Can high school athletes succeed after playing multiple sports?

Eric Sondheimer
Contact ReporterVarsity Times Insider
Think it's bad for teens to play multiple sports? Take a look at Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton

When Miami Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton signed the richest contract in North American sports history last week, it was irrefutable evidence validating the idea that teenagers who play multiple sports in high school can still fulfill their sports destiny at the highest level.

During his senior year at Sherman Oaks Notre Dame in 2006-07, Stanton was All-CIF in football after catching 11 touchdown passes. He was All-CIF in basketball after averaging 19.7 points and 13.5 rebounds. And he was All-CIF in baseball after batting .393 with 12 home runs.

Stanton's baseball coach, Tom Dill, remembers how he had to convince Stanton to keep playing basketball. Stanton wanted to drop the sport to focus on baseball, but Dill asked him to make a list of his favorite sports. Basketball was No. 1, baseball No. 2 and football No. 3.

Then Dill asked Stanton to make a list of the three sports he thought he was best in. Football was No. 1, baseball No. 2 and basketball No. 3

"So the point is, your favorite sport you're not going to play your senior year?" Dill told Stanton. "You go to high school only once."

Stanton changed his mind.

"By the way," Dill recalls telling Stanton, "your best sport is baseball." He paused last week after recounting the conversation. "I think I was correct."

With Stanton, 25, having just signed a 13-year, $325-million contract, this is the perfect time to debate the wisdom of being a multiple-sport athlete, because football season is ending, basketball and soccer are beginning, and the pressure is building for elite athletes to specialize in one sport.

There's lots of research indicating specialization at the youth level is detrimental physically and psychologically, according to Aaron Wright, director of Ohio University's online master's program in Athletic Administration. It can hamper development and lead to burnout and repetitive stress injuries. But there's little research indicating whether it's a positive or negative to play multiple sports in the teenage years.

"The conclusion of many is athletes choose to specialize to get a college scholarship, and I can't point to a single study that says that's true," Wright said.

According to many longtime coaches, fewer athletes are choosing to play more than one sport. Wright isn't sure that's the case.

"I'm not completely convinced the impact is that dramatic," he said. "National participation is rising. Kids are still playing sports and playing multiple sports."

But there is pressure to specialize. It comes from club coaches trying to market their athletes to college coaches. It comes from high school coaches unwilling to share an athlete with another team. It comes from parents fearing the focus on one sport might lead to less success in another, costing a college scholarship.

Stanton's experience is an example of how to make it work.

Kevin Rooney, Notre Dame's football coach and athletic director, said that the three coaches who shared Stanton would get together each summer and work out a schedule. There was no tension, no jealousy, no fear of retribution.

"He did a little bit of everything," said Bill Bedgood, the basketball coach at the time. "Nobody overloaded him. He was the best I ever coached by far, so gifted athletically and so humble. He had zero ego. It's amazing the things he could do that he spent less time on because he was so busy working on three sports.

"The whole key was coaches willing to work together and share the athlete. When coaches work together, it makes it easier for the kid to have success. You're putting the kid first. You're not putting your program first."

Stanton was able to play three sports because Notre Dame's coaches helped make it happen. There are others trying to follow the Stanton example.

Keisean Lucier-South, a UCLA-bound linebacker at Orange Lutheran, is playing basketball. Matt Katnik, a star lineman at Bellflower St. John Bosco, is the No. 1 shot putter in the state. Brian Gadsby, a UCLA-bound pitcher, is the quarterback for unbeaten Crescenta Valley.

There is one side note about Stanton, though. As great an athlete as he is, he could never figure out how to consistently make free throws. He was 66 of 156 in his senior year — 42%.

"I was the Mater Dolorosa free-throw champion in South San Francisco," said Joe McNab, the defensive coordinator for Notre Dame's football team. "I should have been an assistant coach."

Twitter: @LATSondheimer

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times