In 2013, 83% of the NFL draftees had been multi-sport athletes in high school. In 2014, that number shot up to 86%. Every year since, the number has been over 88% and I don't see that trend stopping anytime soon. Playing multiple sports in middle and high school has a phenomenal track record.
Sure, we can talk about causation versus correlation here, but that really isn't the point. Are these players so elite that they can play multiple sports well, or are they elite because they play multiple sports? We don't know that answer, but it's no secret that playing multiple sports as a youth athlete can have some amazing long-term benefits to your career. That said, we do need to address this topic with more depth.
Will playing two sports make you an eventual pro athlete? Not automatically, no, but it can help you maximize your genetic potential in those sports. It can keep your body healthy. It can keep your sports IQ high. It can also have positive social and psychological effects. But, unfortunately, it can also negatively impact your performance—and nobody is talking about that.
The more we rave about the benefits of multi-sport athletes, the more these young athletes will be led astray by the money-hungry industry of youth athletics and some of the snakes within it. Make no mistake, I am enthusiastically in favor of multi-sport athletes. I can't stress that enough. I highly recommend it to every single kid I coach.
However, we have to talk about the cons just as much as the pros. If not done correctly, playing multiple sports can be just as bad as early sport specialization. And our athletes (and their parents, coaches and supporters) need to know that.
The Wrong Way
I always like to start with the bad news first so we can end on a high note. The bad news is that there is actually a "wrong" (or less optimal) way to do this whole multi-sport thing.
Today our young athletes face issues that rarely existed 20 years ago when I was a kid. For starters, there are more sporting options worldwide. No, we didn't invent new sports, some just got more popular over the years. WAY more popular. For a real life example, if I were a kid today I would have two sports to choose from that didn't exist in my world back in 1999 when I was 10—Lacrosse and hockey.
Growing up in Indianapolis, playing lacrosse wasn't an option. I literally don't think I even heard of lacrosse until I was in high school and saw it on TV. I can't recall ever seeing a live lacrosse game until I got to college. Obviously, in Indiana, basketball was the sport of choice. Had I grown up in the Carolinas or in the DMV area, I'm sure my awareness of lacrosse would have been greatly enhanced.
Same goes for hockey. Playing hockey was never once a thought in my childhood. For kids who grew up in Canada, Michigan or Wisconsin, I'm sure that was their first choice in sports.
Going back to my point above, sports are far less regional today than they were 20 years ago. Sports are much more international now. Although that is not inherently an issue, it can contribute to some of the issues we'll discuss in this article because of the greater accessibility to more sports than ever. Accessibility can lead to abuse.
That leads to my secondary point. Sports grew, but the calendar year remained the same. Sports became wildly more popular and accessible, but we didn't account for the fact that it would change the typical sports season as we knew it. We bit off more than we could chew.
The typical three sport athlete would do this 20 years ago:
Fall: School Football
Winter: School Basketball
Spring: School Baseball
Summer: Club sports or skills camps
Now, some of our three-sport athletes are doing this:
Fall: School Football, Pre-Season School Basketball
Winter: School Basketball, Football Showcases & Camps
Spring: School Baseball, 7v7 Football, Basketball Camps & Showcases
Summer: Club Basketball, Pre-Season School Football, Club Baseball
Year Around: Strength and Conditioning or Speed and Agility
Year Around: Sport-Specific Skill Development Training
This is what I mean when I talk about the wrong way to do multiple sports. Before, there were clear offseasons and time to focus on other sports. Today, it's all blurred lines. Extracurricular games, tournaments and camps eat into team sport seasons. The amount of overlap defeats the entire purpose of playing several sports. When we said to play multiple sports, we forgot to tell them to not play them all at the same time.
One of the major benefits of playing multiple sports is to diversify your movement skills. This not only creates better athleticism, but also allows athletes to avoid overuse injuries because they aren't repeating one sport's movements at a dangerous volume.
With the way that some athletes have approached playing several sports, it can actually increase the risk of overuse injuries. Not because they aren't diversifying their movements, but because they are simply doing way too much throughout the year. It may not be overuse of one specific movement but an accumulation of stress and fatigue throughout the year from never having an offseason or period of true recovery.
Everyone loves to poke fun at the whole "load management" topic and say, "Larry Bird and Michael Jordan didn't load manage."
Well, they didn't have to because they didn't have 9 AAU games in a single weekend for 10 straight summers like the typical college freshman basketball players does today in 2020. See the difference?
