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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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The Death of the Three-Sport Athlete, Part I

My younger son Lil’ Bingo, more universally known as Randy, is not going to play football this coming Fall. He suffered a concussion a couple of years ago as a freshman, and had another one this Spring playing lacrosse. His parents have decided that it’s too much of a health risk for him to take to play football this Fall. Unfortunately, but for a very good reason, Randy will therefore join the ranks of kids who are NOT  Three-Sport high school athletes. I thought of this as I was reading my email and came across the following:

Lacrosse Coach, in a wrap-up email to players and parents: “Make sure you take advantage of the July Lax camp list I sent last week.”

Universal response from players and their parents: “OK! As long as they don’t conflict with football.”

What? Wait! It’s July! The state rules say that football in Ohio can’t start until August 1st. Never mind lacrosse camp, what about summer jobs? Family vacations? Trips to visit potential colleges choices? Heck, what about marathon cloud Rorschach Test contests?

I hate to go all “old school” and everything, but remember back in the day when it seemed like everyone played everything? You know, Lance Armstrong (the original) All-American Boy kind of thing? The boys played some combination of football, basketball, baseball, hockey, or track and the girls played field hockey, basketball and softball. There was always someone who snuck in a season of some individual sport, some tennis or golf or swimming. Soccer and lacrosse were niche sports that were only played in tiny regional or economic pockets, but even the soccer players and the lacrosse players played a couple of other sports, too.

You remember those Three-Sport athletes, too, don’t you? It seems as if they weren’t just athletes. I remember being in class with kids who would graduate in the top 20 in high school who also seemed to be on every team in school. If you look around today they turned out to be some of the most successful adults you know.  Heck, I think my Williams friend Paul Bossidy was All-State in Connecticut  in football, basketball, AND baseball; my med school roommate Pat Spafford likewise in Upstate NY.

What happened? Where did they go? Where are the Three-Sport athletes of today and why aren’t they playing three sports?

The answer lies in the responses to the lacrosse coach’s email. In my (not so humble at all) opinion the problem lies not with the young athletes but with the coaches and parents of those athletes. I haven’t seen any evidence that the kids themselves are any different today than they were “back in the day”. Given their druthers I think today’s kids would choose to play a bunch of sports just like Paul and Pat and my sisters Tracey and Kerstin (both multiple sport All-Staters).  No, the problem lies with coaches who insist that “their” athletes devote all of their efforts to that one and only sport, and it lies with the parents who lack the gumption to stand up to the coaches and say “NO!”.

Let me offer an example of how this works at the highest level of high school athletics. There is a Catholic boys’ school here in Cleveland that is noted for both its academic excellence and rigor ,as well as for its sterling athletic record. This school, let’s call it St. Someone, is particularly famous for its longstanding football successes under a coach who has been there for 2+ decades; let’s call him Coach Win. Coach Win has been subtly and not so subtly telling his football players that they must play and train for football, and only football, all year round. Young men are discouraged from playing basketball because it interferes with “voluntary” off-season weight training (at which attendance is taken and recorded). They are discouraged from playing baseball or lacrosse because everyone knows that most of Coach Win’s  football starters run track (which he also happens to coach) in the Spring, even if most of them never go to any meets.

Not a lot of Three-Sport athletes at St. Someone ,as you might expect. This despite the fact that a huge percentage of the best jr. high athletes on one side of Cleveland forsake their public high schools specifically to play sports at St. Someone. Well, “so what?”, you might say. He keeps winning; he must be doing something right. Who cares if the boys don’t play other sports?  And how about all of those boys going on to play football in college on scholarships? Didn’t his way make that possible?

Here’s the rub…he should be winning MORE. With all of the athletes who are drawn to St. Someone he actually hasn’t won enough. His “way” of subtle and not so subtle pressure on the boys to play and train for only football has actually DECREASED the pool of football players and has contributed to several sub-par seasons in which a mediocre regular season was followed by an early post-season exit. Four years ago the Cleveland Plain Dealer’s columnist (the major local paper has columnists for high school football!) lamented the premature demise of the St. Someone football season after the starting QB and running back went down with injuries. In a school where 150 boys went out for freshman football a lack of depth was given as the cause! Where were the back-ups? Despite a stated desire to continue playing multiple sports many of them  felt forced to choose. When told that basketball practice or a baseball hitting drills were not adequate reasons for missing “voluntary” winter football workouts they chose to drop football. The following season injuries to a “thin” line resulted in another early playoff loss. Where were the backups? You guessed it. Playing their other sports despite a professed love and nostalgia for playing football.

It’s not just happening at St. Someone, either. The lacrosse coach quoted above coaches Randy at  Suburban High School which is most notable for its low student participation in sports, and it’s rather extraordinary mediocrity in all but the “tail that wags the dog” sport of soccer. Here, too, rather than reveling in the opportunity to have Three-Sport athletes on the football team ,the coaches behave in exactly the same manner as Coach Win at St. Someone. What about soccer at Suburban then, where Coach Kick has an equally long run of championship teams? Ah, that’s where the other half of the problem comes in– the athletes’ parents and all of those college athletic scholarships that supposedly are only going to go to the athletes who do it Coach Win’s or Coach Kick’s way.

