What Happened to Multi-sport Athletes? (Part 1)

Question mark , gaming balls alphabetShould students play a single sport, or diversify?

In this post I discuss the decline of the multi-sport athlete, and the implications for a 21st century workforce. I use sports as an example–but this post applies to other activities as well: theater, orchestra, debate, etc.  I list a few of the assumptions that fuel the single-sport phenomenon, including some that booster clubs may take for granted. In my next post I’ll talk about multi-sport athletes in the past, and how their 20th century practices are actually appropriate for today.

The 10,000 Hour Rule and Specialization

Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers revived the debate about nurture versus nature, but it also reinvigorated the public’s love of specialization. Specifically, it popularized the 10,000 hour rule: do something for 10,000 hours, and you’ll become an expert. Gladwell recently restated that his 10,000 hour rule doesn’t apply to sports. He restated it in response to an attack on Outliers by David Epstein’s new book The Sports Gene. Epstein shows that for those with the right genetic material, they don’t have the same skill threshold as everyone else.  He gives the example of the current reigning sprinter, Hussein Bolt, who actually trains less than some of his peers. In Epstein’s book, innate talent, not practice, take the center stage in skill development. He goes further, saying that when someone does have a talent, there’s a lot we can do to nourish it. It’s understandable why athletes push themselves so hard when confronting superior talent. If I were competing with Bolt, his talent would make me want to train more, not less.

It’s undeniable that structural factors in education have also contributed to the single sports culture. First, single sport athletes are more supported than in the past. When I was younger, you couldn’t be a single sport athlete if you wanted to. Sports were seasonal. Summer programs now exist for every sport, even skiing. You can watch skiers train on specially designed roller blades, sweating across summer asphalt, preparing for winter.

Second, parents often see sports excellence as their child’s only option for admission into and tuition for college. Clearly, skills demonstrate excellence and increase a student’s chance of admission. Also, many schools still offer merit scholarships. But the reality is that most schools have become more holistic. There are hoards of team captains and Valedictorians who won’t get into their first choice school. With respect to merit scholarships, schools like Harvard and Princeton don’t give them any more. Top schools now provide aid on the basis of need, not special abilities. So, it’s important for parents to update their understanding. If their teen is coveting a particular school, they should call the admissions program and ask advice about what looks best.

Old-school notions about the intersection of sports and college attendance persist. This notion is also embedded in our language. You’ve probably heard the expression “Jack of all trades, master of none?” In high school, I was voted “most versatile.” I’m not sure if it was a compliment in 1989, when so many people worked in one profession their entire lives, even staying with only one or two companies in the span of their careers. In the 21st century, versatility is very important  in the tech industry, where many jobs have been created in the past 10 years that simply didn’t exist before. Everyone currently working those jobs demonstrated quick learning, adaptability, and a strength of translating their skill sets into something completely new. You can see this in other fields as well. Mashups and remixes are a big part of music production, requiring music knowledge across genres and time periods. Biomimicry, the intersection of environmental science and every other type of science, is pushing the envelope on product design. Even in sports it’s acknowledged that a lot of innovation comes from outside. For example, the distinctly technical dribbling style of Brazilian soccer players is said to come from samba, a fast moving street dance that many players learn when they are young.

It’s time for booster clubs to think in new ways as well. We are, after all, shaping the future of extracurricular programs and the futures of our young people. Does your booster club have an official position on diverse activities? Do you invest in facilitating no-cut policies? Or do you invest more in improving the support for those who make the cut? It might be worth a chat at your next meeting. For parents: do you encourage your kids to participate in many activities, or specialize in a few?

Inhibiting Hypercompetitiveness

My friend’s seven-year-old girl doesn’t want to play soccer because she’s “too old.” Well, what she means is “too far behind.” Her friends have been playing since they were four or five. If she starts a new sport, she says, she’ll suck. So already, at seven years old, some children are becoming averse to trying new things because of single-sport culture and hypercompetitiveness. In a league of single sport athletes, the barrier to entry is high. If you’ve never played soccer until freshman year, good luck getting off the bench by the time you graduate. Starting way too young, you’re only allowed to do what you already know. In that competitive environment, specialization isn’t just a way to be the best, it’s a prerequisite for participation. On one hand, you can understand why parents fervently support their kids through expensive summer camps and elite travel teams. On the other hand, it’s disappointing to see achievement in sports becoming almost more important than participation, life skills, and fun.

In America, the same attitude pervades in the classroom. Students are often encouraged to focus on what they are naturally good at. “Play to your strengths,” we say. But is this really appropriate in high school? It seems a bit early to be discouraging rounding out skill sets and balanced development. In my own field of enterprise software, I see the consequences of this educational model. I see so many talented programmers who simply can’t communicate. They were never really forced to craft a coherent letter in their lives. It was easier to let them focus on what they already did naturally. Then, they’re expected to exchange ideas, in writing, with colleagues in disparate niches of the globe. So while it is important to be a master of a trade, a 21st century work environment requires auxiliary skills as well.

How many times have you or your partner had a major career shift? What skills helped you in your new job? The answers might help your booster club think about how to approach extracurricular programming.

In my next post (Monday, Oct 21) read about a culture that values balanced development, the multi-sport athletes of old, and something called the “youth-sports industrial complex.”


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