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Montclair Times Sideline Chatter: Students can benefit from being multi-sport athletes

July 08,2016 01:18

Summertime has become a veritable juggling act for high school athletes, coaches and parents when it comes to trying to play two or even three sports in the course of a week. But, the effort to be in perhaps two or three places at one time -as ...

Summertime has become a veritable juggling act for high school athletes, coaches and parents when it comes to trying to play two or even three sports in the course of a week. But, the effort to be in perhaps two or three places at one time -as impossible as it seems to be at times - is well worth the trouble in the long run.

Photo Courtesy of Bill allen

Caldwell High School's football coach Ken Trimmer at the North-South Football Classic.

After all, the multi-sport athlete is at the core of what scholastic sports should be all about, and while a few larger schools do a fairly good job at producing 2- and 3-sport male and female participants, the truth is more and more present-day high school athletes around the state - and in the country at large - generally train at one sport 12 months a year and forgo the opportunity to play something else at the varsity level, use different muscle groups, and simply enjoy bonding with a different group of kids as teammates.

Unless you're a Kyrie Irving (MKA/St. Patrick's/Duke/Cleveland Cavaliers in basketball), a Rick Porcello (Seton Hall Prep/Boston Red Sox in baseball), or even a Tim Howard (MKA/North Brunswick/Manchester, England & USA World Cup Team) in soccer - who even as high school freshmen appeared destined to one day be pros - the truth for 99 percent of today's high school athletes is that specialization will not lead to a professional career, and that the sole focus on a single sport can mean missing out on some truly terrific and varied multi-team experiences one may someday regret missing out on being a part of.

Meanwhile certain football teams around the state are already practicing with the first game still more than two months away, while select AAU basketball teams have been traveling from coast to coast the last couple of months, and certain elite club soccer programs are urging kids NOT to play for their high school teams anymore.

Yet, multi-sport athletes still thrive at a number of schools around North Jersey, including at Cedar Grove, Caldwell, Verona and Glen Ridge, just to name four smaller suburban Essex County schools where kids frequently play two or three sports in a school year with the added knowledge that there just aren't a lot of available numbers of student-athletes to go around for a large number of different teams.

A few of the larger Group 4 schools such as Montclair High also have done a decent job in terms of promoting multi sports participation, but it could be better.

When it comes to preserving the on-going presence of multi-sport athletes, it still seems to be a case more often of the smaller schools personifying the time-honored tradition.

"At a small school like ours, multi-sport athletes have always been the way it is, and it almost has to be that way for most of our programs to succeed simply because of numbers," said Ken Trimmer, Caldwell's longtime head football coach. "We all try to work with each other when kids have American Legion baseball games or summer basketball league contests, and -for the most part- we're able to make sure all teams get a pretty fair shake in terms of having a kid on hand that night at whatever they're trying to do together as a unit.

"It's just something we're used to here, and I think the kids really enjoy being a part of different sports teams."

And, at the same time, as August is really not that far off, which means the 'official' start of pre-season fall practice, a break right before diving into the new, upcoming fall campaign isn't such a bad idea either.

"I think kids need a bit of a break at some point of the summer, and - yes - some football teams do get carried away with just too much practice and far too many 7-on-7's," continued Trimmer, who this fall will be involved in his 54th season as either a head coach or assistant in high school football. "I'm all for kids playing different sports, and that's the way it's been at smaller schools like ours for years, both for the boys and girls. And, I think it's still very much a healthy way to go!

It may take proverbial "old-timers" in coaching, such as Trimmer to truly 'get it' when it comes to expressing the intangible values that can be garnered over the long haul by the multi-sport athlete.

"Kids are going to be unhappy 20 years from now when they look back and they didn't have that experience of multiple sports; they didn't gain the additional skills that you gain by switching things up," said the Caldwell gridiron mentor, who is currently busy coordinating the annual Phil Simms New Jersey North-South All-Star Football Classic. "When you look at a school like Cedar Grove, Verona or Glen Ridge, their best athletes play three sports. Their shortstop in baseball might be a quarterback on the football team, or a guard on the basketball team, and that's great to see!"

The large schools are frequently more likely to be the culprit in terms of having single sport athletes, but the Group 4's and Non-Publlc A's are not the only guilty parties - not by a long shot - as some other schools are finding more and more single-sport adherents. Plus, there are great examples of Mounties participating in at least two sports, such as the number of field hockey-girls lacrosse players who tend to transition from the fall sticker sport to the spring version as well.

The athletes who play just football, soccer or basketball, and nothing else can be the products of overzealous head coaches who take both themselves and the quest "to keep up with the Joneses" much too seriously.

They may ask themselves, "If everyone else is doing it, how can we not put in the extra time that they do if we still want to be able to compete?"

"It's really getting out of hand with teams practicing from the first day after spring state finals in early June, and with all the 7-on-7's, said Barry Kostibos, the now retired Livingston head football coach who also had previously served as an assistant baseball coach with the Lancers. "As it is now, we have some schools practicing more than NFL teams, and many schools don't even start their seasons until mid-September."

The multi-sport athlete can indeed still thrive and enjoy both the tangible and intangible aspects of being a teammate in more than one sport in this ever-increasing, modern-day world of specialization. Those keen observers of the scholastic world of sport, such as Caldwell's Trimmer - who make it a point to remind us of what being a varied scholastic athlete can be all about - do everyone a favor, and at can least make kids, parents and coaches think about the idea as well.

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