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Students who have never considered playing a sport should not only reconsider but sign up to play multiple sports.

Let us immediately squash the misconception that a middle- or high-school student must be highly skilled at a sport to sign up. Sports participation is of great benefit to all students simply as people. When students branch out and decide to play a sport for the first time — or a sport other than the one they’re used to — they learn new things about themselves. They make new friendships, learn new skills and confront new challenges.

We live in an age where specialization is becoming more and more important. But for student athletes, such specialization can be risky: one study showed that student athletes who specialize in one sport are more likely to sustain lower-extremity injuries. And, physical injuries aside, students who specialize learn less about their potential and capabilities.

For instance, one of the most important skills a student athlete learns is how to become a master of time. Learning how to make the best use of a limited amount of time each day prepares students for college, career and family. Juggling sports and a rigorous academic life is one of the best ways to practice this real-life lesson.

It may seem counterintuitive to add more into your daily life so that you can get more rest. But the busy schedule forces students to get the rest they need to perform on the field as well as in the classroom – rest that many students aren’t getting enough of these days.

It’s true that student athletes sacrifice more time with family, and this is a reality every family must navigate for themselves. But the skills, habits and relationships student athletes build during the school year also serve them for the rest of their lives.

At our school, we encourage our students to play two or three sports and remain engaged with athletics throughout the school year. The result is that approximately 90 percent of the student body plays at least one sport. Time and time again, we’ve seen how students originally hesitant to join are impacted by sports in incredible, positive ways.

This year-round sports mentality also contributes to our school culture in a great way. The students have a better camaraderie because they’re working hard together in the classroom and on the field. It helps build greater relationships across grades, which leads to a stronger sense of school unity.

When it becomes the norm to have this kind of load—to be a student and an athlete—and when others are doing the same thing, examples are set and a path of leadership is forged. When students learn discipline, competitiveness and work ethic on the field, they bring that back into their classrooms and great things happen.

This emphasis on generalization shouldn’t lead to a loss of competitive edge. Every athlete improves with practice and time dedicated to his sport, and every team improves as the individual athletes do. But even as we push for excellence and success, we must also remember to measure our sports programs based on the growth and the learning that occurs within the student athlete. Learning how to win, learning how to lose, dealing with all of the ups and downs of sports: these things build tremendous character in our students.

It’s difficult to promise championships, but a steady focus on participation, potential, growth and learning are the things we as educators and coaches can guarantee year in and year out — on the field and in the classroom.

Mike Roberts is athletic director and assistant headmaster at Hillsdale Academy in Hillsdale.

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