As the summer comes to an end and the school year begins, the smell of fall fills the air and our nervous system is bombarded with the theme music from Monday Night Football. The upcoming high school sports season brings another opportunity for an athlete to be the next Vincent Edward Jackson. He was perhaps the best modern-day three-sport athlete, and perhaps the best all-round athlete to date. This begs the question: What are the benefits of multi-sport participation, and why don’t more athletes strive for that?
The idea of the three-sport athlete was born out of the “big three.” In high school, this referred to football, basketball and baseball. This formula can take on different combinations in today’s athletically diverse world. As the business world has become highly specialized, so has the world of athletics. Athletes now train 12 months out of the year for one sport. Teams have players for highly specific situations of a game. In baseball, there are pitchers kept on a roster to pitch to one batter. Football teams keep “third-down backs” on the roster. So, is specializing good? It can be. Is it bad? It can be that, too.
Unfortunately, we must answer the original question with another question. Why are kids specializing at a young age? The answer is parents, coaches and society. Parents see investment for the future scholarship, competitive edge, living out their dream, a future paying job playing sports, and winning a championship. When coaches see an athlete, they see an opportunity to improve their team and perhaps win a state title. According to sociologist Dr. Harry Edwards, the influence of society on kids comes primarily from money. The underlying theme of sports, music, television, movies, etc. is money and the pressure to co-exist in an adult world exhibiting adult traits.
Some coaches and parents have the ability to see the big picture for the student-athlete, and some don’t. There are coaches and parents that encourage the student-athlete to participate in multiple sports and/or non-sport activities. Coaches that encourage multi-sport activity also have the ability to communicate with the other coaches, advisers and parents in support of the student-athlete's human development. Coaches and parents can be territorial when they know they have a gifted student-athlete. Characteristics of territorialism displayed by a coach in reference to a particular athlete are a red flag that should be recognized and remedied.
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The benefits of multi-sport participation are physical, psychological and social. These benefits last a lifetime. Sports like baseball, softball, lacrosse and hockey are not only physical sports but they are specifically sports that emphasis chess-like thinking and rapid hand-eye coordination. Football and ice hockey are collision sports with higher physical risk, but encompass personal sacrifice and team concepts. Track and field can be wide-ranging in physical development for strength, speed, endurance, sacrifice and dedication. These are a few examples of the attributes of various sports. Let's use a high school boy as an example. He competes in soccer, basketball and lacrosse. This combination has blended multiple team sports with a high degree of hand-eye coordination and physical conditioning for his entire body. Had he specialized, he would not have had the benefits and experiences from different situations.
Multi-sport athletes display improved health and wellness, including decreased injury rates, improved athletic performance (they master alternative activities faster than single-sport athletes), improved leadership skills and teamwork, better attendance in school and better academic performance.
Most young athletes begin to specialize when it is too early to tell. Generally speaking, each athlete should be looked at individually. Certain sports have times when decisions may need to be made to provide the best opportunity for the athlete to succeed. As an example, overly aggressive club coaches promising Olympic dreams at a very young age unfortunately often fuel sports like gymnastics. Specializing too early often results in burnout. Athletes give up before their time because they get exposed to too much too soon. Lack of interest in a sport is a hint to parents that the interest maybe elsewhere. Parents should always remember to encourage participation, but never force participation. Ask your son or daughter what their goals are. You may find out that they are different than originally thought.
The research shows that there are several benefits to multisport participation. Unfortunately, society has all but eliminated the three-sport athlete from our vocabulary. This has been done for the sake of either winning a championship at 10 years old or beating the Chinese on a standardized test at 14 years old. Somewhere out there is the next Vincent Edward Jackson. There is also a coach, teacher and parent willing to forgo society and encourage them to become a multi-sport/multi-activity student-athlete. By, the way Mr. Jackson’s common name? Bo. If you don’t know Bo, Google him.