Invest in Athletic Diversification

January 7, 2013

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 in High School Sports: 3/21/23

By Jon Ross
MHSAA Director of Broadcast Properties

March 21, 2023

This final edition for the 2022-23 school year reviews all four MHSAA Girls Basketball Finals and highlights some of the top performances from Boys Basketball Regional play. 

MI Student AidThe 5-minute program each week includes feature stories from or network affiliates, along with "Be the Referee," a 60-second look at the fine art of officiating.

"This Week in High School Sports" is powered by MI Student Aid, a part of the Office of Postsecondary Financial Planning located within the Michigan Department of Treasury.

Listen to this week's show by Clicking Here.

Past editions

March 15: Ice Hockey Finals review, Lower Peninsula Boys Swimming & Diving Finals highlights - Listen
March 8:
Individual Wrestling Finals review, Competitive Cheer Finals highlights - Listen
March 1:
Midland heroes, Team Wrestling Finals review - Listen
Feb. 22:
Basketball Districts begin, Finals cap Upper Peninsula swimming & diving season - Listen
Feb. 15:
Hockey tournament changes, MHSAA social media - Listen
Feb. 8:
Winter Postseason Starts, Scholar-Athlete Award - Listen
Feb. 1:
Kent City coach Jill Evers, "Officials Appreciation Week" - Listen
Jan. 25:
Historic hoops wins, Michigan's national ranking in sports participation - Listen
Jan. 18:
Brad Bush joins MHSAA, Al DeMott sets coaching record - Listen
Jan. 4:
Winter Championships, Officials Recruitment - Listen
Nov. 23:
8-Player Football Finals, Lower Peninsula Girls Swimming & Diving Finals, Volleyball Finals - Listen
Nov. 18:
Concussion Myths, Navea Gauthier's record-setting Shelby volleyball season - Listen
Nov. 11:
Lower Peninsula Cross Country, Boys Soccer Finals review - Listen
Nov. 2:
Football Playoffs Week 1 notables, Fall 2022 championships and broadcasts - Listen
Oct. 26:
Football Playoffs pairings selection, Upper Peninsula Cross Country Finals - Listen
Oct. 19:
Sunday Selection Show, Lower Peninsula Girls Golf & Boys Tennis Finals - Listen
Oct. 12:
25th Women In Sports Leadership Conference highlights - Listen
Oct. 5:
Upper Peninsula Girls Tennis Finals champions, Rockford's Anna Tracey - Listen
Sept. 28:
MHSAA Sportsmanship Summits return, Owosso's Macy Irelan - Listen
Sept. 21:
MHSAA/Farm Bureau Insurance Scholar-Athlete Awards, Marquette's Maddy Stern - Listen
Sept. 14:
MHSAA record books, Detroit Renaissance's Kaila Jackson - Listen
Sept. 7:
Sports Participation rebounding, Paw Paw's Paige Miller - Listen
Aug. 31:
Michigan Power Ratings and soccer seeding, Fenton's Gracie Olsen - Listen
Aug. 24:
Redesigned, key dates and how to watch football in 2022 - Listen