A lot has been written and said about the benefits of engaging in multiple sports for the developmental athlete. Not only does it offer exposure to many different movement patterns (jumping, running, throwing, kicking, etc.) and also develop a range of physical qualities (strength, flexibility, coordination, endurance, speed), but it allows them to develop skills associated with communication, working with others, overcoming obstacles, to name a few.
In addition, the risks of overuse injuries, burnout and even dropout from the sport (and thus maybe not engaging in an active lifestyle during adulthood) are said to be inferior in athletes who engage in multiple sports compared to those who specialize in one sport at a young age. After all, it is only by being actively engage in a sport that you will reap the physical, psychological and social benefits.
From a coaching standpoint, I believe a similar message also holds true. How many coaches ‘specialize’ and focus on coaching one sport early in their career? What are the risks associated with that specialization? What happens when you grow tired of routine or when you lose your job? Can coaches also benefit from having worked with athletes/individuals from many different sports?
When I first started as a kinesiologist/athletic development coach, I was working mainly with Canadian football players at the CEGEP and University level. I was a former university football player myself, so the transition was quite natural. Over the year, I also started working with a soccer concentration program at a local high school on the north shore of Montreal. Most kids in the program were in grades 7-8-9. The way you interact with these young athletes, both females and males together, and how you design a training session is much different than working with 17-20 years old football players. Most of them were in the program to play soccer, have fun, and be with their friends after all. A different sport, a difference sporting and also a different culture within the school.
Then, in 2015, I started working with an ice hockey prep school. Twice a week, I would go to the ice rink and work with U15, U17 and U19 male ice hockey players. You can guess that the dynamics of a coaching session were very different between all three age groups. With the U15, we worked mostly on balance, coordination, stability, bodyweight strength work whereas we could be a little be more specific and more intense and complex with the U17 and U19. After all, I had both U17 and U19 groups prior to the on-ice sessions while the U15 were always training after practice. Again, a different sport, a different sporting culture, a different academic culture.
From 2016 to 2018, I went back to working full time with Canadian football university players. Again, a different sport, a different sporting culture, a different academic culture. With college football, you train for 8 months in order to be able to compete for 3 months if you can make it to the championship. It is the highest level of amateur football, but it is a results-driven environment. As the athletic development coach, you are often the first one in the building and the last one to leave. If you have a training session at 6:00 in the morning because kids have to attend class at 8:00, you have to come in earlier to get set up. If kids finish class at 5:00 in the afternoon and then hit the gym, you have to be there on some occasions to make sure they perform the exercises in a safe manner. Over time, you can get caught in a pattern. Monday is Olympic weightlifting, Tuesday is upper body day, etc. To be really honest, there is nothing exciting in supervising football players bench pressing or doing hypertrophy workouts. Coaching is exciting, supervising the weight room is not. I have had most fun with football players during sprinting and agility sessions when we got away from our routine and changed training venue and training modalities.
Since I left my role with the football, I started working with athletes and coaches from other sports like track & Field, short-track speed skating, beach volleyball, sprint kayaking, rowing, soccer, and ice hockey. Different sports, different cultures, different individuals, different training and competition schedules. I really have to take a step back as a coach and look at the demands of the sport, look at the objectives and the needs of the athletes and understand their realities. It makes me step out of my comfort zone. It makes me ask questions. I am not the expert, the athletes and the coaches I am are working with are. There is no routine. Training programs are different. Interactions are different. One athlete may be in her off-season while another is competing. We don’t get 8 months to get ready for a competition season. We might have to bounce back from an injury, a difficult race and be ready for the next one that might be in 1-2 weeks from now. Some might be away on training camps and still need to train so now I am not coaching in-person but making sure they understand the big picture and what they have to do while they are away.
In the end, I am fortunate to be able to work with athletes from many different sports. I have learned a lot from my past coaching experiences and now I feel that I am expanding my coaching by being able to work and learn from the athletes and coaches from the different sports that I work with. It allows me to have discussions on many different topics, to search for ways to help support these athletes and coaches, and to have some balance between my coaching and teaching responsibilities.