They Got Next

January 29, 2015
When next season means another sport, and not the start of club, the multi-sport message is getting through. But how do you do it? The keys are offering incentives to athletes and convincing arguments to parents.
By Laura Ulrich

Laura Ulrich is a contributing writer for Athletic Management. She can be reached at: [email protected]

When soccer coach Tim Twellman looks over his new team on the first day of practice every year, it doesn't take him long to spot the players who specialize in the sport. It's not their skill level that sets them apart, however. The players who compete in other sports are eager and enthusiastic, wide-eyed and ready to put a ball to their feet. The year-round soccer players are asking what time practice ends.

"By the time they get to me, they're tired of soccer," says Twellman, Head Girls' Soccer Coach at Villa Duchesne High School in St. Louis. "Just when they should really be getting excited, they're pretty much done with the sport. The best athletes I get are the ones who play other sports. When soccer season rolls around, they can't wait to play."

Dr. Joel Brenner sees the same thing. Director of Sports Medicine and Adolescent Medicine at the Children's Hospital of the King's Daughters, in Norfolk, Va., Brenner treats high school athletes for overuse injuries that used to be reserved for much older athletes. But Brenner says strains, pulls, and stress fractures are only the most visible manifestation of why early sport specialization is a bad idea--the adolescents he treats are often psychologically burned out on their sport as well.

"It's easy to see that something's going wrong when they're limping or holding their arm, but burnout is harder to spot," Brenner says. "I've had 15-year-old kids tell me they no longer enjoy anything about their sport, but they're doing it because they know their coaches and parents expect them to."

For the past decade, athletic administrators have watched and winced as sport specialization has wreaked havoc on educational athletics. Faced with the proliferation of club teams and parents' obsession with college athletic scholarships, athletic directors have often felt helpless in thwarting the trend. Although they have sounded the alarms, administrators have struggled to find allies in the fight against specialization.

But finally, that seems to be changing. With more and more sports medicine specialists calling for a halt to sport specialization, college coaches publicly stating that they are looking for multi-sport athletes as they recruit, and high school coaches realizing that one-sport athletes don't make the best players, the tide appears to be turning. Which is why athletic directors are starting a new charge against sport specialization.

Up to this point, most attempts to encourage multi-sport participation have been indirect and ineffective. Simply encouraging the star basketball player to put his long arms and legs to use as a wide receiver or asking the softball slugger to forego her fall club team and join the field hockey squad have fallen on deaf ears. Telling parents that multi-sport participation has many benefits is returned with a blank stare.

But what is working is an approach that appeals to athletes directly. Its two main prongs are getting coaches on board and offering real rewards for playing multiple sports at one's high school.

Tim Brown, Athletic Director at Mt. Anthony Union High School in Bennington, Vt., says a key is to educate coaches on how so much of what they do can give the right or wrong message. "For example, a huge problem is when a coach coaches a club team in the off-season and his or her high school players get the message that they need to play in the off-season to make the high school team, become a starter, or get playing time," he says.

Coaches who emphasize off-season conditioning can also keep an athlete from electing to play another sport. "When a high school football player's coach tells him, 'You could be the best player on the team next year if you spend the off-season conditioning,' that player is going to wind up in the weightroom instead of playing basketball," Twellman says.

To ensure her coaches aren't relaying these types of messages to their athletes, Dory Smith, Athletic Director at Villa Duchesne, keeps the multi-sport message at the front of her coaches' minds. She emphasizes it in her department's philosophy statement, includes the topic as an agenda item at coaches meetings, and regularly talks about it one-on-one with her staff.

"I make sure my coaches know I expect them to be educators and that their first job is to teach life lessons, not win games," she says. "Coaches are competitive, and it's easy for them to start thinking, 'If I could just get this player to work a little more in the off-season, we could win district next year.' They need to be reminded of our department philosophy on multi-sport participation often to counteract that kind of thinking."

Smith then works to stay aware of the messages her coaches are sending by paying attention to what kids and parents say. "Sometimes I'll find coaches saying, 'Multi-sport participation is great,' but then contradicting that with what they're actually asking kids to do," she says. "I've had to tell some coaches, 'You're sending mixed messages, and it needs to stop.'"

