices that the multi-sport athlete is forced to make. This will open the communication lines and minimize the frustration between coaches who feel that they are competing for the multi-sport athletes’ time.
- Communicate the multi-sport athlete philosophy of the athletic department with parents and share with them the things that the athletic department and coaches are doing to support that multi-sport athletes. Provide multi-sport athlete research, education and data for parents.
- Manage the outside entities, such as legion baseball, AAU basketball and select soccer. Work with your coaches to find ways to we get these outside entities to work with the school to help us maintain three-sport athletes. To do this, you need buy-in from the coaches and the willingness to commit to this effort and be the liaison between school and outside entity.
- Applaud and honor the multi-sport athlete. Build recognition opportunities into your athletic award system. Many of these kids are truly masters of time management, selflessness and self-discipline; and they have a passion for competition. Additionally, there are those multi-sport athletes with marginal athletic ability that truly just want to participate so that they can be a part of something good. Reward these kids for their dedication and contribution to your school.
There are a number of challenges currently happening in high school athletics, and I actually think we may have one or more new models developing (more on this in another post), but one value we should return to in school sports, and really — in all sports — is the value of the multi-sport, high school athlete.