What's the future for the multi-sport athlete?

By Dev K. Mishra

Specialization is common and accepted in most professions.  At some point in time Albert Einstein probably decided to focus on theoretical physics, Tom Brady focused on football rather than baseball, and Yo-Yo Ma chose the cello over the double-bass.  The world is better for their decision.

When is the right time in a person’s life to specialize?  Much has been written about specialization in youth sports and there are persuasive arguments made for and against the practice. We’ve seen a recent article in the New York Times about the U.S. Soccer Federation’s move toward year-round single-sport commitment for their elite boys in their Academy program that will prohibit these players from participating in high school sports. Some argue that this model will create the best chance to make world-class soccer players, and others argue that taking away a chance to play high school soccer deprives these players of a critical part of their social development.

Whatever the “answer” to the question of specialization happens to be, the tone of the governing bodies of certain sports is clearly that if you are any kind of decent athlete you better do it our way.

But what if a young athlete doesn’t want to specialize?  Is the notion of a multi-sport athlete “wrong,” antiquated or even dead?

My feeling, without any data to support this, is that there are plenty of multi-sport athletes still out there and that high school sports are the best environment for these young athletes to compete.

Let’s stay for a moment on the subject of high-level boys soccer.  I know of two examples in our community of talented young athletes who decided to pursue what makes them happiest for now, and that’s to stay with several sports. One young man, recently a Regional ODP selection for soccer also happens to be a very promising distance runner. Another boy, formerly a Regional ODP selection for soccer also plays high school football and is a 6-handicap golfer. Single-sport specialization would rob them of experiences they enjoy. These are only two out of thousands of examples across the country. Can we really find fault in the pursuit of happiness? And are they somehow second-rate soccer players for choosing not to specialize?

These are very personal issues and I don’t claim to be an expert on the best way to develop a child.  But I do like the idea of sports choice and I don’t like the idea of forcing anyone down a pathway that’s not of their choosing.

If a talented young musician, dancer, artist, mathematician, or athlete shows the drive and discipline to pursue specialization that’s great.  Let’s provide the appropriate channels for them to pursue what they’d like to do.  And if they don’t want to specialize I hope we can still give them opportunities to explore and advance their skills without making them feel marginalized.

Who is the high school athlete? She’s the small-town athlete who plays volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter, and runs track in the spring. He’s the suburban athlete with access to every possible resource who doesn’t want to do just one thing. She’s a good but not “great” talent who couldn’t make the cut for the travel team in softball. And he’s the elite level multi-sport athlete.

In my mind it’s not so much about right or wrong, it’s about providing opportunity.  In the reality of today’s club youth sports environment I hope high school sports continue to give young athletes the choices they deserve.

(Dr. Dev K. Mishra is the creator of the injury management program for coaches. He is an orthopedic surgeon in private practice in Burlingame, Calif. He is a member of the team physician pool with the U.S. Soccer Federation and has served as team physician at the University of California, Berkeley. This article first appeared on

8 comments about "What's the future for the multi-sport athlete?".
  1. Mark Grody, April 6, 2012 at 4:13 p.m.

    I think there is a distinction to be made between playing multiple sports & playing a potentially inferior version of the same sport. Also, as for "a critical part of their social development", there are plenty of non-athletes that don't pine for the high school Nirvana of campus sport stardom & plenty of non-sport high school activities for the Academy level players that do want to enjoy their high school experience in some grand & meaningful way.

  2. David Whitehouse, April 6, 2012 at 5 p.m.

    It does simply come to down individual choice by players and parents. There are kids who love soccer (or chess or basketball or horseshoes) who really have no interest in other sports, or perhaps in only one or two others (I have a son who liked team sports, but not individual sports).
    Of course, schools also contribute to this problem by having Fall sports overlap into Winter, Winter into Spring and Spring into summer vacation. In Michigan a football team may play 5 weeks of playoffs, a month into Basketball or Hockey season, while the Girls soccer tournament in the Spring often starts the week of or after graduation (Bringing up an interesting question: "Should someone who has graduated from High School still be allowed to play for a High School team?")
    There are an enormous number of choices for kids' activities - if the USSF Academy says "It's our way or the highway" so be it. Time will tell if this is appealing to the players.
    And do not forget - Schools also are telling players "If you play for the school team, you cannot play anywhere else during our season, even if it's a Saturday kick-about".

