USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Jason Smith is a former NCAA DIII athlete and college coach at all three division levels. Jason is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
In 2015, a chart about Ohio State University head football coach Urban Meyer’s recruiting preferences went viral on Twitter. It showed that the coach overwhelmingly recruited multi-sport athletes—and he’s not alone. Among others, Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney is also open about how he seeks out athletes who split their time.
Last month, USA Baseball, the national governing body for amateur baseball, published an article on its website titled “Saving the Multi-Sport Athlete from Extinction.” In it, Darren Fenster, a former minor league player and current manager of a Boston Red Sox affiliate, encourages student-athletes to wait as long as possible to specialize in a sport.
These recent pronouncements go against the popular current practice of having student-athletes focus on one sport at a young age. The idea is that specializing provides young student-athletes with early successes and access to elite clubs and top coaches, which could better position them for college scholarships.
So, why are so many outlets coming out in favor of student-athletes competing in multiple sports? As more and more research is published, it’s becoming clearer that being a two-or-more sport student-athlete is beneficial in terms of both skill development and overall health. What follows is a list of some of the benefits student-athletes reap by participating in multiple sports.
Develop more skills
While every sport requires athleticism, not every sport builds the same muscles or demands the same capabilities. For example, baseball is characterized by short spurts of running, which requires a different type of athleticism than soccer, where endurance is more important. However, both skills are valuable and transferable to the other sport. Endurance is helpful in baseball when the athlete is running multiple bases or the game goes into extra innings. And those short, explosive spurts on the diamond will come in handy when the athlete is attempting a steal or has a fast break on the soccer field.
Student-athletes who gain early exposure to various sports and activities often end up more well-rounded than those who specialize. They’ll have a good mix of the skills mentioned above, as well as increased hand-eye coordination, agility, balance and dexterity.
In addition to athletic skills, multi-sport student-athletes have the opportunity to work with other coaches and teammates during the school year, which forces them to adapt to other styles of leadership and learn how to communicate with different types of people. The more experience your student-athlete has with the compromise and flexibility it takes to be good teammate, the better off they will do when it comes to getting noticed and ultimately recruited. College coaches are just as interested in the way your student-athlete handles his or herself within a group as they are with their grasp of the fundamentals of the sport.
Most kids start playing sports for fun, and they continue for the love of the game. But even a passionate athlete can start to resent a sport if it’s the only thing they do all day, every day. According to a study by the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine, for most sports, there’s no benefit to early specialization. In fact, those who do concentrate on one sport too early are subject to overuse injuries and burnout.
The NCAA describes burnout as “the absence of motivation as well as complete mental and physical exhaustion.” Variance is the kryptonite of burnout; thus, student-athletes with a range of athletic interests are less likely to lose motivation.
Being away from sports entirely is considered variance, too. It might seem counterproductive, but time off from a sport can foster a renewed sense of enthusiasm when your student-athlete returns. Even Major League Baseball players take months off to rest.
READ MORE: When more is too much: How to avoid burnout
Lower risk of injury
Overuse injuries occur when an athlete is constantly performing repeated movements. Over time, this wears down the muscle and can lead to stress fractures, strains, sprains and tears.
The most compelling reason to encourage student-athletes to pursue multiple sports is that data shows overuse injuries are more common in those who concentrate on one sport. A 2016 study by the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health found that high school student-athletes who specialize were 70 percent more likely to suffer an injury than those who do not.
Much like how variation keeps the brain interested and decreases the chance of burnout, it also keeps student-athletes’ muscles from deteriorating. Especially when student-athletes are younger, when their muscles are still developing, participating in multiple sports encourages healthy, balanced muscle maturation.
Insider Tip: If your student-athlete does specialize in one sport, make sure they are participating in training and conditioning that focuses on other muscle groups and allowing themselves the appropriate recovery time.
Achieve long-term success
Because of all the reasons listed above, multi-sport athletes often experience success over a longer period of time than those who specialized early. It’s both possible and beneficial to train diversely. You will know when it’s time for your student-athlete to concentrate on one sport.