By Scott Westfall
MSU Institute for the Study of Youth Sports
As part of my duties at Michigan State University, I have recently conducted extended research in the area of sport specialization. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, sport specialization is focusing on one sport year-round while eliminating all other sports or activities.
According to Dr. K. Anders Ericsson, in order for a person to achieve expertise in a sport or activity, he or she must invest approximately 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice. Thus, children, parents, and coaches might see specializing in one sport as a fast track to gaining the expertise needed to win starting positions, state championships, and even college scholarships.
However, these remarkable accomplishments (if they are actually reached) can come with some nasty baggage including social isolation, mental burnout, psychological stress, and overuse injuries such as stress fractures, Osgood-Schlatter & Sever’s Diseases. Often what remains is a kid with some very polished skills, but no love for the sport and a body that has had enough!
To combat these problems, young athletes should participate in numerous sports until at least the age of 14 or 15. When young athletes diversify their sports experiences, they reduce the physical impact by spreading it across different parts of the body, thereby allowing for a faster and more thorough recovery.
Furthermore, sport diversification allows kids to learn transferrable physical skills to other sports, not to mention introducing them to a larger group of active peers, along with more coaches and role models to assist with the tribulations of adolescence.
As a former coach, I can attest to the excitement I felt when I had a group of players that were gung-ho and fully committed to my sport. I would become outwardly excited when they would ask, “What can I do this offseason to get better?”
While I was tempted to respond selfishly with answers specific to my sport (which most likely would make our team better), I would try to think of the “whole child,” causing me to reply with the question, “What other sports are you going to try this year?
The cultures in high school athletic departments can be somewhat ambivalent. While coaches would like to believe that their colleagues always support them and their program, there is adequate reason for them to be skeptical. After all, with the trend of sport specialization, coaches at the same school can end up competing with each other for athletes – even when their seasons do not overlap.
Often I have heard coaches say, “I don’t discourage kids from going out for another sport.” Even if they do not outwardly deter athletes from joining other sports, a coach’s personal interests, reactions, and body language can be felt and heard sometimes even louder than his or her words.
Coaches need to begin supporting, collaborating with, and trusting the expertise of their colleagues – believing they will improve student-athletes on many levels (maybe even in ways that original coach cannot). Coaches must work together and encourage young athletes to diversify by participating in additional sports.
The culture of the athletic department starts with the athletic director. Athletic directors must build a department and coaching staff that is conceived in collaboration, trust, and support for the high school’s entire athletic program. True collaboration cannot exist among coaches if competition for athletes is ongoing – coaches must share the pool of athletes by supporting and even encouraging participation in other sports.
Athletic Directors may be thinking “easier said than done.” So here are a few tips:
- Hold pre-season meetings with all head coaches at the beginnings of each of the three major sports seasons (fall, winter & spring).
- At these meetings, create buy-in with open communication. With the help of your coaches, make a list of the ways sport diversification can help the overall athletic program. Record the many transferrable skills that are seen between two sports (cross country gets wrestlers in shape during the fall season; basketball produces more athleticism for volleyball; track creates faster football players, etc.)
- List fears or myths that each other’s sports or training regimens might present (heavy lifting on game days slows players down; football players lose bulk during wrestling season, coaches not wanting their best player to get hurt playing “other” sports, etc.). Once these fears are brought into the open and effectively addressed, coaches will be much more open to supporting each other’s programs.
- Make a policy for offseason training (weight room, speed training, fall baseball, etc.). Establish that these are supplemental and should be held at different times of the day than practices or games. Example: Mandatory weight training sessions should take place before or during school – not during another team’s practice. This will eliminate athletes from having to prioritize between participating in Sport A and training for Sport B.
- Create a huge master schedule to map-out and plan all summer sports camps so they do not overlap. This will allow athletes to participate in multiple camps and reduce the competition coaches have for athletes’ time during the summer.
- Encourage (politely demand) all coaches to work in the weight room during the offseason and summer. This will boost cooperation among coaching staffs. No longer will the weight room be seen as belonging only to the football team. Conversely, football coaches will not feel they are babysitting athletes from other sports when they come to train.
- Encourage (politely demand) all head coaches keep the scorebook and/or run the clock at the home games for other sports events. When athletes and parents see head coaches supporting other programs, the tone will be set that the athletic department is diversified and supportive of all teams.
Athletic Directors: If you are met with some hesitation, know you are creating change. If you receive backlash or resentment from your coaches, sit down with them and hear them out. However, stay true to your vision that collaboration, trust, and support are the new culture you want for your athletic department. To paraphrase Jim Collins from his book Good to Great, “You are trying to get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people sitting in the right seats!”
Coaches: This change might take some getting used to, but in the end sport specialization will be better understood and allowed as the exception rather than the norm. Kids will participate in multiple sports and you will be a member of a high school coaching staff built on collaboration and trust. These will combine to create a richer athletic culture at your school.
However, the greatest improvement will be for your student-athletes’ individual experiences; they will be healthier physically, socially and psychologically.
Scott Westfall has spent the last 10 years as a teacher, coach, and athletic director in Fort Collins, Colo. He currently is working on his Doctorate at Michigan State University, with an emphasis in Sport Psychology and Athletic Administration, and assisting the MHSAA with its student leadership programs. Westfall is a former athlete who participated in football, wrestling, tennis and cross country at the high school level, and rugby at the collegiate level. He can be reached at [email protected].
This week's edition highlights the MHSAA Girls Volleyball, 8-Player Football and Lower Peninsula Girls Swimming & Diving Finals.
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Nov. 15: Football record breakers, 2022-23 MHSAA postseason attendance - Listen
Nov. 8: MHSAA Boys Soccer, Lower Peninsula Cross Country Finals reviews - Listen
Nov. 1: MHSAA Girls Volleyball Tournament schedule, Football Playoffs first-round review - Listen
Oct. 26: Lower Peninsula Girls Golf Finals, Boys Tennis Finals review - Listen
Oct. 18: MHSAA Football Playoff selection, Bear Lake football coach Sam Mullet - Listen
Oct. 11: Upper Peninsula soccer, MHSAA sports participation excels nationally - Listen
Oct. 4: Jackson Lumen Christi's Herb Brogan, MHSAA Sportsmanship Summits - Listen
Sept. 24: All-woman football officiating crew, Powers North Central's record winning streak ends - Listen
Sept. 21: 35th MHSAA/Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Awards, Grass Lake QB Brayden Lape - Listen
Sept. 14: Athletic director education, MHSAA video library - Listen
Sept. 7: Adjustments to 11-player football, boys soccer Finals schedules - Listen
Aug. 31: New out-of-state opponents rules, football record book updates - Listen
Aug. 24: MHSAA.com coverage ramps up, "Made in Michigan" tells us where they are now - Listen