Benefits of Multiple-Sport Participation
by Joe Santa, CAA (Warsaw, Indiana)
(published in the Summer 2010 edition of Interscholastic Athletic Administration.)
The multiple-sport athlete is important to all high school athletic programs. In
order for programs to be as successful as possible, they need the best athletes competing
in a variety of sports.
Coaches understand that talented athletes bring to the table fantastic skills, a
competitive spirit and a drive to succeed. When a sport program loses an athlete, the
potential for success takes a hit. If the athlete is simply giving up the sport, then the
program, depending upon the age of the athlete, could take a hit for two or three years.
Multiple-sport participation also benefits student-athletes as they are exposed to a
variety of activities and team situations. Unfortunately, athletes today are making the
decision to specialize at younger ages. Often, these decisions are not being made based
upon the wants and needs of the athlete, but are upon pressure from outside influences
including non-school (club, travel, AAU) team coaches, parents and unfortunately, other
high school coaches who push the students into making this tough decision.
Specialization is often listed as the main reason schools are losing multiple-sport
athletes. Elite athletes, in many cases, have been told by numerous people (most of whom
don’t have the overall well being of the youngster at heart) that they need to concentrate
on one sport so they can secure scholarship money they will need to attend college, and
that college coaches are not going to notice them in high school competition.
Driven by this belief, parents will invest in private lessons, emphasize playing
more games in one sport, and spending thousands of dollars for camps and schools for the
purpose of achieving a college athletic scholarship.
Research shows that there is a very low probability of attaining a full athletic
scholarship or any athletic money of any amount. Less than one percent of high school
students receive athletic scholarship money. There is a far greater possibility of receiving
a scholarship based on academic prowess or financial need than for skills in a particular
sport. In fact, research shows that the ratio of academic scholarships to athletic
scholarships is 70-to-1.
The groundbreaking University of Maine athletic initiative “Sports Done Right”
reports that there is no evidence anywhere that a bigger investment in sports at a younger
age will lead to a bigger chance of receiving an athletic scholarship to college.
More and more, college coaches are looking for youngsters that stayed involved
in more than one high school sport. Athletes who specialize are more likely to be those
that burn out in college or simply lose the competitive edge needed at a higher level.
College coaches like to see the competitiveness that comes with being a multiple-
sport athlete. Dane Fife, a head Division One men’s basketball coach and an all state
football and basketball player in high school, believes that playing two sports helped him
develop a mindset and a physical presence to be a successful athlete at Indiana
University. He feels that multiple sport kids find themselves in more pressure situations
during competition and can successfully handle these situations.
What are the benefits of multiple-sport participation?
Improved Health and Wellness. Kids who are involved year-round in one sport
find themselves getting injured at an alarming rate. Overuse injuries now account for
more than half of the injuries to youth sport participants. These types of injuries are stress
fractures, compartment syndrome, and joint fractures.
Dr. Daniel Green, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon in New York City, says, “20
years ago it was rare for an ACL operation for anyone younger than age 15; now it’s
Dr. James Andrews, the nationally prominent orthopedic surgeon known for
“Tommy John” surgery, is now treating four times as many youth who suffer from stress
related injuries as he used to in earlier years. Since 2004, he has conducted more than 50
“Tommy John” surgeries on youngsters.
Tim Garl, athletic trainer at Indiana University for more than 25 years, believes
that overuse combined with inadequate coaching has caused the increase in injuries: “We
are training our adolescent athletes as little adults when they are still children with
muscle, bone, and organ development still taking place.” He also believes the mental
stress that results from being tired of doing something over and over again contributes to
the high injury rate in kids today, as “fatigue is a major risk factor in any athlete.”
Improved Athletic Performance. Youngsters who participate in multiple sports as
they grow see their athletic abilities improve faster than those who specialize at a younger
age. Dr. Joel Brenner, Director of Sports Medicine at the Norfolk (Virginia) Children’s
Hospital, believes that multiple-sport participation leads to better conditioning, better
balance, and better coordination while generally making the child a better athlete.
Skills used in one sport will often cross over to another activity. In a study of
national team members conducted at the University of Queensland in Australia, it was
found that athletes who participated in multiple sports as youths were able to reach
“expert” status faster, as they were better able to transfer skills, than those who
specialized in only one sport. The researchers concluded that kids playing multiple sports
needed less time to excel at another sport because skills learned are transferable.
Future Opportunities – The Rest of Your Life. When looking back on his career in
athletics, Mike Weaver, the CEO of Weaver Popcorn, the largest popcorn manufacturer
in the world, sees many life lessons learned by his participation in athletics. A three sport
athlete in high school, Weaver went on to play basketball at Northwestern University. He
believes that he learned humility through his athletic participation. Not a star in football
or track in high school, he had to accept a role on these teams for the betterment of the
entire team: “If you only do what you are best at all of the time, you won’t learn anything
else. You will become isolated and focused on only one thing.” As an employer, Weaver
looks for employees who were athletes and believes these individuals are more qualified
to handle the many types of situations they face in the workplace every day.
This thought is echoed by Microsoft executive Lisa Brummel, who believes there
are tremendous advantages to hiring athletes. Companies seek employees who can stand
out in pressure situations, demonstrate leadership, and will react positively to the
instruction of their superiors: “Athletes in companies are universally respected as high
performers. Playing on a team, the understanding of team dynamics and roles, knowing
when to step up or when to let someone else step up, and collaboration….if you come
from sports, you know these things already.”