Multi-Sport Participation in High School

Originally published in Free Play: A Decade of Writings on Youth Sports.

Ohio State University won the 2015 NCAA Football National Championship, and 42 of its 47 players recruited by Head Coach Urban Meyer played multiple sports in high school. The 2015 Super Bowl featured the Seattle Seahawks with 49 players who played multiple sports in high school on its 53-man roster playing the New England Patriots with 47 multi-sport athletes. Twenty-year-old Nick Krygios qualified for the 2015 Australian Open Quarterfinals several years after representing Australia in age-group basketball competitions.

Parents and youth coaches dismiss these anecdotes because these players could afford to play multiple sports because they were more athletic or more talented than their peers. The evidence suggests otherwise. Neither Super Bowl team featured a player who was considered a 5-star recruit in high school; the starting lineups combined for four 4-star recruits and 40 players who were considered 3-star recruits or lower. Seattle’s starting lineup averaged 2.4 stars, led by quarterback Russell Wilson who was considered a better baseball prospect, and New England’s starting lineup averaged 2.3 stars. Very few of the Super Bowl participants were considered elite talents in high school, and many elite 5-star prospects never made the NFL. The elites at 17 and 18 years old are not the elites at 21 years old and beyond. 

Rather than the more talented and more athletic being able to play multiple sports athletes, the research suggests that these players are more athletic and more talented as adults because they played multiple sports as adolescents. Athletes who participate in multiple sports and specialize later have more success as adults.

The rush to specialize fits the 10,000-hour narrative that was popularized in the last decade and used by coaches to convince parents of the necessity of single-sport participation. The local AAU basketball programs in southern California told parents of recreation players that their children had to play year-round at 8 years old or they would be left behind and never make a high-school team. 

The 10,000-hour rule is a myth: 28% of elite Australian athletes reached elite status within 4 years of taking up the sport for the first time, rather than the required 10 years. Soccer players spent between 2700 hours (Barcelona) and 4700 hours (AJ Auxerre, France) in practice from u8 through u19, less than half of the mythical 10,000 hours.

Rene Wormhoudt, currently the strength & conditioning coach for the Netherlands Football Federation, devised the Athletic Skills Model to create a sequence of development where the child becomes a good mover; the good mover becomes an athlete; and the athlete becomes a specialist. At the Ajax Academy, players compete in soccer and practice for 4400 hours up to u19s, but the academy introduces other sports, and the players engage in multilateral training. They participate in badminton, dodgeball, gymnastics, and judo. Badminton develops footwork and hand-eye coordination. Dodgeball incorporates split vision, hand-eye coordination, and collaboration. Judo develops strength, trust, control, and overcoming fear. These activities accompany the soccer training and add variation, which creates a better learning environment. 

Wormhoudt noted that the club had not lost any players to other sports, but suggested that good movers could excel at other sports such as tennis, basketball, and field hockey because they require athleticism and movement skills as precursors to specialized skill development. This talent transfer has been used to develop elite talents in other sports in many countries, notably Olympic sprinters turned bobsledders Lauryn Williams and Lolo Jones. Talent transfer based on innate abilities and ability developed through playing other sports can accelerate the acquisition of expert performance.13 The sports with the highest transfer to elite performance in another sport were sprinting, basketball, and soccer. 

In total, 48.4% of talent transfers occurred between the ages of 16 and 21, which could indicate an ideal time frame to change sports. When women’s rowing exploded as an NCAA scholarship sport, many new programs recruited basketball players and offered them the opportunity to transfer their athleticism and size. I coached an average high-school basketball player who became an elite college rower. This age window represents the time when many athletes quit sports, either because they are cut from a high-school varsity team or because they complete their high-school careers and are not recruited to play collegiately. Rather than end their competitive careers, these athletes could transition to other opportunities if they develop a solid base of movement skills and athleticism, not just specialized sport skills. When lacrosse was new to the west coast, an NCAA D1 university recruited a friend to be among their first players because he was a very good high-school soccer and baseball player, and the lacrosse coach felt this combination would enable him to transition to lacrosse, extending his competitive career for an additional 4 years. 