The issue is important enough to Smith that she makes it one of the major aspects of the hiring process. "In an interview, I'm very clear about our multi-sport philosophy, and I look to hire coaches who have an overall sense of perspective and balance," she says. "I also bring other coaches in on interviews so they can assess whether they think the candidate will fit into our system and promote playing on other teams. If I find a coach who is fantastic otherwise but doesn't buy into our multi-sport philosophy, I keep looking."

While reaching athletes through their coaches is the first step, offering incentives is also key. At Villa Duchesne, Smith makes sure multi-sport athletes get a special mention in the school newsletter and she recognizes them at the annual athletic banquet. In addition, athletes who play three sports for four years are honored with a medal and a plaque in the school's trophy area.

Kevin Kuntz, Athletic Director at The Stony Brook (N.Y.) School, oversees an incentive program for multi-sport athletes called the "Bear Blanket Award." It awards points for each season an athlete participates in, and athletes who earn 12 points receive a large blanket with a bear head on it, representing the school's mascot.

"We award half a point for a j.v. letter, a full point for a varsity letter, and a full point for a postseason honor," Kuntz says. "It's practically impossible to tally 12 points unless you play multiple sports.

"The program is definitely working," he continues. "Kids keep track of their points, and quite often one of them will tell me, 'I wasn't going to go out for a sport this season, but if I don't, I won't earn my blanket.'"

Last year, four athletes earned bear blankets. "One of them played six different sports in his five years here," Kuntz says. "That's what I like about this program--it encourages kids to try different things and experiment, which is what they should be doing at this age."

At Mt. Anthony, Brown also recognizes multi-sport athletes with a special award. The "Tri-Honor Athlete" program rewards student-athletes who go multi-sport while also achieving academically. Each year, athletes who play a sport in all three seasons (or serve as a statistician or team manager) and also make the honor roll in all three seasons are named Tri-Honor Athletes and receive a pin to go on their varsity letter. A large plaque in the cafeteria lists the names of each Tri-Honor Athlete by year.

"Kids love the pins, but the plaque is what really seems to motivate them," Brown says. "It's a very public, permanent recognition."

When Brown instituted the program in 1989, 12 athletes out of a student enrollment of 1,300 were named. In 2008, 53 athletes earned the award. "It's grown every year," he says. "What's great is that I can track the numbers and show parents that we're really making a difference."

To further encourage participation, Brown does all he can to help athletes find a place, in part by offering as many no-cut teams as possible. "It really helps to give kids options where they know they can make the team," Brown says. "At our school, track, cross country, and tennis have no cuts, and we try to keep cuts to a minimum in all of our other sports, too."

Getting coaches and athletes on board is doable. But parents are a much tougher nut to crack. They want what they think is best for their son or daughter and can't always see the forest through the trees. Oftentimes their views are skewed by the number of children who specialize. They see the neighbor's kid practicing year-round and worry they might be failing their child if they don't provide the same opportunity.

As Adam Naylor, Director of the Athletic Enhancement Center at Boston University and a sports psychologist, explains, "Parents have to cope with the 'everybody's doing it' mentality," he says. "It takes a lot of confidence to go against the trend and say, 'My kid is going to be just fine.'

"That confidence comes from having the facts, so we can't just tell parents, 'Specialization is bad.' We have to tell them why," he continues. "We need to give them facts to support their choice by discussing overuse and burnout and showing them that multi-sport athletes can be even more successful athletically than those who specialize."

When talking to parents about the topic, the more specifics you can offer, the more your words will resonate. What athletic directors and experts have found sinks in deepest are examples of how sport specialization does not correlate with future athletic success.

"The way I explain it to parents is that the earlier you specialize, the earlier you peak," Naylor says. "The athlete who plays one sport at age 12 is likely to peak at age 16--the opposite of what you want if you're trying to get to the next level. Athletes who specialize later peak later and they reach a much higher level of play."

"You get a lot of athletic development by doing several different sports when you're young," Brenner says. "Developing overall conditioning, balance, and coordination through multiple sports ultimately makes a far better athlete than only using your body in one way."

Brown likes to give parents examples of multi-sport athletes who have successfully gone on to college or the pros. "A few years back, we had an athlete from our school go on to the WNBA," he says. "She played soccer, basketball, and softball for us. I always use her as an example, as well as other athletes whose stories I can find."

