I have been a youth mentor for more than 35 years. I mentor youth who participate in multiple sports and those who choose to play in only one sport. The youth train with me for their sport(s), but they also receive coaching to be better athletes and counseling about nutrition, colleges and careers. My highest priority is teaching them about how their experiences in sport relate to them as family members, students, and future spouses, business and community leaders.
In short, I coach the athlete not just the player, and the whole person not just the athlete. More importantly, I mentor the person first, then the athlete, and then the player. I teach lessons within the game for beyond the game. This is true whether I am coaching a school team, a public youth team, a clinic or private training. For example, I have a saying for baseball pitchers, “You cannot become on the mound what you are not in life.”
Often a parent comes to me and asks, “Should my son or daughter play one sport or multiple sports?” My response is never reflexively, “multiple sports” even though more often than not that is the best decision. The determination is much, much more complicated than that and this is why I get so upset when I read posts and articles glossing over such an important topic to fit what the author thinks the current public narrative is or should be. In doing so, they are doing as much harm to the athlete who would benefit most by a sound holistic training program geared toward one sport as the harm caused to an athlete that chooses one sport to simply play 100 games year around hoping to maximize their development.
Here are the most important factors that, in my opinion, should be considered before the question of one sport v. multiple sports can be answered:
(1) What are the goals of the athlete? If the athlete simply wants to have as many positive experiences in sports as possible and playing a sport at the highest level in college is not the goal or an option, then playing multiple sports for great mentor-coaches is the right choice;
(2) What is the age of the athlete? Prior to 8th grade, the advantages of playing multiple sports almost always outweigh those in playing just one sport. After 8th grade, it takes the average person several years of consistent high-quality training to be an elite athlete and to master the skills of the sport to be recruited at the highest level of college sports. My experience is the average person needs to start this training in or immediately after 8th grade because they do not have four years in high school to train to be elite. Most top college programs typically offer their players scholarships prior to the player’s senior season.
(3) How much playing time will the athlete get in each sport either by ability or by a coach’s philosophy? Better use can be made of an athlete’s time than watching a team play 50 games from the bench. Conversely, many of the podcasts and articles claiming that playing multiple sports is always the right thing to do are using as their example players who were the starting quarterback in football, the starting point guard in basketball and the starting shortstop in baseball. What is best for these gifted athletes is obviously not usually applicable to average athletes.
(4) What is the quality of the coaching for each sport, i.e., are practices geared toward developing the person, the athlete, and the player or are they mostly geared toward training the team to win games? There are tens of thousands of personal trainers around the country who are overbooked working with high school athletes because the coaches on the school teams do not know how to or do not invest enough time training the person to be a better athlete and to improve the athlete’s individual sport skills to be a better player.
(5) Does the athlete enjoy each sport well enough to have a growth mindset about it? Again, free time is very precious. A person should do things with that free time that involve hard work while facing adversity and the challenge of accepting failure as part of growth and improvement. If the person does not love the sport enough to want to work hard at it, then the time would be better spent elsewhere – in the one sport they do love this much or in music, art, theater, and/or a job, etc.
(6) How short is the athlete’s learning curve in each sport? (I avoid the term “natural ability”. Learning is always a prerequisite to elite performance. Some may learn faster than others, but on every level, physical, intellectual, and emotional, learning is involved. “Hard work beats talent when talent does not work hard.” “Under pressure, players do not perform up to the level of their ability, but rather to the level of their training.”) If the goal of the athlete is to play college baseball at the highest level, and the player gains physical attributes quickly, and learns the fundamentals and mechanics easily, then playing multiple sports in high school, if all of the other factors discussed above are aligned properly, may not keep the athlete from achieving their goal. On the other hand, if the learning curve is relatively average, then devoting 4-5 months every year working with a qualified trainer to getting bigger, stronger, faster and quicker to meet the functional demands of the sport is probably necessary. However, simply playing 100 baseball games year around will not be advisable for the average athlete either!
(7) Does the athlete have enough time to play multiple sports while maintaining good grades and to do other things, including free time to just be a kid, to develop as a well-rounded person and have the required balance on their college application such as work experience, charity work, etc.? “You choose your college first as if you were not an athlete.”
So my point is this; the answer to the question of whether an athlete should play one sport or multiple sports is personal and complex. Simply playing one sport year around is almost never the answer; training with qualified athletic and sports skill trainers properly for only one sport starting in high school, in addition to playing it, might be.