Majority of Little League World Series players are multisport athletes
Reece Roussel dominated the Little League World Series, racking up multiple hits in every game and setting a tournament record, with 17, as he led Louisiana to a championship.
But baseball might not even be the 12-year-old outfielder's best sport. Roussel, a rising seventh grader at St. Charles Borromeo School in Destrehan, Louisiana, is also a swimmer and plays football, both tackle and flag. He swims "just about every day," he said, and competes in regular meets. "I'm just as good of a swimmer as a baseball player."
Bransyn Hong, a shortstop for the Hawaii team that Roussel and his teammates beat 9-5 in the U.S. championship game on Saturday, also swims regularly. "Swimming helped develop my scapula muscle," Hong said. "And that helps me throw the baseball better."
Roussel and Hong are two of the many Little League World Series players who are also multisport athletes. Based on the questionnaires that players completed at the start of the tournament, 97 percent (or 102 out of 105 U.S. players) play other sports besides baseball. On seven of the eight U.S. teams participating in the 2019 Little League World Series, every player plays at least two sports -- and some as many as four.
That's not necessarily the norm in youth sports today. According to a survey by the Aspen Institute's Project Play initiative, nearly half (45%) of children only play one sport -- and boys start specializing in sports earlier than girls. Players who primarily played baseball, boys and girls soccer, softball and boys basketball specialized, on average, around 10 years of age.
"Baseball is the best game, but it's a really hard game, and it can wear down if you don't get away from it for a while," said ESPN analyst Tim Kurkjian, who has covered the sport for more than 40 years. "Having a kid only play baseball, specialize when he is 10 years old, is a bad idea. Put the bat and glove down in November and go play basketball. It will be fun and refreshing. It will make you a better baseball player.''
Among the U.S. players, basketball is by far the most popular complementary sport. Seventy-two of the LLWS participants also play hoops, followed by tackle football (26), soccer (10), hockey (11) and flag football (9).
The LLWS representative from Barrington, Rhode Island, is one of the teams with a multitude of multisport athletes. Team manager Chris Promades says that's by design.
"We encourage our kids to take a break from baseball and play other sports," said Promades, whose son, Christopher, also competes in soccer and hockey. "As soon as we get home from Williamsport, he'll put away his glove and put on his hockey skates. I want him to have fun. I don't want to put any pressure on him to focus on one sport. The only pressure is on me and my wife, to get him to all of his different activities."
Promades said that the major leaguers he and his players met in Williamsport had the same message. "When we visited with the Pirates, they told us, 'I hope your kids are playing more than one sports. It's so important for them not to specialize. It helps them learn different skills and be able to apply those skills to baseball,'" said Promades.
Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman Josh Bell was one of those pro-variety pros. The All-Star, who visited Williamsport along with his teammates before they took on the Chicago Cubs in the Little League Classic last Sunday, said he didn't focus exclusively on baseball until after high school.
"I played basketball, ran a little track, played a little soccer [growing up]," he said. "If you had asked me at 12 what I was going to be when I grew up, I would have said 'basketball player.' I thought I was going No. 1 overall in basketball. Things didn't work out. I was way better at baseball."
And he's far from the only MLB All-Star who played multiple sports into his teen years.
"The common denominator of every great major league player I've ever met is they were multisport stars in high school," said Kurkjian. "Joe Mauer was an All-State basketball player. He was going to Florida State to play quarterback and he was the No. 1 pick in the major league draft. John Smoltz could have played basketball at Michigan State. Omar Vizquel had the greatest footwork of any shortstop I have ever seen, that came from his days playing soccer."
Many studies show that early specialization can lead to overuse injuries and burnout. Bell noted that many of his teammates also played other sports.
"You look across our team right now and you see lots of guys who played different sports," said Bell. "Kyle Crick was an outside linebacker in high school in Texas. Many of our Latino players play soccer too until they're 18."
Bell offered some parting advice for youth players: don't specialize too soon.
"You gotta cross-train. You gotta stay athletic in different facets," said Bell. "That's what helps people get to the next level."