The Whys of Multi-sport Participation

You’re hearing it. The message is getting through to parents – Multi-sport athletes get recruited more than specialized athletes. Multi-sport athletes get injured less. Multi-sport is the way to go. Oh, that athlete we love was also a multi-sport athlete! But what does that mean and why? What if my kid only likes one sport? Do I force them to play something they don’t want to play? I don’t have time to add more sports to our calendar. The coach wants us to play all year. They aren’t good enough to make the team on any other sports, so then what?

All are valid concerns being echoed through the youth sports community as we try to do right by our kids and weed out the good advice from the bad. So let’s take a step back and look at the WHY of multi-sport participation.

  1. There are skills in other sports that can add benefit and contribute to a kid’s main or favorite sport. For example, basketball players bring help-side defense, offensive motion and picks to the lacrosse field for a better understanding of the game. Track brings sprint speed and power. Cross country brings endurance. Soccer brings field spacing and strategy, gymnastics brings balance, control and strength.
  2. Overuse injuries occur when a child repeats the same motions over and over. Different sports use different muscle groups, muscle fibers and planes of motion, allowing for healing time and development of all muscle groups when you change it up.
  3. Burn-out is very common among kids, even if there aren’t any signs of it when they are younger. By the time they head off to that college they worked so hard to get in to, they may not have the same fire after they sign on. After years of focusing on getting an offer, lots of kids find they lose the drive after they lose their main source of motivation.
  4. There’s a chance they may decide this sport is not what they want as their main focus. Without having other interests a kid can get very lost when they leave their sport. Ask tons of college players who didn’t go on to play just how lost they felt when suddenly their entire focus of childhood was gone.

What does it mean to be a “multi-sport” athlete? Typically this has meant playing two or more sports in high school, but it doesn’t have too. If your daughter is a varsity, or highly-trained, lacrosse player and a terrible soccer player, and those are the only two varsity sports that fit in your schedule, does that mean they can’t play two sports? If your son doesn’t want to ride the bench on a football team of 100 kids just to be well-rounded, are there other options?

Multi-sport is cross training. You can play your second sport at any level, and by that I mean – it could be pick up neighborhood basketball games with some additional weight sessions in the garage and some running. It could be three days a week in the pool swimming laps and two days of yoga. It could be teen fitness classes, rec level tennis league, or rock climbing classes. It could be cycling and archery. If you’re staying active, using different muscle groups, learning, and getting your heart rate up on a consistent basis then you’re getting the benefits a multi-sport athlete.

Ask any sports medicine doctor, athletic trainer, or physical therapist about the trend in youth sports and you will hear about the astounding increase in sports related surgeries that our kids are having before they’ve even finished growing. This is a huge long-term concern and we’re only adding more games to our seasons, not less. Games put an incredible strain on the body and the recovery time is laughable. Five to six games in a weekend in intense heat is easily a common estimate if not more. How much time are these athletes putting into mobility of their joints, strengthening their stabilizing muscles and ligaments, balance, fixing mechanical imbalances? How much focus is put on fitting them with the proper footwear, orthotics, refueling correctly and rest? Not nearly as much time as we put into adding more tournaments and extending seasons, that’s for sure. Throwing more Gatorade at them is not the answer. If we are going decide to allow them to be pushed like professional athletes then they need to be taking care of themselves like professional athletes–that means cross-training with different sports, rest, and building strength and flexibility. Our kids are playing more games than some professionals over the course of a year and most of them don’t do any more stretching than a 5-minute dynamic warm up before games and practice. Female athletes spend significantly less time in the weight room than male athletes, raising their risks of injury even higher.

But what if the kids love it and just want to play all year? My kids would love to play lacrosse all year, but they would also like to eat pizza seven days a week for dinner, sleep until 2 pm, go to school one day a week and get an allowance that has no cap on it. At some point we have to look at the long-term ramifications. There is a big world out there with a lot to explore. Even if they do go pro in their sport one day – actually, especially if they go pro at their sport, taking care of their body so it can play sports as long as possible has got to factor into our decisions. How many high school seniors do you know that ended up getting an awesome college opportunity only to red shirt their freshman year or even quit because of an ACL tear, stress fractures, or labrum repair? I can name a large handful.

Very few of us who are now parents specialized in a sport, and even fewer of us did it at the age that these kids are starting. I’d wager that many of us are feeling the arthritis that came with a life-long love of athletics. Imagine what our kids’ joints that are being put through significantly more stress are going to feel like if we don’t step back and see the big picture. Our kids need breaks from their sport so that they can continue to play it as long as they hope to play. They need attention placed on keeping their bodies healthy and they need recovery. Incorporating a multi-sport approach is a smart way to ensure their favorite sport is never out of reach, and that if one day they decide to part ways with that sport they will have other interests to keep them active.