After spending many hours watching the Olympic Games it spurred some thought. Not the part where I was enraged that in the year 2012 the men’s 100m sprint final couldn’t be seen live on television on a Sunday afternoon but rather at 11 p.m., or the fact that every time AT&T promised to record Olympic weightlifting it ended up being something else. No, I’m talking about something much more positive, the athletes themselves.
There seems to be a trend these days that more kids play fewer sports growing up. Most call it early specialization. Is it some sort of crazy epidemic that’s going to kill American sports? No, but I think it’s worth acknowledging. Much of it comes down to money. Travel, weekend tournament teams and AAU teams generate cash and allegedly exposure. Leading us to the all important scholarship. It is likely that many believe the more their kid plays a sport, then the better he or she will be leading to more travel teams, tournaments and exposure which can ultimately lead to that mythical scholarship. Now, I believe practice IS IMPORTANT. But let’s also consider in the legendary words of Allen Iverson, “We talkin’ about practice.” As demonstrated by Brazilian soccer players, Russian tennis players talked about in the book The Talent Code, or great hockey coach Gary Dineen that I was lucky enough to learn from, the practice, done well, is a far greater advantage to the number of games that you can play.
Getting back to the multiple sport issue. Two athletes that just competed in the London Games come to mind. Olympic weightlifter Holley Mangold played football in high school, according to Wikipedia went to college on a track scholarship and didn’t begin weightlifting until a mere 4 years ago. Jamaican sprinter Yohan Blake was apparently a great cricket player at a young age but is now one of the world’s fastest men. What do former AL MVP Joe Mauer, NY Giants linebacker Mark Herzlich, Cy Young Award winner Tom Glavine, Chargers star Antonio Gates, UFC fighter Kenny Florian, NBA MVP Allen Iverson and my friend Jennie Bill all have in common? All of these phenomenal athletes excelled in at least one other sport throughout their high school years and in some cases further. Joe Mauer was the Gatorade National Player of the Year in football and was offered a scholarship to play football at Florida State. Former Boston College football player Mark Herzlich could have chosen to play lacrosse at perennial powerhouse and smart kid school Johns Hopkins . Tom Glavine was drafted by the NHL’s Los Angeles Kings. Most San Diegans and NFL fans know that Antonio Gates never played college football, only basketball at Kent State. Did you know that Chargers defensive lineman Antonio Garay was also an All-American wrestler at Boston College? Now retired UFC fighter Kenny Florian played soccer at Boston College. (Do you sense someone is a BC fan?) Allen Iverson was the best high school quarterback in the state of Virginia as a sophomore. Jennie Bill was not only a scholarship hockey and softball player at Providence College but has since earned her doctorate degree in music and is now an amazing performer and teacher. It’s clear that none of these people picked just one activity at a young age to specialize in and it didn’t prevent them from becoming great.
For whatever reason it seems that choosing just one sport to play at an early age, say prior to high school, is becoming more popular. Call me Grandpa but years ago when I was in high school, if you were an athlete it meant you played multiple sports. That’s not always the case these days with some young kids playing upwards of 162 baseball games in a given year with fall and summer leagues, travel ball, and weekend tournament teams. Enduring this kind of repetition in a given sport can lead to overuse injuries or just plain burnout. Coordination, movement skills, better overall athleticism, as well as leadership skills can be gained by enjoying different activities. We all know recovery is important. Simply by playing another sport kids can let other parts of their bodies heal. Practicing new movement patterns will benefit them. Not only that, but young people may just discover a new sport that they enjoy by simply having the time to do so.
My message to kids and parents out there is to have fun, work hard and be competitive but don’t be afraid to be a well rounded athlete. If there is one thing that I have learned over the years and I think I first heard it from my Dad, it’s that if you’re good enough someone will find you. It’s ok to take some time off and miss a tournament for a team that in reality probably doesn’t matter. That and you don’t have to pick a sport at age 11 and start training like a pro. So, should kids play multiple sports? Yes. It will make them a better and more well rounded athlete, as well as person.
– Mike Baltren