  3. David Whitehouse, April 6, 2012 at 5:03 p.m.

    Perhaps a discussion of sub-varsity level sports should be included in this discussion. They are typically quite dreadful (other than perhaps football, where High School is where development happens) and have no great social status - Freshman and JV games attract only parents as spectators, with the occasional friend.
    Many young athletes cannot play on the Varsity team if they are Freshmen or Sophomores. They are often better served by Clubs, if available, and in many cases there closest friends play for their Club, not their School.

  4. mark courtney, April 6, 2012 at 6:26 p.m.

    I am amazed with all the absurdity surrounding so many facets of soccer in this country as I am stepping into the waters with my U8 son. The USSF - centralized planning how socialistic and unlike football, basketball and baseball - in which we are doing pretty well. Coaches licenses - how odd - I have already seen idiot coaches that have "passed the tests" and anyone knows some of the best coaches were not good players or players at all. The cost - well, that's what really amazes me - and I am seeing the best young athletes never even try soccer - although the poor children in other countries benefit from the situation.

    These are old topics for sure ... sorry to bring them up again ... and we will still be able to bring them up in another two decades.

    Specialization ...ok... but do it in any another sport. This makes sense if you are honest about the true cost of playing soccer - all costs - and the realistic rewards offered to the few that make it to the top. Sure if you want to be a semi-hack possibly playing at the college level - good luck. Aspirations beyond that ....well ?

    Cynical ...well yes! The more I learn how truly sad I am becoming. It is such a beautiful game and we really have screwed things up in this country.

    Honestly, I could write a small book on the problems I already in youth development - but who would care as I am viewing from "outside the box". So I laugh at all of this discussing about the upper level players as so much is left concerning the larger picture.

    So back to the issue - a talented youngster would have a much larger chance of success in any other sport if he invests time,energy and $$ in any other arena ....well,maybe not fencing !

  5. Emile Jordan, April 6, 2012 at 7:04 p.m.

    Academy Teams are located where there are lots of players and the USSF is totally correct to have 10 month seasons for players that are talented and committed. Some are even taking the next step and creating residence academies. Look, there are players out there that can develop into world class players and no where in the world will a player be picked off the playground and instantly be a world class player in today's world without extensive professional training and high level competition. Top Level Players 14 and up need to be identified and put into environments where they can develop and compete. If players are not committed then no matter how talented they are they are not going to be top level player for long anyway. There are a lot of academy teams and in many cases there are teams competing for the same players, so I wouldn't worry to much about kids having tough choices and just be grateful they do so the ones with the talent and hunger can be uprooted and put into a system that will help them and their country to be successful.

  6. Emile Jordan, April 6, 2012 at 7:17 p.m.

    Also, please keep in mind that the academy program puts demands on the players that give them tools to be leaders in our society whether on the soccer field or otherwise. I do not think I need to elaborate on all the qualities that come out of a structured disciplined environment where you are competing for a roster spot and starting position at a much higher level than high school soccer players, especially if they do not include academy players. High school clearly creates a great environment for the masses, but understand that the environment in academies is not at all bad for developing leaders in our society.

  7. R2 Dad, April 7, 2012 at 12:32 a.m.

    Emile, depends on the academy system you're referring to. I don't think the Ajax system develops leaders of society. I think it creates motivated, ruthless, self-serving competitors who in later life might make good bond traders but little else--and certainly nothing socially redeeming. They are not team players, as the Dutch team has demonstrated with their in-fighting. Highly accomplished individuals, but not great team players (at least for country). It's going to be interesting to see what type of academy system we develop in the US. I suspect we will see some academies mimicing the Cosmos/Real Madrid model and poaching talent from all over, and other low-budget academies trying to build a grass-roots system highlighting only local talent. I don't think this should be a marketplace decision--would like to see a standardized program, formations, development system that supports the national team goals as specified by Reyna and Klinsmann. Maybe that's an established general goal, but will be curious if it turns out that way. Money seems to have its way in our country, regardless of what that money does to the process and end product.

  8. Luis Arreola, April 7, 2012 at 9:59 a.m.

    My guess, poachers to grass roots ratio will be 9-1. Its all about results in this country but that focus is on wins. I don't see that changing into development results unless strong rules are installed. Here is an example of his anti developmental we are. In a State Cup competition you can have 50% of your roster be from out of state but you can't have hable exemptional player play his age on one team and also up one year on another to play 2 State Cups in the same year. That is just STUPID. Zero development when coming up with these dumb rules.,,

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