If you have a multi-sport athlete in the house, there’s a chance you might be worried about how his or her development might be affected by playing more than one sport.
You may not be witnessing the rise of the next Bo Jackson or Babe Didrikson, but whether it's the chance to further hone the competitive spirit, add another activity on a college application, or simply the chance to have a bit more fun, there are definite benefits to playing multiple sports. In fact, Bill Cleary, a former Olympic ice hockey gold medalist, who later coached Harvard to the 1989 NCAA Championship, had a policy that he wouldn't recruit a student-athlete unless he played a second sport.
“I firmly believe that you win with athletes,” Cleary has said. “Athletes are kids that play all sports, not just one.”
Playing multiple sports also has other advantages. “[It] gives your body a chance to recover by working different muscle groups,” notes Brion O'Connor, a Boston-based goaltending instructor, in the New England Hockey Journal, “and it helps keep your mind fresh as well.”
Those are the positives. However, there are challenges involved, too.
Sometimes, these challenges are physical, particularly when it comes to strength and conditioning, and how a young athlete develops his or her body. The ideal body for a football offensive lineman isn't always the best for basketball, while a great basketball physique often has a very different weight distribution than what’s normally seen in successful baseball players. Sometimes, training the body for one sport will require sacrificing a certain amount of functionality in another.
Then there are the other concerns to consider. Might the hockey playoffs cut into the start of baseball season? How would your son or daughter react to being a star in one sport while riding the bench in another? And, in the midst of all this, when will homework get done? These questions aren’t necessarily deal-breakers, but they’re challenges that every family with a young multi-sport athlete must plan for and confront head on.
Justin Milo knows this lifestyle well.
Milo, a native of Edina, Minnesota, played both baseball and hockey growing up and as a Division I college athlete—going to the NCAA Frozen Four with the University of Vermont in 2009. He’s gone on to play both sports professionally, spending two years in the New York Yankees’ minor-league system and having just completed his second season of pro hockey.
“It was natural to me to always be on the run,” says Milo, who also played soccer growing up. “To be taking a car from here to there for a different sport and getting dressed in the car. I used to do that all the time.”
Of course, someone else had to drive the car while Milo was changing in it, and, looking back, he definitely credits his mother and father for embracing the mulit-sport lifestyle along with him. “It takes a lot of sacrifice for parents,” he says. “You’re always in the car, and for some people that sounds awful, but it's really a bonding experience with your friends and family.”
Still, there’s no denying that such a busy schedule often means fewer chances to hang out with friends, have fun, and relax. So, if your son or daughter doesn't enjoy a sport enough to make it a good trade-off for the other social opportunities that will be missed, then it's probably time to relook at the commitment to the sport in the first place.
Also helping to smooth the road are coaches who understand and respect a young athlete’s efforts to play several sports. But that requires effort on the part of the athlete, too. For Milo, that meant making teammates and coaches aware if he was going to miss a practice or team meeting. “I was always lucky to be on teams that allowed me to do that,” he recalls.
So, as you look to guide your young multi-sport athlete, here some pointers to keep in mind. First, plan ahead as much as possible, both for the sake of your family as well as your young athlete’s coaches, as they don’t like to deal with surprise scheduling conflicts either. Next, don’t try to complicate matters by adding off-season leagues—like spring hockey or lacrosse “fall ball”—to the schedule. Finally, make a point to program some downtime for your son or daughter. Too much focus on year-round development can take away from their sense of fun, which should remain central to competitive sports even as young athletes grow older and get more serious.
There is such a thing as overdoing it, and avoiding that trap will help your young athlete get the most out of his or her sports experience.