5 reasons why middle school students should play multiple sports

by Jeff Smith

It will sound odd hearing a club volleyball director promote the benefits of multi-sport participation over specialization. Shouldn’t directors demand playing nothing but volleyball 12 months a year?

But I firmly believe that every middle-school student should play more than one sport before they reach high school. Once they hit ninth grade, specialization makes sense but not for the middle-school years.

It’s one reason why Serve City’s practice attendance policy excuses absences caused by a conflicting sporting event. We especially encourage middle-school athletes to play other sports outside of the club volleyball season, such as during the summer when kids have the most free time.

My family practiced this philosophy. My older daughter played volleyball, basketball and track in middle school. My younger daughter participated in volleyball and basketball.

Multi-sport participation didn’t hurt either of them. Both played volleyball collegiately this season as freshmen. Playing volleyball in club, school and sand over the years helped their games, but playing two or three sports in middle school also played a key role in their development in the long run.

Playing club volleyball for four to six months while sprinkling in an eight- or nine-week school or park district sports season (or an individual sport like taekwondo, which I thoroughly enjoyed) before or after club, or even during club season if the schedules complement each other, also helps kids learn lifelong skills like time management, work ethic and self-discipline.

Here are five reasons why participating in multiple sports at the fifth- to eighth-grade level is good for your daughter.

1. Insurance against burnout

Playing multiple sports decreases the likelihood of emotional burnout. Playing only one sport during the middle-school years creates the risk of getting tired of that sport, particularly when you add in the pressures of heightened expectations, costs and travel associated with specialization. Variety is the spice of life that keeps sports fresh, fun and interesting for middle-school students.

I also consider sand volleyball a different sport from indoor volleyball. The rules, format, playing surface, weather conditions and many of the skills are significantly different from each other. Coaching sand volleyball the last five years, I’ve seen sand volleyball instill a deeper love for indoor volleyball and competition in general in numerous sand athletes.

2. Protection against injuries from overuse

The biggest enemy of younger athletes’ bodies is overuse. Too many repetitions of the same movements combined with inadequate recovery time and rest — typically seen in year-round travel sports like baseball with pitchers’ arm troubles, basketball with knee, ankle and foot injuries and gymnasts with leg, feet and shoulder issues — produces overuse injuries.

Various studies report that participating in multiple sports improves not only skill development but motor and muscle development as well as strength, agility, speed and balance, all of which contribute to a healthier, more resilient body.

3. Exposure to a variety of coaching and training styles

It’s understandable when a parent or child wants a certain coach to train their daughter year after year if their daughter likes the coach’s teaching style, temperament or personality. The problem is having the same coach for years on end doesn’t help the athlete for the long term.

Being exposed to different coaches from season to season or year to year will stretch and grow your daughter athletically, emotionally and in other ways. A range of different coaches in different sports will introduce her to different styles of communication, different training approaches, different coaching styles and different athletic philosophies and emphases.

Having the same coach, and in only one sport, limits what an athlete can learn, even in terms of the coaching approach to winning, competing and training to compete and win.

Participating in multiple sports also gives kids a chance to learn the benefits of different training styles. Soccer teams train differently than volleyball teams, which train different than gymnasts, who train differently than basketball players and cross country runners. Multi-sport participation unlocks the door to learning different ways to condition, strengthen and enhance our athletic bodies.

And each sport’s training style trains different muscle groups, which will increase your daughter’s athleticism, and that benefits her performance in every sport she plays.

4. All-around athletic development

At a Wheaton College volleyball practice last fall, as the players lumbered slowly on the court during a running warm-up drill, our head coach turned to me and jokingly whispered, “They run like volleyball players, don’t they?”

What she was referring to is the truth that athletes who only play volleyball tend to be slow runners. Volleyball is an anaerobic sport that requires quickness to the ball on the court in short bursts (fast-twitch muscles, for instance) but not sprinter’s speed over longer distances.

But that’s not to say volleyball players don’t benefit from specific athletic skills that can be acquired by training in other sports. For example:

  • Basketball can improve a volleyball player’s quickness, footwork, quick leaping ability and hand-eye coordination.

  • Track can help an athlete develop stronger legs for maintaining a low, athletic passing and digging posture.

  • Soccer can improve a volleyball player’s spatial awareness and assertiveness to the ball.

  • Gymnastics can make a volleyball athlete more limber and explosive to the ball.

  • Softball can teach overhand throwing mechanics to help players serve and hit effectively.

And the list goes on.

5. Relationships with a range of kids and sports

As someone who’s coached and played several sports, including basketball, tennis, golf, soccer and baseball, I’ve learned that each sport has a culture and climate of its own. Swimming kids are different as a whole from volleyball kids, who are different from figure skating kids, who are different from track kids, who are different from taekwondo kids, who are different from football and soccer kids.

Each sport has its own dynamics, its own rhythm, its own training style and its own personality. Walk in a gym, pool center or stadium for a practice or competition and within a few minutes you notice this right away.

Middle-school athletes reap the rewards of taking part in various sports. They learn different styles of training, conditioning and competing, and they benefit from building relationships with a range of different kinds of athletes their age. They also gain a variety of teammate experiences, interactions and memories with different kinds of peers while stretching their social circle.

Jeff Smith is Serve City’s girls volleyball director.