For the past 18 months, the Michigan High School Athletic Association has amped up its voice regarding trends in sports specialization and the benefits of multi-sport participation.
For many preceding decades, it seemed that it was only the leaders of school sports who were speaking out, and only from a philosophical point of view; but in recent years, the cause has been taken up by increasing numbers, and the philosophical perspectives have been joined by experts from the fields of child psychology, pedagogy, sociology and sports medicine.
The MHSAA’s resources have been modest in comparison to the billion-dollar business that youth sports has become. We’ve used publications, PSAs, our statewide radio network and tournament telecasts on Fox Sports Detroit; more recently the NFHS digital broadcast network for additional tournament events and some regular-season contests; and this fall a partnership with State Champs! Sports Network for television and radio messaging on a weekly basis.
The MHSAA’s Task Force on Multi-Sport Participation has been operating for 18 months and identifying strategies and developing tools for allied organizations and schools to use with youth athletes and their parents, as well as coaches, to promote the multi-sport experience. One new tool – “Coaching Coaches for Multi-Sport Participation” – will soon join the MHSAA’s ongoing Coaches Advancement Program to supplement local school administrators’ efforts to blunt the effects of the specialization tsunami in youth sports.
Much of the sports specialization storm is commercially driven. Local entrepreneurs across the country have seized opportunities to help create and satisfy the appetite of parents to push their children toward early, intense and prolonged focus on a single sport.
Also behind the craze are national sport governing bodies (most notably soccer and volleyball) and professional sports organizations (baseball, basketball, football especially) and local convention and tourism bureaus to build their brands on the backs of young athletes and their families.
Major League Baseball, National Basketball Association and National Football League and other professional leagues have subsidiaries or affiliates who are investing in grassroots programs to grow their sports, often with only their own sport in mind, and the health and welfare of the whole child of secondary concern.
All of this begs us in school sports to think bigger.
To think again about building our own multi-purpose facility to host local and statewide events, and to make it “the destination” for high school teams in Michigan.
To think more about ways to make school sports “the experience” for junior high/middle school and even younger students.
To think anew about an investment arm which incentivizes schools to develop the policies, programs and places that attract and hold students, and which partners with for-profit entities to create school-centered sports initiatives.
The battle for the hearts and minds of youth and their parents is trending poorly. It’s time – almost past time – to employ more impressive tactics, without losing the soul of school sports ... pure, amateur, local, educational athletics.