Managing the Multi-Sport Athlete (Full Article)

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Note: I accidentally posted an early draft of this article a couple of days ago. Those familiar with my remarkable computer skills will be shocked by this occurrence. Anyway, this is the official full and final draft. Unless my wife reads it and tells me I made a mistake.

When I enrolled at Wheaton North High School in the fall of 1974, the head football coach and athletic director was the legendary Jim Rexilius, a buzz-cut, evangelical, ex-Marine.

At the time, I was a 5’11”, 130-pound, big-haired, rebellious, child of the 70’s and probably the all-time greatest butt head ever to graduate from Monroe Junior High (now Monroe Middle School).

That did not prevent Coach Rex from sending me a letter that summer inviting me to come out for football in August and recommending that I start doing some running to get myself in shape.

For some reason, I decided that I would, in fact, go out for football (probably for two reasons, actually: my friends were going out, and Coach Rex promised that no one would be cut) and I immediately put myself on a grueling regimen of half-mile jogs every other day.  Two weeks prior to the start of the school year, I reported to practice.

In those days, football “double-sessions” were something to be dreaded. They consisted of two full practices, one morning and one afternoon, per day for two full weeks. Our “athletic trainer” was a student volunteer who would hold up fingers for you to count if you seemed to be concussed. Water breaks were few. Hitting drills abounded. Shockingly, my jogging routine had not prepared me for what I was about to endure. After a few days, it felt like every cell in my body had been bruised. Each morning before I headed off to practice, my mom would make me scrambled eggs. Somehow, in the funny way that brains have of forming associations, scrambled eggs and double sessions became linked in my memory. By the time school began that August, I could not stand the sight or smell of scrambled eggs, and it would be years before I could again eat them.

But somehow all of us freshmen made it through doubles, and in the process gained a lot of confidence. All these years later, I still remember sitting at a freshman orientation meeting the night before classes began and feeling absolutely no trepidation about starting the school year. I already felt invested in Wheaton North High School. I had plenty of friends. I was part of something important, and unlike in junior high, I would never feel the need to act like a weenie in order to fit in. In my four years at North, I never had a detention. Never got kicked out of class. Never had a sit down with the Dean.

During the two seasons prior to my freshman year, North had gone 9-0. Illinois had no football playoffs at the time, but those teams were considered by many to be the best in the state. And Coach Rex was firmly convinced that a big reason for North’s football dominance was that many of his players were three-sport athletes. He believed that competing in a variety of sports throughout the school year helped a young man develop athletically, socially, and even academically (because it taught you how to manage your time).

Accordingly, as soon as football season ended in the fall, he scheduled individual meetings with each of his players. I still remember mine. My freshman football season had been a blast.  I had started at defensive end and offensive tackle for the “B” team. In spite of that, we went undefeated. As far as we were concerned, we were that best freshmen “B” team in history. The Pittsburgh Steelers, then the dominant NFL team, were lucky we did not appear on their schedule.

Rex’s office was about the size of a double-wide phone booth. There was room for his desk and two chairs and that was it. Sitting there in those close quarters waiting for him to begin the conversation was intimidating, to say the least. I didn’t know yet what a great sense of humor he had, and what a tremendously kind man he was. At that moment, I felt like a private who had been summoned to a meeting with General Eisenhower.

Rex held a football roster in one hand and a pencil in the other. He got right to the point. “What sport will you be playing this winter?” Notice, he did not ask “Will you be playing a winter sport?” His phrasing communicated the inevitability of that. He simply wanted to know which one so that he could jot it down on his list.

I had never participated in a winter sport up to that point and had no idea which I’d be suited to, but when General Eisenhower asks you a direct question, you do not prevaricate.

“Wrestling,” I replied. “I am going to do wrestling.”

Pleased with my answer, Coach Rex wished me luck and sent me back to class.

I did not know it at the time, but the man had just done me a huge favor.

It turned out that wrestling was not for me. I was growing like a weed, and the notion of limiting my caloric intake and showing up for football next fall at 6’1″ and 130 pounds did not seem wise. After a few weeks, I switched to indoor track and thus began a lifelong love affair with the sport.

Now, Rex was a guy who epitomized the term “old school.” He expected us to keep our hair short (mind you, this was the 1970’s) and our language clean. Girls were to be ignored, as they distracted us from training and studying.

It turns out, though, that in terms of encouraging us to participate in multiple sports, he was ahead of his time.

There has been a lot of research published over the last ten years which suggests that participating in a variety of sports (at least until the age of sixteen) makes kids healthier, happier, and in the long run better athletes.

Here is an article from the Huffington Post that summarizes some of that research: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ken-reed/youth-sports-specializati_b_6084732.html

The problem, though, is that participating in multiple sports is not as simple a matter today as it was when I played football, threw the shot and disc, and wore a leisure suit back in the ‘70’s.

The main complicating factor is that, in many sports, there is no such thing as an off-season anymore. The rise of club and “travel” teams has eliminated it. There are fall baseball leagues. Spring basketball leagues. Lacrosse, soccer, and volleyball clubs operate year round. Off-season 7-on-7 leagues have recently popped up in Illinois, so, at least for “skill” players, football has become a year round sport.

