Ask almost any strength coach, athletic trainer, or physical therapist, and they’ll likely say that playing multiple sports is far better for your athletic development than specializing in just one.
“Unless it’s clear that one particular sport is going to pay your bills, I think it’s great to play other sports,” says Pure Sweat Basketball director of performance Alan Stein, a man who has coached elite high school basketball players for over 15 years. ”[Doing so offers] tremendous benefit in terms of cross-training.”
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Stein and others agree that playing more than one sport improves an athlete’s strength, coordination and conditioning. A common worry is that an athlete might get hurt playing a second sport, but experts say that participating in other activities can actually increase your resilience against injury.
Ask almost any strength coach, athletic trainer or physical therapist, and they’ll likely say that playing multiple sports is far better for your athletic development than specializing in just one.
“By playing multiple sports, you’re staying away from the overuse injuries people can develop from doing the same movements over and over again,” says Tony Bonvechio, strength coach at Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, Massachusetts.
That’s not to say that playing two (or more) sports is without risk. You do add extra activity to your schedule and put more demands on your body. So if you opt to play a second or even a third sport, follow these rules.
1. Choose sports that go together
You should play the sports you love, of course, but in an ideal world, you will choose ones that somehow complement each other. For example, a basketball player could improve his conditioning, agility and footwork by playing soccer—or boost her vertical with volleyball.
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Honestly, in the majority of cases, most sports help one another in some way. The only exception we could point out is that, unless you’re a track runner, cross country isn’t a great sport if you are participating in it solely for extra conditioning work. Long-duration running causes significant wear and tear, reduces muscle mass and can even make you slower and less explosive.
2. Don’t double up
Some athletes want to play two sports in a single season. Stein has a simple recommendation for them: Don’t do it.
“Anytime someone plays on two teams during the season, that’s just fraught with potential problems from an injury standpoint, from a commitment standpoint and for simply wearing out the body and mind,” Stein says. “If you’re going to play on the soccer team, you owe it to your teammates—and yourself—to give it your undivided attention.”
3. Train during the season, every season
In-season training is a must for everybody because it helps preserve muscle and staves off injury. But in-season workouts are especially important for multi-sport athletes, who don’t have long off-seasons when they can rebuild their bodies.
However, athletes who are in-season can’t just load up the weights and hammer their way to PRs, like they might do during an off-season. Instead, their primary focus should be on improving general athleticism.
“You might not have 12 to 20 weeks where you can focus on improving a series of specific qualities, so you have to train everything at once—maybe a little bit of aerobic work, some strength work, some power development,” explains Bonvechio. “You may not maximize any of those qualities, but you will become more well-rounded.”
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In-season workouts should be shorter, with fewer sets and slightly lighter weight loads. This can help prevent fatigue and head off overuse injuries. Spend most of your time on multi-joint lifts such as Squats, Deadlifts, Bench Presses, Push-Ups and Rows to train as many muscles in as few reps as possible. Added benefit: These moves develop the foundation of strength that will make you a better athlete in all sports.
4. Sharpen your skills before the next season arrives
It’s not wise to go into any sport season rusty. Although you’re busy with your current team’s schedule, try to find time during the week to prepare for your next sport.
“For a basketball player who’s playing soccer in the fall, I would recommend spending two or three days a week putting in 30 to 45 minutes of basketball skill work,” Stein says.
The rule applies to other sports. You may not see wild improvement in your skills, but the work will keep the basics sharp so you won’t show up for tryouts behind the 8-ball.
Preparing for the demands of your next sport before it arrives can also help reduce your risk of injury, experts say.
“In youth baseball, it’s important that kids build their arm strength up before the season actually starts and they’re in competition,” says Dr. E. Lyle Cain, renown orthopaedic surgeon at Andrews Sports Medicine. “We recommend at most ages a 4- to 6-week throwing program to get their arms in shape before they start the season.”
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5. Don’t cram in training during transitions
Sometimes you might have week or two off between seasons. While it might be tempting to step on the gas then, the break should not be used to cram in as much training and skillwork as possible.
“With a short amount of time, there’s not a whole lot you can do to get significantly stronger or faster,” says Bonvechio. “Ideally, you’ve been training to some degree all along.”
Also, you don’t need to go crazy trying to catch up on conditioning. Remember: You’re just coming off a season. You should have a base of conditioning already—one that probably rivals even the most disciplined athletes who’ve only been training.
“Be a normal kid for two or three days,” is how Stein suggests spending your break. “Get caught up on some sleep. Watch a couple of funny movies. Hang out with friends. Really let your mind and body get away from it. Then I’d address nagging injuries, get back to full health and play the next season completely unfettered.”
6. Give yourself an off-season eventually
This might be the most challenging item on this list—especially with so many sports seeming to practice and play year round. (Summer basketball or winter baseball, anyone?)
You may also hear it from your peers who play only one sport all year round. They think that more is better. Problem is, this way of thinking is seriously flawed.
“You have some players who think they can play on three teams, go to six camps and do a rigorous off-season training program,” Stein says. “Then they wonder why they’re not making progress, getting burned out or having overuse injuries. It’s because they’re simply doing too much.”
You want to spend at least one period of the year improving yourself, and not being tied up in competition.
“At some point, you need to develop the athlete, not just the baseball player or football player,” says Bonvechio. “One of the biggest differentiators at the highest level of sport is the speed, the quickness, the power. Everybody is pretty well skilled. But if you’re always only training your sport-specific skills, you’re not necessarily building the horsepower behind it.”
Ideally, you should take one season completely off, which typically is the summer for a majority of athletes. This might require you to make some tough decisions. You may have to forego off-season leagues or showcases that could offer exposure opportunities. But you will be better off in the long run, because building your athleticism will elevate your game.
“Don’t tell me you want to improve your vertical jump and then go play on three different AAU teams,” says Stein. “If getting stronger, adding body weight and improving your explosiveness is really important to you, then there has to be a sacrifice.”