How many times have you talked to someone and asked them why Little Johnny or Little Janey is no longer playing whatever and heard something like this: “Well, we just think the only way Johnny is going to play at the next level is to concentrate on just this one sport now.”? No matter how old Little Johnny might be. As soon as there are tryouts for a sport, as soon as there is a travel team or developmental team, as soon as there is a coach who will say that “the chances are better” if the athlete only plays that sport the parents start to see college dollar signs. Heavens, some of them start to talk about pro sports! A good little lacrosse player at Suburban High School did NOT come out for the lacrosse team this year after Coach Kick suggested a local spring Premier soccer program. Funny thing, though…he failed to make the team and lost out on playing lacrosse, too.

You see, that’s the dirty little secret that Coach Kick and Coach Win never let on to. Most of these kids are not going to play their sport in college, at any level, with or without a scholarship. The odds against them are just too great. The kids who ARE going to play in college would have played even if they were on one or two or even three other teams. In fact, they may have been BETTER in their primary sport if they had continued to play other sports, acquiring additional athletic skills and avoiding over-use injuries and such. Let’s not even bother to talk about the (un-) likelihood of a pro career; the numbers are so small and the roadblocks so numerous that it is the height of folly to even mention making a living at a sport when discussing high school athletes.

So, is it hopeless? Is the multi-sport high school athlete as extinct and little-lamented as the Dodo bird? Nah, of course not. It doesn’t have to be like this. The responsibility and the power rests in exactly the same place that harbors the problem: in the hands of the coaches and the parents. My brother Randall is raising a son who is a legitimate Div. I prospect in two sports, lacrosse and hockey. The longer he plays lacrosse the smaller the chance he has to play at “the next level” because of the prevailing coaching attitudes there, and yet he plays on. Why? Because he’s having a ball! Because his Dad (the best natural athlete I know, who is an ultra-competitive nut, by the way) thinks that’s just fine. Because both his lacrosse coach and his hockey coach find that multi-sport athletes tend to be great kids to coach. They seem to have learned a bunch of different ways to WIN! For whatever it’s worth my nephew is presently going over his Div. I lacrosse offers.

I think my nephew’s coaches are somewhat rare,though. Too rare to depend on as the solution to this problem. The self-interest of having kids playing only one sport is simply too irresistible for them.  No, in the end if we are going to save the Three-Sport high school athlete from extinction the effort is going to have to come from the parents.  The parents of our young athletes are going to have to wake up the the fact that their true self-interest does NOT lie in creating a  one-sport scholarship athlete because there is simply too much that is beyond the  ability of any parent to do so.

Parents need to wake up to the reality that it is their job to create this next generation’s Paul Bossidys and Pat Spaffords, the next Tracey Godins and Kerstin Winklers. Those 3-sport athletes tend to do pretty well on the playing fields of life.

They tend to be winners.

3 Responses to “The Death of the Three-Sport Athlete, Part I”

  1. June 7th, 2009 at 10:09 am

    Buck Buckner says:

    Hey Bingo

    I grew up on military bases and we had tryouts at the beginning of every season in every sport. I played with some multi-sport stars as you have described and they likewise went on to successful careers. I concur it is sad that kids today are forced to specialize and have seen burnout on many occasions here in Ft Collins as a result. BTW, I now read your blog, but you answered your own musing on today’s Sunday main site. The exercise in thought organization and expression is reward in itself whether anyone reads/benefits or not. So you and Cooper will continue, I hope.

  2. January 25th, 2010 at 2:57 am

    Shelley Rich says:

    Just saw your post. Wonderful work mate! Cheers!

  3. July 8th, 2018 at 2:02 pm

    Sully says:

    Bingo
    Olympic fervor. The dream to be “Great” as those on the screen every two years is a draw that will push parents to do anything….including put off their child’s youthful enjoyment and early education from sport for the dream. I think the Olympic coverage and stories of the successful athletes has focused many parents on The Sport that will bring Greatness to their child and pride to themselves.

    Education: Intelligent movement, Intelligent thinking and Itelligent emotion are all learned behaviors as a child develops into an adult. Development requires committed adults to teach a child each of these qualities. What parent or educator would consider signing their child up for ONLY math classes beginning in 9th grade? Do we know any teacher in secondary school that teaches ALL subjects to a group of students through four years of high school? It’s current thinking in academia for students to learn to learn from multiple perspectives: Math, science, humanities, languages,art, etc. I’ve witnessed burnout in children, adolescents and adults. I nearly burned out myself in a hockey career begun a 6 years of age until now at 61. I thank my coaches and educators for the 3 sport and summer attitude they taught me that carried into those moments when i decided to stop playing hockey year-round in my 40′s. Hahaha. I remember!
    I’m a lucky guy for the adults that said to me, You’re a good athlete Sully, take a break this season and try something new.

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