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. 

Making sense of generational arguments about skill development

I don’t understand the following argument:

“Players from previous generations had more skill.”

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“Players from previous generations were three-sport athletes.”

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“Players from previous generations played more pickup games.”

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“Players need to specialize earlier and train privately with individual coaches to improve their skills.” Read more

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

Searching for elite athletic talent

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, January/February 2016.

During a recent u14 girls soccer game, I watched the younger brothers play 3v3 tackle football between the fields. The parents were invested in the soccer game, and they never bothered the boys who ranged from 8 to 12 years old. The pickup football game was more interesting. There were no parents shouting directions or intervening when there was an argument or an injury. The boys figured it out on their own.  Read more

Movers to athletes to specialists

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports & Fitness, October 2015.

As their 13-year-old daughters played in their first soccer game of the spring season, the mothers discussed their dedication to their children, and their children’s dedication to the game. One mother spoke about her older daughter, a high-school sophomore, who missed the fall soccer season because of knee surgery. This caught my attention, and I scanned the field: Four of the 22 players – 12 and 13 years old – on the field wore bulky knee braces indicative of some form of injury.  Read more

Youth sports: What has changed and what needs to be fixed?

Every day, I read another article that is critical of youth sports. Identifying the problems is easy, but few articles suggest real, practical solutions, and I am unsure whether the suggested solutions would make a practical difference and alleviate the problems.  Read more

Grassroots basketball development and the escalation trap

Grassroots basketball is a dynamic system, and as with other systems, it is susceptible to certain traps. One trap is the escalation trap:

 “Escalation, being a reinforcing feedback loop, builds explonentially. Therefore it can carry a competition to extremes faster than anyone would believe possible. If nothing is done to break the loop, the process usually ends with one or both of the competitors breaking down,” (Meadows, 2008; p. 125).

Read more

Early Specialization Too Soon

Originally published in Los Angeles Sports and Fitness, May/June 2013.

As a seventh grader dribbled around his back and attacked the basket during a middle school championship game, the parents commented to each other about the quality of play. One mother explained that several players played on a year-round competitive team in addition to their school team. The year-round play likely helped their team win the game and the championship. Their skills were a little more advanced than their opponent; they made some free throws, and they made better decisions in 2v1 fast breaks. Of course, they also may have won because one player had more facial hair than I had when I graduated from high school or because they had the tallest, most coordinated player on the court. They also may have been lucky, as this was the first time in two seasons and four games that they had won against this opponent.  Read more

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

The Myth of Tiger Woods and its Impact on Talent Development

People often cite Tiger Woods as Example A in their support of early specialization. People are fascinated by the stories of Tiger hitting golf balls on the range when he was two-years-old and the images of him on TV.

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Next Page »

  • What Is A Playmaker?

    Who decided that a point guard has to be small? More importantly, what is a point guard? We expect a point guard to be a leader and have a high basketball I.Q. Why don’t we expect or challenge all players to develop this game awareness? Why rely on only one player? Read more →
  • The PBDL Concept

    English soccer academies wait until players are 11 to play full 11v11 soccer; in Italy, youth basketball players participate in skill-oriented clinics at 6-years-old, but start competitive games at 12. In the United States, kids play 5v5 full court games and compete for national championships when they are 8-years-old.

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  • Starting A PBDL

    The PBDL emphasizes learning and development. Presently, players and parents have numerous recreation options - leagues based on fun and equal participation, typically for beginners - and numerous competitive opportunities - teams focused on strategy, game preparation and winning. There are few true development leagues - until now.

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