When three-time Team USA-member and eight-time MLL All Star Matt Striebel and I get together, there is never any shortage of games, contests or competitions to play. Notice I didn’t say “when we are on the lacrosse field” or “when we have access to the right equipment”. No, for Matt and I, any environment can be a field of play, and any implement, toy or even trash, can be our gear. I firmly believe this ability to athletically improvise is due in large part to a LACK of single-sport specialization.

Matt grew up in rural Gill, Mass. I was raised primarily in suburban communities on the Eastern seaboard. Matt lived in the same place his whole life, yet I moved five times during my formative years. While several aspects of our backgrounds are different, there are more similarities when it comes to shaping our athletic lives. We were each the eldest in our families. Neither of us had video games in our houses growing up. And we were both multi-sport athletes (and still are) who loved to compete. When I say multi-sport athletes, I really have to stress the “multi” aspect of the phrase and stretch “sport” (also, as anyone who has seen me play basketball can attest, underplay the term “athlete” for myself!). These competitions were not limited to organized sports, either.

Capture-the-flag. Street hockey shootouts. Man-hunt. Whiffle Ball. Not exactly IOC-sanctioned, but still opportunities to be the best. The best at running, jumping and strategizing our next move. The best at outmaneuvering, outthinking or outlasting our opponent. The best at creating an opportunity and then seizing that opportunity TO COMPETE.

From a young age I can remember racing my dad to the car or to the next light post. I recall my mom (a personal trainer) challenging me to push-up contests or taking me running early in the morning with her. A sense of becoming my best self was instilled by my parents, both in their actions and in their words by reiterating that I “could do anything I set my mind to”. If I was ever bored and mentioned my plight to my mom, she would provide me with two options:

1.         Go outside and keep myself occupied

2.         Complete a list of chores that she had ready for me

I think you can guess which I option I usually chose. It was this mandated “go outside” policy, coupled with the competitive streak that had been nurtured into my very being, that formed the impetus for a made-up game or the organization of neighborhood buddies into two warring teams. This is where creativity and experimentation overlapped with competition. Using the tools we had at our disposal (such as a backyard, a broomstick and three tennis balls) could we come up with something that we would enjoy and that would properly delineate a winner from a loser? This kept sports fun. And made us crave more competition. Foundation laid.

As I grew older, I continued playing backyard games, but also incorporated organized sports into my routine. Local youth soccer, baseball, football, hockey and lacrosse each allowed me to compete with fellow members of the community in a fun and engaging way. I got better. I played with my buddies. I won. I lost. I learned life lessons from renowned coaches and neighborhood dads alike.

A move to Severna Park, Md., in 4th grade put lacrosse at the forefront and by 6th grade, they separated us into an A and a B team (I was on the B team). But I didn’t stop playing fall and winter sports. In my mind, I loved lacrosse, but I also loved hockey. And I loved to compete, so why wouldn’t I play SOMETHING in the fall? And as time wore on, I played on travel teams, club teams and in showcases, but all the while, I continued to look forward to the next sport by the end of each season – hanging up my skates for awkwardly sideways bounding strides on wet lacrosse fields come March and then choosing a third sport for the fall come August.

My theory then (and especially now) was that to be truly successful at sports, you need to have a genuine desire to be the best, as well as the drive it takes to fulfill that desire. In some, that may mean a Machiavellian quest for dominance that requires besting all opponents to rise to the top. In others, especially in sports like distance running and triathlons, it can mean the quest to be the best that you can be by outperforming your own times, feats or conquests. So logic would follow that if I wanted to be the best in any of the sports I played, coupling that desire with year-round training would turn me into an unstoppable force, right?

