Multi Sport vs. Lacrosse-Only....
A theme developed among some of the interviews that being away from the Northeast meant having to focus more on lacrosse and less on other sports to catch up and be seen by recruiters. But, Division I coaches — as pointed out in John Jiloty's column in the October issue — overwhelmingly support multi-sport athletes. Jiloty's column was among the most-read in the past week and featured some in-depth, thoughtful comments from readers.
The IL staff chimes in on the multi-sport vs. lacrosse-only debate below:
Obviously my opinion doesn’t matter as much as those of the coaches who do the recruiting, and I think there is a little bit of an odd double speak in all of this. Most DI coaches talk about wanting guys who are multi-sport athletes, but the underlying idea in that is that what is at a premium now is getting the most athletic kids possible — you can teach a kid to be a great player, but you can’t teach speed or athleticism. Multi-sport athletes tend to be the most athletic kids, especially because nowadays if you stick with other sports through high school, and you are good enough to be a lacrosse prospect, your probably pretty good at those other sports too, evidencing your general level of athleticism. What I mean with the double speak thing is that coaches are saying they like multi-sport athletes, but the age of prospects keeps getting younger and younger, and the recruiting calendar has grown from the spring season, through the entire summer, and even into the fall. So somehow a kid has to play enough lacrosse and be good enough at it by the time he is a freshman or sophomore so he gets noticed in recruiting, while also managing to squeeze other sports into this new year-round lacrosse calendar. Something has to give in that equation.
Personally I think being a multi-sport athlete is better. You get fewer repetitive-motion injuries and generally develop a better overall athleticism by playing more sports. And an unseen part of the year-round, younger recruiting phenomenon is the likelihood that kids will burn out by the end of their college careers because they have just played so much lacrosse for so long it gets a little tiresome. Your options, particularly athletically, get smaller and smaller as you get older, so why not enjoy playing as many sports, assuming you like them all, as you can. You won’t get a chance to revisit many of them later.
I talked to more than half the coaches in DI about this for my magazine column and it’s clear they favor mult-sport athletes. However, they recognize the situation early-recruiting puts kids in when they verbally commit as sophomores. Easy for them to give up other sports at that point and focus on what’s already gotten them to college. And they all agree that’s unfortunate.
What I gleaned as the conclusion was: multi-sport is the way to go because it fills out your athletic experience and skillset. But keep working on your lacrosse skills when you can, and make sure to play lacrosse in the summer to keep sharp. If you really don’t want to risk injury playing another sport, figure out a way to get as much structure, discipline and oversight into your routine as possible. Work with a trainer, practice lacrosse with a friend or coach, play on teams, at least get in some pickup hoops or hockey or racquetball. As any college player will tell you, whatever you’re doing to prepare for the next level, freshman fall is going to be a shock to your system. So take what you’re doing and double it. Then double it again. Then you’ll still be blown away by the difference of the college level.
As a guy who works on the front lines of this battle, kids are learning quickly that you have to balance idealism with practicality. So, ideally, playing three-sports is a wonderful way to spend your high school years. You learn what it takes to play in different environments, with different coaches, players, rules and mentalities. It also helps develop all-around athleticism, making OK athletes good and good athletes exceptional. And if you’re an exceptional athlete, then you’re going to be pushed to play three sports regardless in order to float your school’s overall sports programs. Dom Starsia is famous for saying he recruits goalies, attackmen and Division IAA football players (I guess that would be FCS now?).
What if you’re only a “good” athlete though? There’s an underlying concern though if you play three sports, and are just a good athlete, then you’ll get your pick of Division III opportunities, but you’ll also miss out on the Division I lacrosse recruiting landscape. And that situation is becoming increasingly true. With money tied up so early with verbal commitments, chances of playing DI lacrosse while earning even are little bit of scholarship moola become almost nonexistent. Its a downward spiral these days, and I don’t know how that changes.
I think a good starting point is identifying the question properly. Are we asking:
• What athletic choices will make you the best lacrosse player?
• What athletic choices will make you the most recruitable lacrosse player?
• What is best for the typical lacrosse player?
…And on down the list. Those all have different answers, in my opinion, and are totally individual choices that should be left up to each athlete’s own decision-making.
As we’ve seen, there are plenty of examples of different routes to success. Most recently, I’ve been impressed by the the strength of some players arguing that specialization is the only way to go — that’s not a common refrain, and the sentiment sparked this debate. But even guy a like Peter Baum would probably acknowledge that he’s speaking for himself, and while it worked for him and his strategy shouldn’t be criticized but validated by the results he’s produced, it’s not a guarantee that his path will work for someone else.
