Column: Line Drives — Playing multiple sports is best

[This is my column in the July 30 issue of The Commercial Review.]

John Smoltz, one-third of arguably the best three-man pitching rotation in the history of Major League Baseball, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame on Sunday.

During his speech, he touted those who helped him throughout his baseball career.
But he also had a message for young athletes and their parents regarding Tommy John surgery.

“It’s an epidemic,” said Smoltz, who to date is the only HOF member to have had the procedure. “It is something that is affecting our game. It is something that I thought would cost me my career.

“I want to encourage the families and parents that are out there to understand that this is not normal to have a surgery at 14 or 15 years old. You have time. Baseball is not a year-round sport. You have an opportunity to be athletic and play other sports.”

Smoltz, first a premier starting pitcher who later became an outstanding closer before returning to the rotation, reiterated what studies in recent years have suggested — young athletes should play multiple sports.

According to an Oct. 23 article on its website, USA Football, which is the governing body for amateur football in the U.S., “encourages young athletes to play multiple sports. According to medical experts, taking part in a variety of activities — whether sanctioned or not — leads to greater skill and muscle development.”

For example, the article goes on to say that the same lateral movement a basketball player uses to stay in front of defenders is the type of skill used by shortstops to field ground balls and that offensive linemen utilize to pass block.

The same article cites former University of Michigan and Ball State University coach Brady Hoke, who said an athlete who plays multiple sports becomes a better teammate.

Being the star on one team but a role player on another can allow an athlete to appreciate both perspectives better.

During the 2014-15 sports season at Jay County High School, a total of 338 different athletes participated in sports for the Patriots. That includes anyone on the varsity, junior varsity or freshman rosters for football, volleyball, tennis, soccer, cross country, golf, basketball, swimming, gymnastics, wrestling, baseball, softball, track and cheerleading.

Out of those more than 300 student athletes, roughly one-third (114) of them played multiple sports. To narrow it further, 32 of them were three-sport athletes.

According to the IHSAA enrollment numbers, Jay County had 1,113 students during the 2014-15 school year, meaning that slightly more than 30 percent of them were athletes.

That is a good number, actually quite higher than I expected.

There are many benefits to playing multiple sports, and a third of Jay County’s athletes last season were reaping the reward. They were building strength and stamina for all muscles, more than those required for any one sport. And, as Hoke alluded to, they were well on their way to becoming better teammates.

The maturation of the entire body is important, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine said in its position statement on overuse injuries and burnout in youth sports from January 2014. The article noted “diversified sports training during early and middle adolescence may be more effective in developing elite-level skills in the primary sport due to skill transfer.”

Among the athletes at Jay County, there were a few interesting things to note:

•Nearly all (nine of 12) members of the varsity girls basketball team played more than one sport.
•Less than half (six of 14) of the boys varsity hoops team played another sport.
•Baseball and girls tennis are the two sports with the highest percentage of athletes who did not play another sport. Nine of the 15 (60 percent) of the varsity baseball players and 14 of 22 (63.6 percent) of female girls tennis players only played their respective spring sport.

Bob Cook said it best in his May 8 article on Forbes.com. “… An athletic person can be taught football, but someone whose parents spent umpteen thousands of dollars on football training and fundamentals can’t be taught to be 6-foot-3, 230 pounds with a 4.3 (second) 40-yard dash time.”

While there are certainly benefits to playing one sport, the disadvantages outweigh the advantages of specializing.

Being involved in multiple sports makes an athlete more coachable, expands interests, reduces the risk of injury and burnout, and, most importantly, is better for the physical growth of the body.

It’s never too late to take up another sport.

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