Wrong. The desire to be the best and the drive to achieve that goal are not sport-specific. They are COMPETITION-specific. I simply loved to compete, and each sport allowed me to do that in a new and exciting way. Because I limited the amount I played each sport “officially”, I often was excited to work on my wall ball or puck handling in the offseason, as opposed to seeing those drills as chores. Further, I was able to take the skills that I learned in hockey and apply them on the lacrosse field or on the soccer pitch. The sports were simply the outlet. The interest in being the best was indiscriminate. My drive to do “whatever it takes” was fueled by that interest.

Recently, I was excited to see Chris Vannini’s article detailing the athletic drills for sports other than football that Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh puts his campers through at his quarterback camp. Harbaugh framed the exercise by recalling a conversation with legendary coach Bill Walsh:

“I asked him one day, ‘What do you look for in a quarterback?’ He said ‘athletic instincts.’ I said, ‘Explain that to me.’ He said, ‘It means he’s the best athlete in the entire high school. He could go make the basketball team, at least be the sixth man. He could make the soccer team. He can swim. He can field balls from center field. He can be a shortstop, probably pitches on the baseball team. Even if he doesn’t play the sport, he’s a good enough athlete to make any team.

Harbaugh then continues on to discuss how players today have less opportunity to showcase those athletic instincts, largely because they play fewer sports. When pressed on why he had football QB’s fielding pop flies, he responded:

“I think it’s fun for the fellas to just know there’s a lot of athletic reps that you can take. You can climb a tree, and that’s about as good an athletic rep as you can get in terms of balance and strength and core and planning out what your next move is. That’s why we’re doing it.”

Harbaugh wraps up by describing how players use the non-football drills to gauge themselves and each other as “good, better and best”. In short, he is talking about evaluating their DESIRE TO COMPETE, no matter the contest.

And if Jim Harbaugh is not enough of an expert for you, The American Academy of Pediatrics released a report in August that discourages early sports specialization and even intensive training based on the “potential for adverse effects on the mind and body”. In addition to citing burnout, the AAP report discusses the fact that players are likely to suffer overuse injuries and that “evidence is lacking that specialization before puberty is necessary to achieve elite status.” So you mean that scholarship you were banking on “investing in” through year-round trainers, camps and teams won’t pay off?

“Studies have shown that Division 1 NCAA athletes are more likely to have played multiple sports in high school and that their first organized sport was different from their current one.”

Sports are supposed to bring us joy. They are fun to watch, they are the basis for the career I have built at Trilogy Lacrosse and they teach important life lessons. For a select few, money can be earned by playing sports, and I have been lucky enough to fall into that category (albeit on a smaller scale in the MLL and NLL). However, the most fun I have had playing sports can be summed up in the list below, ranked in order of the fondest memories:

1.         Leading the Cornell Lacrosse team onto the field for the 2007 Final 4

2.         Every whiffle ball game in the Great Wedding Whiffle Ball Season of 2014

3.         Winning the MLL Championship in 2011

4.         Five hours straight of Spikeball in Martha’s Vineyard during my bachelor party

I don’t know my record in those Spikeball games, or who won the 2014 Whiffle Ball Pennant but that is exactly the point. The joy of competing with people I cared about is what made those so special. The fact that I was not a one-sport pony during my formative years allowed me to have all of the experiences, relationships and skills that continue to provide opportunities to compete both in professional and recreational settings.

So if you want to argue that single-sport specialization is the path to becoming the next big thing, will make you a sure-fire first round draft pick, or will lead to the big bucks, I’d recommend you read the latest chapter in “Mitch’s Book of Games: The Games Mitch Plays”. It’s called Go Climb a Tree.

Mitch Belisle is the vice president of marketing for Trilogy Lacrosse. A former All-American at Cornell University, he currently plays professionally with the Boston Cannons (MLL) and Georgia Swarm (NLL). He was a member of the 2014 U.S. men’s team in the FIL World Championship in Denver.

Lacrosse Athlete Development Model

The Lacrosse Athlete Development Model - Providing every athlete the opportunity to enter, enjoy and excel by learning and playing lacrosse in a way that’s best for each stage of growth and development.

Learn More