by Tom Billups, C.S.C.S.
I received an email the other day from a high school rugby player asking for some advice about ways to improve his rugby. Specifically, he asked if I thought it was a good idea for him to quit football and focus solely on rugby. He wonders if he would be better off “specializing” in rugby rather than trying to play multiple sports. My answer, based both from personal and professional experience was no, don’t specialize in high school. I am convinced that playing other sports like football, basketball, or wrestling help to make you a better rugby player.
Being exposed to and participating in a variety of high school sports provides a general knowledge of the fundamental skills required to play sport. Once an athlete has been taught the fundamentals of throwing a ball or receiving a pass, they can better appreciate the athleticism required to execute that skill. The better the fundamentals are taught (and learned), the better the understanding of what is taking place. This enhanced understanding and appreciation leads to greater enjoyment when playing sport.
Playing multiple sports in high school means being exposed to a greater number of teammates and coaches. As one decorated multiple sport high school athlete said, “ I love my sport (football) and I am not going to back out on my teammates to get ready for the next sport (baseball)”. “I take my sports in the order of the season, so after football, I become a baseball player”. It is the athlete who decides how many sports to participate in and the coaching staff’s responsibility to assure the athlete has a positive athletic experience while on the team. The high school coaches I admire most support multi-sport participation for their students and it should be no surprise that most successful high school athletic departments nurture this multi-sport culture within their schools. There is a time to become a single sport athlete, and that time is when you become an intercollegiate athlete.
Competing in more than one sport in high school generates more competitive experiences for the athlete to draw upon. The more times an athlete is in a competitive arena, where performance matters, the better prepared they will be for intercollegiate competition. This is especially true for high school rugby players that are on teams that only play a handful of rugby matches each season. Basketball coaches sleep better at night knowing they have athletes that can deal with the pressure of sinking a free throw with the game on the line. Likewise, rugby coaches benefit from the knowledge that their players have similar competitive experiences, in other sports, to draw upon in tight matches.
When competing in multiple American sports, rugby athletes are exposed to differing approaches to physical preparation. Rugby players benefit from learning how strength training movements are used to develop game and performance competency. An example would be the strength and conditioning performed by sophisticated high school football programs is position specific, something high school rugby strength programs aren’t. Athletes learn the importance of training smart and the benefits that position specific training has on their performance and game enjoyment. There are numerous transferable team lessons and individual physical skills, such as footwork, that are beneficial in all sports. Additionally, the absence of video and statistical analysis in high school rugby means athletes need to play other sports to fully appreciate to use these tools as important aspects of their development.
There are likewise athlete accountability standards in many scholastic sports that surpass high school rugby. Players in traditional U.S. sports are required to commit to memory playbooks the size of a phone book. Each player’s assignment interlocking with the next.
Lastly, by playing multiple sports while in high school, athletes have the opportunity to earn a diverse athletic pedigree. For example, by displaying the athletic ability to earn all-conference or all-state honors, rugby athletes in traditional American sports establish a noteworthy benchmark. Not surprisingly, a majority of the great players to play rugby for the United States were also accomplished athletes in other sports. Players like Chris O’Brien, Dan Lyle, David Hodges, Richard Tardits, Don James, Gary Hein, and Jack Clark readily come to mind.
Multi-sport training and participation at the high school level better develops rugby players for the collegiate competition and beyond. It’s how we do it!
Tom Billups began his rugby career in 1984 and has spent time as a player in New Zealand (Bay of Plenty), the U.S. (The Old Blues), England (London Harlequins), and Wales (Pontypridd) for domestic teams as well as representing the U.S.A. at international tournaments with the Eagles. After hanging up his boots, Billups got into coaching leading the Eagles and now with University of California – Berkeley. Read the entire bio of Tom Billups as well as Billups first column My Rugby Path and then check out what Billups is saying about the game of rugby in The Billups Column on Rugby Rugby.
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