Number of multi-sport athletes on the decline
In recent years there’s been more talk about the effects of multi-sport athletes and why there are fewer and fewer of them in youth sports.
First, though, what is a multi-sport athlete? Webster defines a multi-sport athlete as a player skilling in two or more different sports, so that’s simple enough.
So maybe students and youth are simply playing less sports? Nope. In fact, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), who track statistics and write rules and regulations for over 19,000 high schools, the participation rate for high school sports registered its first decline in 30 years.
The largest decline in numbers came, surprisingly, from the two most popular sports, basketball and football. Conversely, though, participation in four boys sports increased, those being track and field, soccer, wrestling, and tennis.
The three major girls sports, volleyball, soccer, and lacrosse, all saw increases as well. Finally, sports are starting to become less divided by gender lines, with boys slowly trickling into volleyball even as girl’s participation in wrestling has shot up by more than 25-percent.
All that is to say that despite the decline between 2018-2019, children are not playing fewer sports, so what gives?
In the wake of the decline of multi-sport athletes, high schools are witnessing the rise of single-sport athletes who focus on a single sport year-round, even outside of that sport’s regular season.
According to USA Today, a large part of the decline in dependent on the type of sport itself. Eighty-seven percent of Division I men’s soccer players were single-sport athletes by the age of 12, as well as 66-percent of men’s tennis players and 55-percent of men’s ice hockey players. An astonishing 87-percent of Division I women gymnastics players were single-sport athletes by the age of 12.
Conversely, 71-percent of Division I football players were multi-sport athletes, as well as 88-percent of men’s lacrosse. On top of that, 87-percent of Division I female runners and 91-percent of male runners were multi-sport athletes.
Some of this discrepancy can be explained by peak performance being attained earlier in life. For example, female gymnasts peak near the age of sixteen, meaning they must specialize much earlier if they hope to reach their best and then maintain it into college and beyond. Other explanations range from the prevalence of college recruiting to parents pushing their children to succeed in one sport early, hoping that their early specialization will give them more success as they age and their early success, when competition is less fierce, will snowball as they age. There is some merit to this theory as well, including the well-known 10,000 hour rule, which states that it takes 10,000 hours, or ten years, to master a skill.
Specializing in a sport early means that athlete will achieve that milestone much sooner. The rise of single-sport athletes could also be another symptom of an increasingly-specialized society, similar to the business world, where if athletes want to be competitive at the state or nation level, they have to do one sport, and do that one sport very, very, very well.
Van Milligan, editor of the well-known sports blog Athletic Business, summarized the last point very well in a 2014 column he wrote.
“For many high school parents and athletes today, it is no longer as much about love of the game as it is a business. Parents are investing outrageous amounts of money into their children’s athletic development, because the fear is that they will not reach the level they need to without that specialization … the pressure to develop faster and at a younger age is greater than ever before.”
All this is to say that there are legitimate reasons behind the choice for young athletes to focus on a single sport, especially if they want to rise as high as they can within it. Unfortunately for those students, they miss out on a number of strong benefits that come from playing two or more sports together.
According to the NFHS, students who specialize are at a much greater risk of overuse injuries. Because most sports require the same movements again and again (think baseball and pitching), tendons subjected to those repetitive movements, especially while still young, are at much greater risk of injury. In that same vein, burnout affects young players at a much greater risk if they specialize in only a single sport. This one isn’t that hard to believe, as even adults get bored doing the same exercises and same motions over and over and over again, but it does no one any good specializing in any sport if that particular sport becomes something the athlete can’t stand.
A third detriment to single-sport athletes is less of a direct detriment and more along the lines of the opportunity-cost of not playing other sports, that being the skills those sports impart to athletes. Different sports impart different skills, many of which can be applied to different sports. Soccer increases balance, baseball increases hand-eye coordination, track increases endurance, etc. etc. By focusing on a single sport, single-sport athletes become similar to a strong, tight muscle, i.e. very strong, but very rigid.
There are other factors to consider as well, but one that often goes under mentioned is that of stress and pressure. As the old saying goes, one is never supposed to put all of their metaphorical eggs in a single basket, and if they do, they had better be sure that that was a good basket. When one focuses all their energy on a single sport, failure becomes unbearable to even consider. Nobody likes losing, but when one devotes their every day to a sport, wrapping their entire being and identity up in it, losing becomes more than a disappointment. It becomes an existential crisis.
Gary Terry, the athletic director for Anderson County High School, and two multi-sport athletes gave their perspectives on the benefits and drawbacks of working as a multi-sport athlete.
“We want them to play it all,” said Terry. “Only one-percent of us make it to the pros, and it’s the memories that you make that are important.”
When asked whether he’s noticed a decline in multi-sport athletes, Terry said, despite the trend, it’s not something he’s witnessed personally.
“I think it has something to do with the size of our school and the number of students we have for athletics. They all have to play two or three sports for us to be successful. At bigger schools where you have 2500 athletic kids to choose from, they can afford to specialize a lot more, but in a school of a 1000 students total, every athlete has to play two or three sports for us to really be successful.”
Robert Thor Williams is a sophomore student who plays baseball and football, while Nicholas Ear Reed is a senior who plays both basketball and football. Though football is the most well-known sport at Anderson County, pulling in the most spectators each fall, both athletes say it isn’t their main sport.
“I look at baseball and football as pretty equal,” said Williams. “I would say baseball is my main sport, though. I’ve focused on it a lot longer since I started as a little kid.
Reed agreed, stating, “Basketball is probably my main sport, but I like football better. I think I’m better as basketball, though.”
Both said that transitioning between workouts and seasons was easier than expected but still difficult.
“After a whole season of football,” said Williams, “I’m really ready to get back into baseball.
“Basketball is a lot different from football,” said Reed. “In football if you need a break, you can get a rotate but in basketball you have to wait for a dead ball or a foul and you don’t stop running. You’re constantly running up and down the floor. On defense [in football] you get a 25 second break while the other team huddles, but in basketball it’s just running for eight minutes every quarter.”
When asked which sport helped more, they both said that football helped them with other sports more than their other sports helped with football.
“I think football helps me a lot because it makes me stronger and better at guarding people in the post. It’s just hard to transition from using your hands to using your body,” said Reed.
“Oh definitely football,” said Williams. “Because of my position as safety in football, it helps me play center field in baseball, just with tracking balls and being as fast as possible.”
Despite the hardships and lack of free time it left them with, both students said they would recommend the multi-sport approach, with both citing the memories they’ve made and the role models they’ve gained through playing multiple sports.
“I mean I would recommend other people try as much as they can,” said Reed, “but don’t stick with something you hate. I would still do it because it makes the memories of your whole high school career. I play both of them to make the memories with my teammates and it makes a better bond between you guys. Plus, I’ve had some great role models with Coach Chadwell and Coach Cross.”
Williams nodded, saying, “The teammates and the memories and the friends you make, that’s really the best part. I’ve got Coach Gillum and [Coach] Chadwell and [Coach] Stooksbury, and they’re all such really great guys, and great male role models in my life. They’re all great Christian men and it’s great to have those male, Christian role models in my life that I can talk to about the tough stuff.”