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. 

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