Parents will also open their ears to information about college scholarships, and they need to be educated about two things: the long odds of their child getting the kind of scholarship they're envisioning, and the fact that college coaches generally find Division I-caliber athletes no matter where they are, so playing year round for an expensive club is not necessary. They also need to know that more and more college coaches are going on record saying they want multi-sport athletes, not ones who only play their sport.

Jack Parker, Head Men's Ice Hockey Coach at Boston University, says he is starting to recruit more athletes from out-of-state instead of Massachusetts high school and club stars who play hockey almost year round. "By the time I see these kids, they are bored, burned out, and often injured," he says. "There are more players ready to play college hockey in California and Texas right now than in Massachusetts because they don't play it year round. Specialization is killing hockey in our state."

University of Northern Colorado Head Wrestling Coach Jack Maughan has similar feelings about sport specialization and now recruits multi-sport athletes as much as possible. "Wrestling is so life-consuming," Maughan told the Greeley (Colo.) Tribune. "Sometimes when they get here they are burned out. The goal is to get to college and then that's it. If they have done it all of their lives and they still have that hunger, then sure I'd recruit them. But that's not always the case."

Few things will get a parent's attention quicker than risks to their child's health. Thus, facts about injuries are also important to provide. In an article he wrote for Pediatrics last year, Brenner explained that young athletes who perform the motions of their sport over and over without a break--often before they have perfected the proper mechanics--are at risk for injuries to bones, muscles, and tendons. In fact, research indicates that half of all injuries seen by pediatric sports medicine doctors today are related to overuse.

"Each sport has particular injuries that we see over and over in kids who play year round," Brenner says. "We see runners and field hockey players with stress fractures of the tibia in the lower leg, baseball pitchers with stress fractures in the upper arm, and gymnasts with stress fractures in the spine. Tendonitis is common in swimmers and baseball, volleyball, and basketball players."

At best, overuse injuries sideline players temporarily. At worst, they can end a career. "It depends on how early the athlete comes in and how well they adhere to the treatment plan," Brenner says. "I've seen cases where kids ended up with chronic pain."

As many coaches and administrators have seen, the risks aren't only physical. Athletes who specialize are vulnerable to burnout. Parents may have a hard time believing that their child may tire of a sport they love, so Naylor uses an analogy to help them understand how it can happen.

"I compare it to what would happen if you ate your favorite dinner every night for six months," Naylor says. "'You might love it to begin with, but by the end, you'd never want to see it again.' The same is true for kids who play too much of one sport.

"I've had high school athletes who play their sport year round tell me, 'I don't even know why I play anymore,'" he continues. "Kids who specialize often end up leaving their sport a lot earlier than those who play multiple sports."

Along with talking to parents about the risks of sport specialization, it's crucial to explain the huge benefits of multi-sport participation. One big selling point is that athletes who play multiple sports get to experience different roles on different teams.

"They might be the star hockey player, but they're the backup third baseman on the baseball team," Parker says. "When they get to college and suddenly they're not the star on my team, they already know how to handle that. It makes them a better teammate."

Kuntz emphasizes that these kinds of learning experiences offer payoffs far beyond the athletic arena. "Playing a sport they're not so good at is often where the most personal growth takes place," he says. "When they're out in the job world, they've experienced being the leader but also taking direction and digging in when they're not in a leadership role."

Experiencing coaches with different styles also helps athletes grow. "Learning to work hard for different types of coaches will benefit them later," Smith says. "It correlates directly to being able to work for different types of bosses."

Another key piece of the discussion involves helping parents see that the high school sports experience is inherently different than the club sport experience. "When a student plays a high school sport in each season, they're on a team that has to comply with academic standards, training rules, and eligibility rules, and they usually have a coach who is an educator," Brown says. "They're also staying connected to their school and that connection helps them stay motivated. These are all huge advantages over having a child go off and play a club sport year round. It's important to make sure parents understand the difference."

Brown illustrates the point with some impressive figures. "I keep track of our honor roll numbers," he says. "Last year, 45 percent of our one-sport athletes made the honor roll. Fifty-nine percent of our two-sport athletes made the honor roll, and 81 percent of our three-sport athletes made the honor roll. Playing multiple school sports is a pretty easy sell once parents hear those numbers."

