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The Columbus Dispatch (Ohio)
Among the more interesting factoids coming out of the NFL draft is that 30 of the 32 players selected in the first round participated in more than one sport in high school. In an age of specialization, I find it reassuring that multi-sport athletes still exist. And thrive.
The common assumption is that high school athletes are being persuaded by coaches and parents that the best path to a sports scholarship is to specialize within one sport. The result is that time, talent and money get concentrated along a path that may — but statistically probably still will not — lead to financial help at the college level.
Heaven knows college tuition is through the roof, so if playing soccer year round increases the chance of receiving financial assistance, who am I to scold? But the NFL draft does show that, in football at least, a one-way street is not the best road to success.
Granted, football is somewhat distinctive. Not having club teams allows football players to dip into sports such as track and baseball. Also, a majority of football coaches encourage their athletes to play other sports. Especially at smaller schools, coaches want their athletes to do more than lift weights from December through May.
Even at the college level, many football coaches limit their recruiting to multi-sport athletes. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer prefers signing players who challenged themselves beyond football. And former Southern California coach Pete Carroll was outspoken about how he handled recruiting with the Trojans.
"The first questions I'll ask about a kid are, 'What other sports does he play? What does he do? What are his positions? Is he a big hitter in baseball? Is he a pitcher? Does he play hoops?' " Carroll said. "All of those things are important to me. I hate that kids don't play three sports in high school."
Some of this is self-serving, of course. Multi-sport proponents have more than just the athletes' interests in mind. College coaches like to monitor recruits the entire school year, which becomes challenging if the recruit lives in a weight room all winter or sits at home during the spring.
Still, studies suggest that playing more than one sport in high school benefits the athlete. The NCAA recently collected information from 21,233 current college athletes at Division I, II and III schools. The findings suggest that multi-sport athletes tend to enjoy longer-term success over their one-sport peers. They also experience fewer overuse injuries.
Football (71 percent), lacrosse (85.5 percent) and track and field (89 percent) showed the highest percentage of multi-sport Division I athletes.
Comparatively, 87 percent of Division I women gymnasts had specialized in their sport by age 12, while 65 percent of soccer players also began specializing at that age.
Such statistics should be considered in context. For example, female gymnasts reach their peak performance at earlier ages, so it makes more sense to specialize. Plus, there is the "10,000-hour rule" cited by specialization advocates, indicating it takes 10 years or 10,000 hours of practice to reach peak performance in an athletic activity.
But my beef with specialization goes beyond the athletic, to the core of the athlete. I want to see high school athletes expand their perspectives, beyond the 3.1 miles of a cross-country race or twice-a-day swim practices. Crossing sports cultures takes athletes out of their comfort zones and forces them to interact in a world they can less-easily control. Wrestlers should mix with tennis players. Hockey players with shot putters. We've closed ourselves off enough as adults. We should want our children to experience how others live. And play.
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