Dang it. I didn't mean to sound like the grumpy strength coach harping on the new generation because "back in my day…"
Our multi-sport athletes, after all, are guided by us. By "us" I mean the older generations, including parents, coaches, trainers, etc. But another thing that guides them—or in this case, misguides them—is the pressure of being a youth athlete in a sports society driven by clout, social media, highlight tapes, money and instant gratification.
I would venture to say that there is more pressure on today's middle school athletes than there was on high school athletes 20-plus years ago.
There's pressure from coaches, peers, parents and the community, sure—but I think the most pressure is coming from the amount of readily available info out there online. There are high school athlete—even middle school athletes—who have verified social media accounts with millions of followers.
Every stat of every game is publicized. Highlight videos go viral daily. There are about a thousand different ranking sites for every sport. The internet is a place where strangers around the world have instant access to write whatever they want to you or about you, good or bad.
The pressure of handling all of this as a young man or young woman is actually mind blowing. It would be a lot for an adult to handle. We've seen actual cases, several times, of adults NOT being able to handle it.
There are some undeniable benefits of social media, though. This is a great way for athletes to share your film with coaches at the next level, build a resume, educate yourself and network with athletes, coaches, trainers, etc.
It's also a large method of how kids communicate with their friends. That's key. You don't want to strip them of that.
A socially accepted and happy kid is our first and foremost priority here. Do you feel loved and accepted? Do you have a blast hanging with your friends? Do you know your parents and coaches love you unconditionally? Do you feel like you can talk to others about any issues, major or minor, that pop up in your life? I could care less about your stats if you can't answer a confident YES to all of those things.
I don't mean to bash social media because it does some incredible things and can provide unreal value for our young athletes, but too much of anything can become bad.
As parents, coaches and mentors, I think we should try to steer our youth into some best practices when it comes to social media. This goes for non-athletes too. The internet is an amazing tool, but it can also become a distraction or something detrimental to our athletes' success.
If you're not using the internet to support, highlight, inspire, network or educate, it's probably not going to end well.
A Better Way
I say all of that to lead into the conversation of a more optimal way to be a multi-sport athlete. Above, we looked at the physical and mental stressors that can overwhelm our youth athletes when we allow the "multi-sport" thing to be abused.
I understand that everyone's lifestyle and situation looks unique and different. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this. There are some best practices though and general tips for being able to manage the demands of playing several sports throughout the year.
For starters, are you enjoying the sport? This trumps everything. If you despise a sport, it's totally OK to not continue to play it. Finish the season you committed to and then move on.
This DOES NOT mean quit when things get tough or don't go your way. This DOES NOT mean transferring from school to school or team to team just to try to bypass hard work and be handed everything. But, seriously, if you hate basketball just don't play basketball. It's really that simple and applies to every age level.
Another important tip is to try to limit that overlapping that we discussed earlier. Try to give yourself at least some recovery time between sports. You should not be playing multiple sports at the same time, but rather multiple sports at different times throughout the year.
There are high school football players who are in-season for their school football team being told that if they don't show up to the preseason basketball workouts, it will hurt their chances of making the team or earning playing time. That is just wrong on so many levels.
This is when having good relationships with your coaches and athletic staff come in handy. Being able to sit down with your coaches, or even with your parents, and draw the line of what you can and can't handle is extremely vital for your health and success.
Along those same lines, by not allowing big overlaps in your athletic seasons you'll also be able to try sports that lend benefits to each other. If I were a Fall or Winter athlete, I would either run track or swim as my second sport for the benefits that they could add to your "main" sport. Whether it be speed, power, conditioning or strength, these sports allow you to build athletic attributes without the incorporation of sport-specific skill movements. It builds up your movement library and maximizes athletic potential.
Last, but definitely not least, comes strength and conditioning. This should be a year-round constant. If you play no other sports, training needs to be your second sport. If you play multiple sports, training needs to help you develop the structure and capacity to meet the demands of those sports.
No matter which way you look at it, you need to train. All year.
The volume, intensity and movements you do in training are all definitely dependent on your personal needs and situation. Again, there is no cookie cutter program that is the "best" for multi-sport athletes. What I will say is that there should be a high focus on establishing sound technique on compound movements, excellent foundations of strength and understanding the "why" behind each exercise in a program.
Your work in the weight room should always enhance what you do in sports, not limit it or bog you down so much that you lose performance. More is not always better, BETTER is BETTER.
Hopefully these tips give you some insight on how you can make the most out of your career as a multi-sport athlete. It's a tall task and can be extremely demanding, but if you execute it well, it can pay off huge dividends in the end.
Photo Credit: AndreyPopov/iStock