Any plan to encourage multi-sport participation would not be complete without discussing conflicts with club sports. "It's difficult, because some kids are going to make the choice to play club, and if they also want to compete on multiple high school teams, the seasons are going to overlap," says Smith. "You don't want to discourage them from playing an additional sport at your school, but at the same time, you can't have athletes missing high school games and practices for club events."

Naylor believes athletic directors who look for ways to accommodate club participation without compromising their high school teams are on the right track. "We aren't going to get rid of the club sports phenomenon anytime soon," he says. "We need to get beyond the turf battles and find ways to work together."

Kuntz encourages his coaches to allow their players a little latitude. "We're clear that if it's a contest, the athletes' obligation is to the high school sport," he says. "But we work with them when it comes to missing practices. I feel that if an athlete plays fall soccer for us and runs track for us in the spring, but misses two track practices out of 60 in order to attend a club soccer tournament, that's a pretty easy compromise. They're still getting the multi-sport experience. However, if the coach is not okay with a player missing practice, I always back the coach."

The next step, Naylor believes, is a lot more discussion between club and high school sports. "It really needs to start with everyone sitting down and asking, 'What is the objective of kids playing sports?'" he says. "'Why are we all doing this?' Ultimately, club and high school people may need to agree to disagree, but still find ways to collaborate and support each other so the system is better for kids. The goal is to stop pulling kids in two different directions and undermining each other."

In the end, dialogue among all parties--administrators, coaches, athletes, and parents--is the key to reversing the trend of sport specialization. "I think we're at a point where more coaches and administrators understand the downsides of specialization, but the understanding can't stop there," Naylor says. "It's really important to keep this issue on the front burner and to continue talking to parents and kids."

"There's no question that middle school and high school athletes benefit from playing multiple sports," Brenner says. "The challenge continues to be getting that message across to athletes and parents in a convincing way."

When and how can you get parents to hear your message about sport specialization? Dory Smith, Athletic Director at Villa Duchesne High School in St. Louis, has found that her department's preseason parents meetings offer a great opportunity. "We have one big meeting in the fall for parents of all athletes, and I always bring this issue up," she says. "I've learned that examples get through to parents better than anything else, so I tell them success stories about our multi-sport athletes."

Letting parents hear from an expert can also help. Adam Naylor, Director of the Athletic Enhancement Center at Boston University and a sports psychologist, suggests bringing in a sports psychologist, athletic trainer, sports medicine physician, college coach, or college athlete. "Your special speaker will probably be saying the same thing you are, but they may make a bigger impact," he says.

Ideally, athletic directors can also get the message out to parents of younger athletes, when sport specialization is really kicking in. "I talk about it at the beginning-of-the-year meeting with our middle school parents and I also send a letter home about it," says Tim Brown, Athletic Director at Mt. Anthony Union High School in Bennington, Vt. "This is usually their first experience with interscholastic sports, so it's a great opportunity to put the emphasis on experience, life skills, and participation--and make sure it stays there."

And sometimes, parents just need someone to tell them that all the talk about sport specialization they hear from other parents is not gospel. "For every parent who envisions their child as a professional athlete and wants them to play their sport 12 months a year, there are a lot of parents who just want their child to enjoy the experience and who would love to feel better about that choice," Brown says. "Our job is to communicate the message to the majority early, while they are still open to hearing a different philosophy."

Athletic directors attempting to encourage multi-sport participation are often hit with a tough question from parents: "My child is passionate about his sport and playing it year-round is what he wants. What's wrong with that?"

"There's nothing wrong with being passionate about something--it's a great thing," says Adam Naylor, Director of the Athletic Enhancement Center at Boston University and a sports psychologist. "But just because a child loves something doesn't mean it's healthy to give them as much of it as they want. Parents need help understanding that kids aren't always the best judges of what's best for themselves."

When Naylor encounters a child who is driven about a sport, he urges parents to help them channel that drive into different activities to avoid overuse and burnout. "I tell them, 'Get your child to take a break and sign up for something different,'" he says. "Nine times out of 10, they'll love the new sport two weeks into it. And when they go back to their primary sport, they'll love it even more. By helping their child diversify, they're actually preserving that passion."

Dory Smith, Athletic Director at Villa Duchesne High School in St. Louis, tells parents this story. "A tennis player I know stopped playing basketball early in high school to concentrate on tennis," she says. "He went on to play tennis at an NCAA Division III school, and by his junior year, he went to his mother and said, 'Why did you ever let me quit basketball?' She said, 'You were the one who wanted to do tennis all the time. You wanted to be at the club by 5 a.m.' And he responded, 'I was too young to know what I wanted. Now I really regret missing out on high school basketball.'

