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Youth Sports: Don't Specialize--Multiple Sport Athletes Make Great Football Players

Today at younger and younger ages kids are pushed to pick one sport and specialize. In football, young kids shouldn’t specialize. Many other sports can improve football skills, but here are the top sports that most directly translate to the game of football (not including rugby).

1. Baseball: Many elite receivers played baseball growing up. At Penn State Bobby Engram and OJ McDuffie were All-American receivers and talented baseball players. While today teams get caught up in throwing “jump balls” and “50/50 balls” that are essentially rebounds, the really big touchdown plays are made when a QB leads a WR who judges the ball effectively, runs it down and races into the end zone. Playing outfield develops deep-pass judgment. Effective outfielders see the ball come off the bat, judge its flight and start running towards the landing area without staring at the ball the whole time. Staring causes them to lose speed so they sprint only looking up the last few steps to track it to their glove. In addition, because baseball players catch the ball in a glove on their non-dominant hand they develop vision and hand skills in their “off-hand.” That enables them to use either hand as the stop hand catching a football going right or left coming out of a break.

2. Soccer: To the untrained eye, soccer looks like a cross-country meet with a ball. All that running helps young athletes gain endurance, change direction and improve foot coordination. Soccer helps linemen with footwork because foot coordination is vital to proper blocking technique. Soccer also teaches players to see the field, gaining awareness of others and on-field spacing. That translates well to football “skill positions” where vision and awareness of space and movement are vital.

2A. Lacrosse: Lacrosse incorporates many of the same skills as soccer with one advantage—there is contact involved. Players learn to recognize moving threats and avoid contact (or on defense to initiate contact). When faced with inevitable collisions they learn to play off contact or how to make contact to level an opponent. Before Syracuse’s Jim Brown became an NFL Hall-of-Famer, he was a dominant Lacrosse player whose Lax skills translated into a career as a great open field runner with intimidating power.

3. Basketball: Players learn hand-eye coordination by dribbling, running full speed while being able to see others on the court. On-court spacing is much tighter than on a football field so reaction times speed up. Rebounding creates jump-ball anticipation and skills. Playing defense in basketball teaches players to rapidly read and adjust to changes of direction. Basketball skill sets are good football predictors, one of the reasons college coaches watch prospects play basketball. Future NFL Hall of Famer Julius Peppers played basketball and football in high school. When we evaluated his tapes they included video from both sports (he played both at UNC as well). Ohio State’s Terrelle Pryor committed to play basketball at Pitt before deciding to concentrate on football. That versatility helped him switch to WR in the NFL where he had 77 catches for 1007 yards for the Browns last year.

Bottom line: football players being asked to specialize by playing 7-on-7 all off season are making a mistake. Diverse skill sets playing different sports go a long way to developing well-rounded competitors with the necessary athleticism and vision for football.

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