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    Monday, March 04, 2024

    A plea for kids to play multiple sports

    The residual effect of last week’s decision to deny New London High’s bid for a girls’ basketball cooperative — and thus prolong Valley Regional senior Olivia Cunningham’s quest to find somewhere to play this season — came with the typical blame assessment such stories generate.

    Plenty of finger pointing, not as much accountability. This part I’ll leave here: All parties involved ought to look in the metaphorical mirror and decide if they are truly comfortable with their behaviors, agendas and decisions. I suspect in quieter moments, many of them might conclude they had the responsibility to do things differently.

    But there’s another layer to this, one of far bigger concern to the future of high school sports, especially at small enrollment institutions. Cunningham was a junior last year at Valley on a girls’ basketball team that made the Class S state championship game. Her need to find a team for this season arrived because Valley doesn’t have enough girls to field a program for 2023-24.

    You may ask, perhaps even incredulously, how that even happens. Make the finals one year and then everybody bails the next?

    This is about the pox on our houses known as “sports specialization.” Play one sport, even if it’s out of season, to chase the elusive — mythical in some cases — scholarship. And while perhaps big schools can absorb one-sport kids, programs in smaller schools go the route of Valley, needing to co-op or shutting down the season entirely.

    Sources at Valley say there’s no basketball team this year because enough of its returnees decided to play travel volleyball this winter instead. It’s happening in more places than you think.

    Numerous studies exist trumpeting the benefits of playing multiple sports on the youth and high school levels. The best comes from Rob Bell, Ph.D., a sports psychology coach. The two-minute drill version: Specializing leads to greater chance of injuries (repeated movements with the same muscles), sports skills and athletic movements transfer (quickness, running, jumping, agility, throwing and countless other moves are all transferable), burnout becomes less frequent and multi-sport athletes are better teammates, working with a variety of teammates and coaches within different contexts.

    And yet parents are happy to benignly ignore that vicious pack of facts. My guess is that many of them aren’t financially capable of affording college, thus making the scholarship more important than a lung. They probably like the water cooler conversation about little Johnny and Jennie being on a “travel team.” The kids themselves can’t cope with failure, so sticking with a sport they’re good at is safe. Other factors exist as well, one more myopic than the next.

    I offer Mr. Bell’s aforementioned reasons to play multiple sports. Plus, the kids might actually have fun. And I’d also like to share something from my own experience.

    I was a member of the same graduating class at Xavier High with Jeff Bagwell, the baseball Hall of Famer. We were good friends in high school, but eventually lost touch.

    Bags played three sports: soccer, basketball and baseball. He was the state’s leading goal scorer in soccer his senior year. His baseball skills were obvious. But what truly made him great was his basketball experience. He rarely played. Even as a senior. This two-sport star spent his winters in anonymity, being the best teammate he could be. He even endured all the jokes about getting splinters in his rear end because of all the wooden benches to which was relegated.

    And he did it all happily, because he understood the value in seeing sports from a different lens.

    I doubt any of this will change anyone’s mind. Kids and parents today are more wide-eyed at remote possibilities than cognizant of reality. But if lessening the chance of injury, being a better teammate and the idea that 88 percent of the 2015 NFL draftees played multiple sports means anything, then please get out there and play everything you can. Your towns and schools need you.

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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