On the other side of the coin, I think highlighting the types of athletes college coaches say they prefer is only so valuable; it needs to be evaluated in conjunction with data of what types of players are they actually recruiting. There was a good comment on Jiloty’s October editorial: “If you are in the west coast they are always saying they need to see you play. How are you supposed to make all these trips so these guys can see you play and be able to properly commit to another sport in the fall?” That’s just one aspect of this very nuanced situation that, as previously stated, is a really personal decision each player should make with his or her family in deciding what’s best for them.
On one hand, I can’t disagree with a large majority of Division I coaches who have more experience, know-how, and are all-in-all much smarter than I am. If they want multi-sport athletes, than you can stop and start the debate there. But I think that’s looking through a lens of a still East Coast-centric landscape in which you expect coaches to see you multiple times on the recruiting trail. If I’m on the West Coast (like Baum), and I think I’m good enough to play DI lacrosse (like Baum), but I’m not being seen by enough coaches and need to up my skil level (like Baum), I’m going to do everything I can for coaches to see me play — even if that means ditching sports I grew up playing.
The wild card for me isn’t the skills learned in those other sports; it’s the burnout factor from playing only one sport. It was clear to me from talking with Baum, his father, coach MIke Murphy and Scott Hochstadt that Baum has a special love for lacrosse. He was called a lax rat. It was noted by everyone how he gets up early to go play lacrosse even when he doesn’t have to.
He himself said: “You have to sort of balance putting all that time in it and still loving the sport and not getting burnt out. ... Sometimes I laugh because it shouldn't be fun still. There’s something about lacrosse. It's the people that I've met playing...I've been really lucky to have friends who have been on every team. I keep waiting to burn out but it hasn't happened.”
Baum may be the one out of 100 who still loves lacrosse this much after it being a “career” for so long. If you find yourself dreading going to practice some days, maybe it’s time for you to pick up a second sport in the offseason. If you love being on the field, I’m not going to tell you not to do that. The important thing is kids are doing and playing what they love and it's not becoming a "job" for them. That instinctual love for the game is what sets you apart.
I think an important distinction in this argument is the age we’re talking about, which I realize with Baum is high school. Up to a certain point, it’s hugely important to play multiple sports and I think you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who doesn’t think young kids should play a variety of sports. It’s an integral part of your development as an overall athlete and gaining a wide array of skills that will forever be valuable to you.
That being said, I think there eventually comes a time where it’s OK to focus on one thing and maybe high school is that time. I think especially with the pressure on kids these days regarding recruitment, that burnout becomes a huge factor so having multiple sports or activities breaks things up a bit. I also think there’s a lot to be said for how another sport can help you prepare for your primary sport. Some girls I played lacrosse with in high school ran cross country in the fall, which kept them in shape. Do I think that playing multiple sports throughout your career makes you an overall better athlete and a more attractive prospect to college coaches? Absolutely. But I see the other side of the coin and don’t think there’s anything wrong with a high school player who chooses to focus only on that.
I don't want to repeat what my colleagues have already said, as most of the key points have been hit here. But my thinking is this: if you can play all the sports you like as a high school student, but still play as much lacrosse as possible (perhaps even just playing wall ball every night on your own, or shooting on a goal), I think that's the way to go. There's not one right answer here, even if it does come from Division I coaches. They can tell us what they prefer, but that doesn't mean they are going to only recruit one or the other type: kids who focused solely on lacrosse vs. kids who played multiple sports. There are benefits to either approach, and it's completely situational for EVERY player. There's no correct general path that is going to work for an entire group of athletes. Life is different, places are different and situations are different. Neither one is right or wrong.
Now, I do see the potential risks in playing multiple sports if you've already committed (I think of Tom Grimm, a redshirt freshman this fall at Syracuse, who, after committing to Syracuse early on, tore his ACL while playing football -- an example of what you might avoid by playing on lacrosse -- but that can happen in lacrosse, too, right?). But that doesn't mean you should give up that opportunity -- an opportunity you won't get again in life. On the other hand, the risk of playing ONLY lacrosse is that you limit yourself in the overall athlete you can become. I see the biggest potential detriment being to the athlete's decision-making, overall athletic ability, mental toughness (that comes from battling through a range of different competitive situations), leadership, resilience, etc. But that's not a guarantee. Peter Baum, to me, proves that you can take the lacrosse-only route and turn out just fine (and it's clear from our research for the Oct. cover story that it's common for kids out west to feel like they MUST take that approach to increase their chances of exposure -- which is understandable, so it's a fruitless effort to argue that). We obviously know of many examples of multi-sport athletes succeeding in lacrosse. We can talk all day about this, but there's no one correct position here.