Children become good movers, then athletes, then specialists, as Wormhoudt suggested. Multi-sport participation enhances this progression because of the variation in movements and movement skills, as well as various psychosocial benefits, such as soccer players facing their fears in judo. The NCAA National Champions and Super Bowl participants were not able to play multiple sports because they were more talented and more athletic; they became more athletic and more talented when they reached adulthood because they played multiple sports. Nobody remembers the 5-star quarterbacks ranked ahead of Wilson when he graduated from high school, but everyone knows the Super-Bowl winning quarterback. As many have said: You can be elite early, or you can be elite late, but not both. Specializing prior to adolescence to be elite in a sport in adulthood has the opposite effect; the best players are the best athletes who are the best movers, and they develop these skills through multilateral sports participation. 

Deliberate Play and Old-School Development

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletter 5.26. Now available in Kindle and paperback. Subscribe to the weekly newsletter here.

Basketball has split down the middle. Trainers and those who believe there are too many “meaningless” games, and players should spend their entire offseason doing drills represent one side. On the other side stands the status quo, an environment of weekend tournaments for 52 weeks a year, often with one practice for every three to five games. The old-school approach is forgotten: nobody combines workouts with open gym runs or pick-up games at the park. Regardless of whether a coach or trainer is pro-training or pro-games, he or she favors a coach-centered, structured environment. Read more

3v3 Basketball and Youth Skill Development

The United States and the Olympics

I am pretty sure that I have written this article somewhere roughly 3 years ago after attending a USOC-sponsored coaching conference and realizing that most of the people were sycophants and basically nuts. However, the issue continues to gain momentum, and because nobody wants to argue a realistic position, here we go: Read more

Illustrating the difference between Peak by Friday and player development philosophies

Last weekend, I was the assistant referee for an u16 state cup semifinal game in which the #1 seed lost. This was the third time that I had refereed the losing team, and they had won 9-1 and 18-0 in the previous games. In the 18-0 game in February, their striker played all but the last five minutes as a striker and scored 11 goals. Their goalie never left the penalty box and touched the ball twice in the entire game. Players never switched positions or tried something new. They scored and scored and scored again.  Read more

Where is the development in youth basketball?

In the last two weeks, I have officiated 10 middle-school and freshmen basketball games, boys and girls. The complete lack of everything is astonishing. Many of the players are not fit (asking to come out after two minutes because they are tired). Basic coordination is lacking. Because the players are fatigued easily and uncoordinated, basic skills like dribbling and shooting layups become far more challenging than they should be for 13 and 14 year-olds, many of whom started to play on teams when they were six or seven years old.  Read more

The 24-Hour Athlete

I put this packet together for my team last year after I witnessed some of their lifestyle habits.

24-Hour Athlete – Lemvig

The Importance of a Long Term Athlete Development Approach

Originally published by Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2012.

When I coached a professional women’s basketball team in Sweden, I assisted my best player with her u15 girls’ team. When I returned to the States after the season, I assisted an u14 girls’ AAU team. The teams were vastly different. The U.S. team was bigger, faster, stronger, and more skilled. The team went to AAU Nationals and finished pretty well, top 12 if I remember. They were a good team, and the team’s core had been together for several years and attended the same school. Read more

Traditions Die Hard: Where is science-based or research-directed coaching?

The Internet makes information available like never before, yet there appears to be no changes in the way that the majority of coaches teach children. Last week, I worked out a college player during the lunch break of the college’s youth camp. I stayed and watched some of the camp. Despite having a limited number of players and enough balls for each player plus six baskets to use, I saw lines of players standing around and very little action. Today, I attended a practice in India and saw children dribble through cones for 40 minutes doing a drill that was taught at an NBA-sponsored coach’s clinic. Finally, I graded papers for my Introduction to Coaching practice plan assignment, and nearly every student started his or her practice with jogging around the field or court followed by stretching. Every student used a very linear model: stretching, block practice/technique drill, block practice/technique drill, scrimmage. Every sport was the same. Read more

Burnout and Long-Term Player Development

Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development presents a gradual four-stage progression for player development over a period of years. The book outlines an alternative to the early specialization, game-heavy model used by most youth leagues and programs.