"This is not uncommon," Smith continues. "I was at a conference recently where a panel of athletes shared their experiences as one-sport athletes and all of them talked about wishing they had played on more high school teams instead. Once parents hear that, they realize it's their job to see the big picture, even if their child thinks they want to eat, breathe, and sleep one sport year round."

Tim Twellman, Head Girls' Soccer Coach at Villa Duchesne, urges parents to discuss the issue honestly with their child. "Is it really the child who wants to play year-round?" he asks. "When was the last time the parents asked the child what he or she really wants and if he or she is really having fun? If they ask the question and make it clear that any answer is okay, they are likely to find out their child just wants some time to relax and be with their friends, but that they feel a lot of pressure to please the adults in their life."

Twellman is speaking not just from a coach's perspective. All three of his children earned NCAA Division I soccer scholarships and one son now plays professional soccer. Still, when they were young, Twellman practiced what he now preaches.

"Even if my kids had wanted to specialize in soccer, I wouldn't have let them," he says. "They all played multiple sports throughout high school and they have told me how glad they are that they did."


Wish we would have encouraged our son to lay off the soccer. He played
it year round for years and loved it very much. Now at 16 he will be
having surgery on both hips from overuse in his growth years!
Hopefully, he will come back from his operations ready to enjoy moving
with out pain.

-Delinda Irvine

What an outstanding article! I took the liberty to forward to many other coaches. I encourage my Football players to be 3 sport athletes!!!!! Others at our school do not do the same. Excellent research and thought provoking ideas. Thanks for sharing such valuable information.

--Coach Moyer
Head Football Coach
Conrad Weiser H.S.
Robesonia, PA

My name is Tony Griffith and I am the boys basketball coach at Westminster
School in Simsbury, CT. We are a boarding and day school with a strong
athletic tradition. Because we are the smallest school in our league, we
must have kids that are multi-sport athletes. We "fight the good fight"
with parents and kids year after year.

I agree with the thoughts in your article. But nothing will change until
college coaches are more vocal. Obviously, soccer is a year round sport
for many kids. But until Anson Dorrence and Bruce Arena tell kids to play
basketball and lacrosse, nothing will change. AAU basketball is taking
over our adolescent landscape, but until Coach K and Bill Self and Pat
Summit say STOP - go play football and baseball, nothing will change. 10
year olds are throwing curve balls for hundreds of innings. 12 year olds
are swimming hours each day. Until Michael Phelps says, "go play
basketball" nothing will change.

I am not cynical. I fight the sport specialization on a daily basis with
kids. We lose kids to Choate, Loomis-Chaffee, Hotchkiss, and other
schools, because we insist on three seasons.

College coaches need to speak up.

--Anthony Griffith
Mathematics Instructor
Boys Basketball Coach
Westminster School
Simsbury, CT

With all due respect I disagree with your Idea of promoting multi-sport athletes as an idea of preventing injury. You mention you 16 year old son and playing soccer. I was a 3 sport athlete growing up (baseball, basketball & soccer). I was an all state soccer player and a highly scouted baseball player. I was so broken down that my D1 baseball career was done just as it started. Now as a doctor I can see the effects of not having an off-season. You claim that is the problem with playing 1 sport - I disagree. With one sport there is a main season and clubs. A 3 sport athlete is always in prime time so to speak, there is no off-season (because you are always in season). Not to mention, now you're asking this athlete to be in condition for another sport, one that he/she has not trained for. There needs to be down time for the athlete, whether he/she is a 1 or 3 sport athlete. There has to be time for healing - both physical and mental. There needs to be time for conditioning. I do agree with the idea of burn out with one sport athletes. I see it too as a high school baseball coach. However, this can be solved by restructuring their club play, just as easily as it is to have them play another sport. I getting tired of the idea that was pushed on me that if you're an athlete at you school that it somehow your "job" to keep all the sports going and make them better. If an athlete likes other sports and wants to play them - fine. Two sports spaced out with both healing and training time is fine. But the last thing I would do would be "educate" athletes and parents that they should go play X because somehow it will make them better at Y.

--Dr. Darren T. Koch
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