Opinion: Multi-Sport Athletes Should Be Supported

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Charleston Gazette-Mail


P.J. Fleck seems like a pretty bright guy. After all, 36-year-old coaches don't normally take the reins of a Big Ten football program like Minnesota (and lead Western Michigan to the 2016 Cotton Bowl, which made him attractive to a program like Minnesota) by being a dim bulb.

So if he offers up a strategy, chances are it's a pretty good one. The latest one he mentioned looks like one of those pretty good ones.

During his weekly appearance on a Minneapolis sports radio station, Fleck discussed his preference for recruiting multi-sport athletes.

"Ninety percent of the people that we recruit, we want to play multiple sports, Fleck said on 100.3-FM. "There are times where we won't recruit a kid, just because he doesn't play another sport.

"We want multi-sport athletes. I'm not saying we won't — a lot of quarterbacks specialize these days, I get that — but again, I want athletes that play multiple positions.

That's a refreshing opinion concerning a youth sports world that, more often than not these days, sees kids throwing all their eggs into one sport's basket. It's no longer enough to play baseball during baseball season or soccer during soccer season. There are travel teams and all-star teams and offseason workouts, all focused on one specific set of skills.

Of course, the foundation for those skills might be found in another sport, but some of those kids will never know.

Now, I'm not going to begrudge a high school athlete the right to focus on one sport if that's his or her choice. If all the kid wants to do is play golf or tennis or softball in spring, summer, fall and winter, that's his or her prerogative.

The point, though, is that it's the kid's choice, and that choice is made after the kid has been given the opportunity to play as many sports as he or she wishes. Specialization is beginning at earlier and earlier ages these days, and that's no good.

Should a grade-schooler be limited to just one sport? Absolutely not, and parents shouldn't encourage it and coaches should never demand it. If a good tennis player wants to join a rec league basketball team, that shouldn't be a problem.

Yet, when I covered prep sports in Florida, I heard stories of club coaches threatening their players with decreased playing time if they chose playing for their high school team — in the same sport — over a club practice.

That should never happen.

Now, should a game take precedence over practice? Sure. Should a travel team or high school game in one sport win out over a rec league game in another? Yup. Hard decisions and sacrifices must be made in those instances and, if they aren't habitual, all the coaches should understand and cooperate.

Because, after all, this is about the kid.

And allowing a kid to participate in and enjoy multiple sports is anything but bad. It teaches the athlete time management and responsibility. Different sports exercise different muscles and all of them keep the kids fit.

Plus, it might help fight off the burnout I've seen in too many kids who specialize much too early. After a tough baseball season, it would do a kid good to spend a little while playing some basketball.

And it's nice to see a major-college coach like Fleck both acknowledge the benefits of playing multiple sports and reward athletes who do. Here's hoping the strategy pays off for the Golden Gophers, so that other coaches might follow his lead.

It seems like a smart thing to do.

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November 19, 2017


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