Sport

Making it easier for kids to play multiple sports is hard — but it can be done

The world of youth sports is full of seemingly obvious choices backed up by years of study and research. But doing the right thing is not always so straightforward.

Take the idea of being a multi-sport athlete. Countless studies and development models tell us that it is better for young athletes to play multiple sports rather than focusing on just one year-round.

A recently released public service campaign titled Change it Up reinforces this important concept. It shows four elite Canadian athletes participating in sports other than the one they are best known for. The campaign is supported by the Canadian Olympic Committee, Hockey Canada, Baseball Canada and Canada Soccer.

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CBC Sports published a story earlier this month about the campaign and the response has been overwhelming.  

In a nutshell, many parents say the idea of their child being a multi-sport athlete is a great one but, in reality, is hard to achieve. A number of factors were identified, including time, money and pressure from coaches and fellow parents.

Most of the parents who responded have children that play competitive hockey, where the season typically runs from September until March, followed by tryouts for next season and spring and summer hockey.

“So whether we want to be removed from hockey longer or not, the sport is not set up to allow for that,” wrote Darko Veselinovic, who considers his family a “hockey family.”

“We get to enjoy baseball or soccer for the next eight weeks and then right back to hockey. If Hockey Canada really wants to help change the culture, then maybe tryouts and practices of any kind should not be allowed during the months of May through August.”

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Reuben Moses knows how busy the life can be. His nine-year-old son plays competitive hockey in the winter and competitive baseball in the summer in Toronto.

“It’s a balancing act,” he says. “It’s a huge commitment for myself, for my family. I spend a lot of time with [my son] and it takes away from the time I spend at home. It’s a lifestyle commitment. It’s not for everyone.”

That’s the same message Richard Monette is getting. As the head of Active for Life, the non-profit group behind the Change it Up campaign, he says he hears a common refrain: “I would love my daughter or son to be able to play more than one sport, but his/her coach has scheduled four practices a week and two games.”

“Basically,” Monette says, “some parents are telling us that promoting multi-sport for kids is noble but it remains unfeasible where they live. They share that many minor sport organizations make multi-sport participation very difficult because of the way they program sport for kids at the community level.”

Moses thinks it would be easier if kids did more playing outside on their own, sampling many different sports.

“Today, the world that we live in, everything is programmed,” he says. “You just don’t see 10 kids going out to the park and playing a game of soccer. Gone are the days when there were those all-day soccer or basketball games with your friends. So if you want your kids to stay active, it does take time because you have to take them there.”

Moses says the demands of playing multiple sports could be eased if his son played at a less competitive level, but that’s not an option they’re considering at the moment.

“It’s something I’m always consulting him about … but he appears to be very sincere, that he enjoys the competitiveness of high-level sport,” Moses says. “And in order to do this, you have to keep up with the Jonses with some of the extra stuff.”

Coaches face pressure from parents

Some coaches demand total commitment, which makes doing another sport difficult.

But not every coach is like that.

As a kid, Nathaniel Brooks played the highest level of minor hockey in Toronto. He now coaches a competitive team of 10-year-old boys and is also the assistant coach for the Ryerson Rams, a collegiate team in the city. He’s a proponent of the multi-sport approach.

If kids want to be active in multiple sports, they need support from coaches and parents. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)

“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is the similarities between a lot of sports,” Brooks says. “I was playing triple-A hockey in Toronto as an 11-year-old and I told my coach I was on the basketball team. He was like, that’s great, you being on the basketball team is going help you play defence on the ice.”

He wants his players to feel like they have the same choices.

“I tell my kids, if you are a baseball player and we are doing hockey stuff in baseball season, I am not going to tell you that you have to come to hockey before baseball. I think that we have enough time and these kids are on the ice so much and they play so much in the winter that I think it’s good to take a little bit of time off.

“I think if you have somebody giving a nine- or 10-year-old an ultimatum about a hockey tournament in June, then you need to rethink what program you are with, especially if you are a multi-sport athlete.”

At the same time, Brooks says there is tremendous pressure on coaches, coming mostly from parents, to program every moment.

“The thinking is that we are going to be playing team X during the year and that team is playing in four summer tournaments. We just can’t sit there and not do anything. But I think a lot of it is irrelevant and if there’s a kid that goes up to summer camp for six weeks and that’s what he wants to do, great. Some kids want to skate all summer long. But it should be a choice.”

Not better to burn out

There are also dangers, Brooks points out, in putting all your eggs in one basket.

“What parents need to realize is that kids that are doing [only one sport] are risking burnout more than other kids [who play multiple sports] are risking not reaching their potential.”

Monette says real change won’t come through top-down ultimatums from national organizations like Hockey Canada. He says it must be driven by parents, volunteers and the local organizations who deliver programs.

“If your eight-year-old daughter plays for a coach that believes it is a good thing to schedule five practices a week, and your minor soccer association allows it, and the league your daughter plays in schedules three games a week, then multi-sport participation is simply not possible for your daughter,” he says. “Even if Soccer Canada supports multi-sport.”

Creating an environment where multi-sport athletes can actually thrive, he says, will require “a situation in which the gatekeepers of sport, both at the top and the grassroots level, understand that kids who practice many different sports and activities at a younger age are set up for success later.”

In a system organized around this notion, Monette says, “Sports are not competing against each other to attract eight-year-old kids, but working together to create schedules to allow kids to participate in more than one sport.”

In other words, everyone will have to get on board.