Throughout the high school community, it is generally accepted that playing multiple sports is beneficial to student-athletes. Similarly acknowledged are the risks in specialization. A recent study conducted by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health and commissioned by the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) showed that injury rates are higher for athletes who specialize in one sport.
However, many schools and their athletic directors still struggle to increase multi-sport participation. At the 2016 National Athletic Directors Conference, a workshop on multiple-sport participation was conducted by Matt Hensley, CMAA, assistant principal for extracurricular activities at Mahomet-Seymour (Illinois) High School, and Ernest Robertson, CAA, director of athletics at the Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay, Florida.
The presenters identified drawbacks to sport specialization and promoted the values of multiple-sport participation. Hensley believes recognizing multiple-sport athletes within schools is a great way for athletic
directors and coaches to encourage student-athlete participation in multiple sports.
“Tri-athletes are awarded with letterman jacket patches for each year a student participates in three sports at our school,” Hensley said. “Four-year tri-athletes receive a banner as a souvenir to place their patches on or display their achievements however they may like.”
Showing appreciation to student-athletes participating in multiple sports may not draw others into another sport, but could boost retention of those playing more than one sport. Awarding not just three-sport athletes but even two-sport athletes can be a step toward reducing the number of athletes who quit other sports to focus on one sport, according to Hensley. He also suggests incorporating ways to recognize those student-athletes who may participate in only one sport but make an impact outside the athletic arena – for example, students who play a sport but are also involved in activities such as theatre, debate, 4H and speech.
“Most importantly, you need to create a culture in your coaching staff of common aims in training and shared core values across all sports,” Hensley said.
Creating this culture encourages multiple-sport participation, and valuable experiences in all sports allows the student-athlete to transition smoothly from one athletic season to another. The culture created around interscholastic athletics also should be consistent throughout youth programs in the same school district.
“Our high school programs maintain a consistent, clear message between coaches, parents and athletes all the way down to our youngest youth leagues,” Hensley said.
Hensley goes on to talk about how his school’s message can encourage multiple-sport participation and the value of interscholastic athletics. By engaging young people in multiple sports from a young age and showing that the value of participation is best served in the interscholastic arena, keeps athletes from specializing or joining club sports outside of school.
In his presentation, Robertson said that single-sport specialization includes the risk of burnout, overuse injuries, limited social and emotional growth, pressure from parents and coaches, and, most importantly, the fact that specialization doesn’t guarantee an opportunity to play beyond high school.
“We want to make it known that these opportunities to participate in multiple sports, build relationships, gain life lessons, etc., will only come during the four years of high school,” Hensley said.
Out of the three major sports in the United States – baseball, basketball and football – seven percent or fewer high school boys go on to compete at the collegiate level in each sport. Only 7.2 percent or fewer compete at the college level for three major girls’ sports in the United States – basketball, soccer and volleyball.
Robertson said the benefits of participating in multiple sports include enhanced athletic ability, learning new roles as a teammate, multi-sport situational experience and the fact that college coaches like to see athletes who competed in multiple sports.
Robertson’s presentation included quotes from some credible sources about multiple-sport participation including USA Football which said, “the lateral movement basketball players use to stay in front of defenders is the same skill that shortstops develop to field ground balls and offensive linemen work on to better pass protect.”
He also referenced a quote from Alabama Football Coach Nick Saban: “I like guys who play multiple sports because of the competitive situations they are in.”
Specialization can be even more devastating for rural high schools that struggle to field enough players for teams. Multi-sport athletes are vital to many rural sports programs, and the loss of athletes to non-high school teams can severely hurt the quality and the ability to have a team or multiple teams in a sport.
As long as a chance for an athletic scholarship – however small – remains, specialization will continue. High school administrators nationwide, like Hensley and Robertson, understand that sharing the benefits of multi-sport participation must also continue.
Bryce Woodall was an intern in the NFHS Publications/Communications Department. He is a senior at Franklin (Indiana) College studying public relations.