If you are a parent who is worried about paying for college (and that describes pretty much every parent who does not manage a hedge fund) and your child shows some potential at a certain sport, it is awfully tempting to encourage that child to focus exclusively on that sport in hopes of getting “exposure” and attracting the attention of college coaches.

And, unfortunately, the people who run many of these clubs and “off-season” leagues have no qualms about exaggerating the possibility of kids who participate in their programs receiving scholarships. I attended a parent meeting for a certain club sport not long ago, and one of the people in charge of that club grandly announced that one of the participants had just “committed” to a local Division III school. What that person failed to mention was that DIII schools do not give athletic scholarships, so what that athlete had “committed” to was paying private school tuition for four years. Now, if that was what that kid and his family decided was best for them, awesome. But that coach was clearly implying that the kid had received an athletic scholarship as a result of year round participation in that club.

This kind of deception, when combined with parental anxiety about affording college, can result in some shockingly unhealthy situations for young athletes.

I was passing around some cookies in my Junior English class a while back, and one of the girls told me she couldn’t have one because her club volleyball coach forbid the players from eating sweets. That sounded pretty creepy to me, so throughout the semester I regularly asked her questions about her experiences with her club. Her practices, primarily on school nights, lasted from three to four hours. Any lapse in discipline (showing up late, not wearing the mandated practice attire) was punished with ninety- minute stair runs. The girls played twelve months per year, and when not engaged in the high school season, travelled constantly to out-of-state tournaments. God only knows how much the parents were paying to have their daughter treated this way. I didn’t have the guts to ask her. But I guarantee you, however much it was they spent it with the hope of their daughter getting a college scholarship.

This desperation for scholarship money has undermined the ideal of the multisport athlete in another, possibly more destructive way as well.

Here is an example.

I coach freshman football, and a couple of years ago we were doing an easy shakeout run on the Monday after a Saturday game when I noticed that one of the kids was struggling just to keep moving.  I asked him what was bothering him.

“My legs are killing me, Coach!”

“Did you get hurt in the game on Saturday?”

“No, but I had a lacrosse game yesterday and I think I pulled something.”

“Hang on. We had a football game on Saturday, and then you played a lacrosse game on Sunday?”

“Yes.”

“Do you have parents?”

“Yes.”

Here was a case where a kid chose to participate in multiple sports…at the same time.

And the parents, not wanting their son to miss out on any opportunity (you never know when the Princeton lacrosse coach is going to show up at a fall lacrosse league game and realize that your son is just the guy he has been looking for) allowed him to do it.

Believe it or not, this has become quite common.

I had a kid approach me a couple of years ago and tell me that he was interested in throwing the shot and disc. He was a 6’6” sophomore who played football and basketball and had heard that throwers spend a lot of time in the weight room, so he thought it might be good for him. A 6’6” kid never has to ask me twice if he can join our squad, but I knew he played spring basketball so I inquired about his availability.

“When do you have basketball practice?”

“Five o’clock to seven o’clock most weekdays.”

“Games?”

“Every Saturday.”

I had to tell the kid that coming out for track would not be a good idea if he was determined to play spring basketball. I could not imagine how his body could withstand two hours of track practice followed by two hours of basketball practice every day.

And, in hindsight, it really hurt that kid to miss out on being a thrower. One day in the spring of his junior year he was trying to get through the off-season football lifting program before heading to off-season basketball practice. He asked me to help him with one of the assigned lifts, overhead squats.

To me, overhead squats are one of the essential weight room movements—especially for a tall kid. They teach you balance, they improve your stability and flexibility. They build leg, back, and shoulder strength.

And this kid, late in his junior year, could not execute an overhead squat with a piece of PVC.

So three years into his high school athletic career, he had serious deficits in stability, balance, and strength. Why?

Because he never had an off-season.

In the fall, he played football. In the winter, he played basketball. In the spring, he played more basketball. In the summer, he played football from 7:00 to 10:00, practiced basketball for two hours after that, and then played something like fifty games on nights and weekends.

Would it have ruined his basketball career if he had taken eight weeks in the spring to throw the shot and disc and get real training in the weight room?

Or would it have made him a better basketball and football player in the long run?

I can understand why his parents would have been reluctant to see him sit out spring basketball. Your son is taller than everybody else in Wheaton, you have to figure he might get a basketball scholarship to somewhere if he just gets the right exposure. And you never know when John Calipari might wander into a spring basketball game and…

But what is disappointing to me, and what needs to change for the benefit of our kids, is that we coaches are too shortsighted to encourage our athletes to make wise decisions.

We all have access to the research that advises against specialization. We all know how few kids receive athletic scholarships. We all see the kids from various sports sitting around in the training room after practice with ice packs on both knees or ankles or shoulders looking, at the age of sixteen, like ten-year NBA veterans trying to keep their overuse injuries at bay.

And yet, we are still reluctant to let them go when our season ends. We are still unlikely, when a boys soccer player tells us that he is going to run track in the spring but, don’t worry, he will play club soccer at the same time, to say “Dude, don’t be an idiot. Getting a stress fracture in your foot isn’t going to make you a better soccer player. But, taking a break from soccer to run track for two months probably will.”

Anyone who knew Coach Rex, understands how badly he wanted to win football games. And he won tons of them. In the ten years after I graduated, North captured three state titles.  And every year the players on those teams were summoned to that tiny office to answer one question: Now that football season is over, what sport are you going out for next?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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