In Massachusetts, youth hockey organizations are making changes similar to those outlined in Cross Over. The typical approach to youth hockey is similar to the common approach to youth basketball:

In some hockey programs, these young skaters would already be playing on the full length of ice, 200 feet long, the same as TD Garden, home to the NHL’s Boston Bruins. The littlest players might have dozens of games each season – stretching through much of the year – and spend hours traveling to their opponents’ rinks. In warmer months, their parents might spend hundreds of dollars for hockey camps.

The youngest basketball players play full-court 5v5 games, just like professional players, and many play on 10′ rims, just like the NBA. Players play in tournaments throughout the year.

The change in Massachusetts has come, in part, because all the games and early specialization are leading to less competitive success when the players reach their teens and beyond.

At Boston University this winter, only three players come from Massachusetts; a decade ago, the number would have been about 15, said coach Jack Parker.

“There are more recruitable players from the state of Texas and the state of California than from the state of Massachusetts,’’ Parker said. “That is unbelievable.’’

He is among the coaches and enthusiasts who say the dwindling numbers of homegrown hockey stars can be blamed in part on rigorous team schedules, with too many games and too little practice.

“I know kids who are 12 years old and are playing 100 games a year,’’ Parker said. “It’s absolutely insane.’’

Additionally, the over-competition at young ages is leading to reduced participation.

Many players, especially the youngest, are dropping out of hockey programs. Over the last five years in Massachusetts, about 16,000 youngsters quit before they turned 8, according to Roger Grillo, regional manager for USA Hockey’s developmental program.

“The research shows that it’s burnout,’’ Grillo, a former hockey coach at Brown University, said of the declining participation. “It’s too serious too soon.’’

Personally, I think eight-years-old is too young to play on a youth basketball team. I advise parents to start their child in martial arts, swim lessons, gymnastics and soccer at early ages and allow them to explore other activities as they get older. Players should play a sport recreationally before committing to a competitive team environment.

I know basketball skill trainers who work with four and five-year-olds because there is money to be made. Parents believe these children will have a head start by starting early. Instead, like the hockey players, this early start is more likely to lead to an early drop-out.

I have not seen many studies of basketball programs and participation rates, as USA Basketball does not focus on developmental programs to the extent that USA Hockey is involved. However, I know many youth coaches who believe that girls, especially, are leaving basketball to play softball, soccer or volleyball. While the migration may be due to many things, the impact of the over-competition and the emotional and physical burnout from the constant year-round play is certainly one reason.

USA Hockey distributed age-appropriate guidelines (much like Cross Over) to coaches and organizations (the impetus behind this site). The emphasis is on more training and learning and less competition.

During a hockey game, Grillo said, even the best player might only touch the puck for a total of about 90 seconds. During practice, however, players spend much more time handling the puck and, therefore, learning to play, he said.

Basketball is the same. Several years ago, I tried to convince a player to spend the off-season training, rather than playing on multiple teams. After one weekend where the player injured her hamstring during her seventh game of the weekend, I questioned her.

She said that she had to play on the teams to improve. She said that she needed to improve her ball handling and her shooting. I probed further. She never once played as the primary ball handler in the seven games and she took about 10 shots per game. In a weekend spent entirely in the gym, she took 70 shots (+ warm-ups) and never practiced her ball handling. How is that going to help her improve?

To improve youth sports, we need to remember the reasons that children play the sport and acknowledge the differences between athletes at different ages. With a more age-appropriate progression of skills and development, players gradually improve and grow more competitive.

The organizations in Massachusetts diagnosed a problem and developed guidelines to improve its product and better meet the needs of the young athletes. Hopefully youth basketball organizations transition to more age-appropriate guidelines before a big problem (reduced participation) develops. Basketball programs needs to learn from programs in other sports and be proactive rather than relying on the game’s popularity to provide new participants from year to year. The goal should be to provide the best possible programs and not rely on the NBA’s heavy marketing or the ubiquitousness of basketball on television to maintain participation numbers.

By Brian McCormick
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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