“Do you prefer recruiting multi-sport athletes or single-sport athletes?”
It’s one of my favorite questions to ask college coaches. Overwhelmingly, college coaches love adding kids to their program who competed in multiple sports during high school. Here are five of the biggest reasons for this preference.
1. Multi-sport Athletes Get Injured Less Often
In sports, the best ability is availability. You do your team little good if you’re consistently sidelined by injury. As research on specialization has continued to grow, it’s become clear that athletes who specialize in one sport are at a higher risk of injury than those who compete in multiple sports.
A study presented at the 2017 American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine’s annual meeting found that high school athletes with a “high specialization classification” had an 85-percent higher incidence of lower extremity injuries than high school athletes with a “low specialization classification.” Essentially, athletes who specialized were found to be at a much higher risk of lower extremity injury than athletes who play and train in multiple sports.
Dr. Nirav Pandya, a California researcher, looked at first-round NBA draft picks and examined how many of them played a single sport in high school versus multiple sports and what impact they may have had on their careers. What he found is that NBA players who played multiple sports played in more games and were less likely to be injured than those who played just one sport.
Playing one sport year-round forces athletes to utilize the same muscle groups and movements over and over, creating a higher risk of overuse injuries. Evidence is overwhelming that utilizing and strengthening different muscle groups through varied sport competition is healthier for student-athletes. If specializing, it’s extra important to vary your training to reduce likelihood of injury. Playing different sports trains our body to adapt, learn and master varied set of skills, resulting in more well-rounded athleticism and a reduced risk of injury.
2. Multi-sport Athletes Are More Coachable
If you’ve experienced more coaches and more coaching styles, you’ve likely adapted your listening and observational skills along the way to become more coach-able. The more sports you play, the more coaches and coaching styles you’ll be exposed to. Adapting how you recognize and receive feedback is critical to continuous athlete development. Every coach is like a book: We’ll like some more than others, but all offer something they can teach us.
“The different types of coaching, the different types of locker rooms, the different environments that you practice in, the different challenges—I think it develops a much more competitive, well-rounded type person,” Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney told the New York Times in 2016.
3. ABC: Always Be Competing
Coaches love competitors. Michigan head football coach Jim Harbaugh famously has potential recruits play dodgeball, field baseballs, play soccer, etc., at his camps to see how they perform and how they compete.
“That just always resonated to me, and you just want to pick some of that up here in the camp, see how they operate taking athletic reps wherever they are. Some youngsters aren’t playing multiple sports as much as they used to, so you’d like to test it. There’s a lot of athletic reps you can take—you can climb a tree, and that’s about as good of an athletic rep that you can get in terms of balance, strength, core, planning out what your next move is,” Harbaugh told The Michigan Daily in 2016.
College coaches want to recruit kids who love to compete, even if they aren’t the top athlete at every sport they play. Saquon Barkley, for example, was not an excellent high school basketball player, but he played the game with tremendous energy and proved to college coaches that he cared more about winning than he did his personal statistics.
Years ago, Colorado University men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle told me that he preferred to watch potential recruits compete in a sport other than basketball so he could gauge their competitive nature and attitude.
4. Smoother Transition Into Other Positions
If you play a team sport, that sport has multiple positions. The more positions you can play, the better chance you have of earning playing time.
Since multi-sport athletes are often more athletically versatile and more capable of picking up new skills than their single-sport counterparts, they usually can adapt to different positions faster and more effectively. Many recruits are asked to change their position when they arrive in college. On my college team, many of the athletes who changed positions were rewarded with all-conference recognition. Some even saw their change in position eventually pay off with an NFL career. Not all of my teammates were initially thrilled to change positions, but all of the ones who did it successfully played multiple sports during high school.
5. Multi-sport Athletes Have Higher Ceilings
An often overlooked point of the multi-sport vs. specialization argument is what creates better talent in the long run. In an interview with University of Nebraska football defensive coordinator Erik Chinander, he believed multi-sport athletes tend to have higher ceilings than single-sport athletes. “Guys who have been specialized typically are what they are and you better be sure in your evaluation,” Chinander says.
Swinney echoed a similar sentiment. “I think sometimes you see some of these kids that specialize so early…they’re much closer to their ceiling,” he told the New York Times. “I see it all the time; one sport since the fifth grade, and that’s all they’ve done. They’ve been to every clinic, every camp, every teaching session, and everything’s been squeezed out of them. There’s just not that much room for them to get any better.”
If you develop yourself as an athlete during middle school and high school, coaches at the college level can refine your technique, improve your performance and raise your level of play. But if you focus on mastering the technique of a single sport during your formative years at the sacrifice of building overall athleticism, developing that versatile athleticism later in life is much tougher.
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