By Sam Cortes, Communications Coordinator
When you look at an accomplished athlete or coach with many accolades in their sport, you might think that, to reach that level, they must have dedicated themselves exclusively that one sport throughout their lives.
But participating in a variety of sports, in many cases, can significantly contribute to an athlete or coach’s success.
From Player to Coach
For Mike Stephens, volleyball was the game he took to early on as an athlete. Beginning in junior high and playing in high school, he made the junior national team going into his grade 12 year.
“For three years, I travelled the world [and] experienced many different cultures,” said Mike.
He was then recruited to the University of Winnipeg Wesman, where he played for three years collecting titles like U SPORTS Championship MVP and player of the year.
After retiring as a player, Mike joined the Winnipeg Police Service where he worked for almost 28 years and has continued to make an impact in the sport as a coach, leading his teams to numerous victories at provincial and national championships.
Today, he’s also the Head Coach for Team Manitoba heading to the 2022 Canada Summer Games in Niagara, Ontario.
The Multi-Sport Edge
So, from a successful playing career to a rewarding coaching career, you might think Mike must have stuck with volleyball and only volleyball.
But he’s played all sorts of sports—tennis, squash, soccer, basketball, and more—and he encourages the athletes he coaches today to do the same.
Why? Because of all the benefits playing multiple sports can have, physically, mentally, emotionally and socially.
Extension, Explosivity & Mental Focus
Mike said the obvious physical benefit in volleyball is if you can be a big athlete. That is, to be taller is a plus.
But that’s not the end all be all, of course. If you can have good extension, explosivity and strength, then that’s particularly key in volleyball.
Mike remembers a quote he learned from someone he considers to be a mentor in the sport, Ben Josephson, Head Coach of Trinity Western Men’s Volleyball: “Strength through length.”
“What I mean by that is, when you’re spiking the ball, you have your strength [that] comes when you extend your arm,” said Mike.
On the mental side of things, it’s quite demanding.
“Volleyball is one of those unique games where when you make a mistake, for the most part, it’s a point for your opponent. You can get away with making mistakes in other sports and it may not cost you really too much, but in volleyball, it’s pretty detrimental. So, the mental aspect of volleyball is very, very important, especially as you move up,” said Mike.
And this is part of the reason he thrived in the sport.
“I really like the challenge of trying to dissect the opponent,” said Mike. “In that aspect of the sport, it’s the mental part of the game that’s most appealing to me, just like chess. I love chess. Anything where you have to really go deep into your thoughts and think of moves ahead. That’s really what intrigued me.”
For a game that is based on extension, explosivity and refined mental focus, there are other sports that can foster those skills, too.
How Other Sports Can Enhance Volleyball Skills
When Mike reflects on his experience playing multiple sports, it came down to how much he enjoyed it.
“I just love sport,” he said. “I played a lot of tennis, just from a recreational standpoint, I played a lot of racquetball, a lot of squash, badminton, all those types of things were a lot of fun for me, a lot of excitement.”
He also played soccer, baseball, basketball and track and field.
“At the time when I’m young, I don’t think about how its going to benefit my next sport or volleyball, which I chose to play at a high level. I just played it because I played it. But if I reflect back on it, there’s no question that the racquet sports benefited my game tremendously,” said Mike.
More specifically, those racquet sports allowed him to keep his shoulder active.
“An active shoulder is very important to volleyball. You can be big and strong, but if your shoulder’s slow, doesn’t really do much for you. But if you’re playing badminton, or squash, or tennis, any of those things, to activate your shoulder really quickly, it gets you moving in a quicker way, which really transcends into volleyball.”
Mike also believes it helped with preventing shoulder injuries.
“You develop different body mechanics and strengths that your original sport won’t give you. I’ve never had a shoulder problem when I played at the high levels, ever. And I really believe it was because I had the right motion playing those activites.”
“But if that’s all you do, and you don’t do anything else, it’s going to wear you out. If you’re a volleyball player and you’re also a skater and you like to play hockey, that’s great stuff.”
The racquet sports helped directly with the skills of volleyball, but there are many other, less tangible ways that other sports played a role in Mike’s development as an athlete.
For example, the exposure to different people, places, and experiences.
“As we all know, we develop different pocket of friendships. And your volleyball friends may not necessarily be your basketball friends, or your tennis friends or your squash friends,” said Mike.
“It really opened up the world to different people, different ways of thinking, different groups.”
Plus, mixing it up can be fulfilling. When Mike was on the junior national team and stopped playing other sports, he quickly found he got bored.
“I felt overworked, and the fun was starting to leave a little bit. So I went back to playing basketball during basketball season and I went to play some racquet sports during the summer time,” he said. “Multiple sport was very important to me, regardless of what age I was.”
From a Parent Standpoint
As a father of two boys, Mike has some advice for parents who may think the only way to reach a high level is for the athlete to quit other sports at a young age.
“From a parent standpoint, don’t think that your child has to play that one sport so early in order to get a scholarship in college or get a scholarship in university. If it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be.”
Of course at some point an athlete may need to dedicate themselves to that one sport as they get older, but it’s really about the pathway to get there.
“Obviously once you go to post secondary institutions, and again that’s a very small percentage of athletes, yes you’re only going to play one sport, because really that’s all the time you have. But for the majority of us, keep playing multiple sports.”
Mike also said that, even if you do play at a high level, you can’t necessarily play volleyball forever. At some point, it’ll end, and playing multiple sports can have a positive impact later in life.
“It’s nice to open up those avenues and those doors when you’re younger to develop those connections and those friends to continue on doing something that’s different. “
From a Coach Standpoint
Mike became a coach when his two boys were playing sports, coaching them in soccer, basketball and later, volleyball.
“I’ve coached kids from 14 through 18 to adults, and definitely my kids, any kid who’s in high school, I don’t want them playing only one sport if they have options to do other things,” he said.
“The more you can do the better, the longer you can do multiple sports, the better.”
“Again, I didn’t put two and two together back then, because you’re just playing for fun. But as I’m older and hopefully a little wiser, I can explain that to athletes saying you know, ‘Don’t think only about your chosen sport whatever that may be, because there are other sports that can help you in whatever you really love to do’.”
So what would Mike say if an athlete wanted to quit basketball to focus on volleyball?
“If they’re 14, grade 11, I’m not going to be very supportive of that. If you’re quitting because you don’t like it, that’s fine, but if you’re quitting because you think you have to, well I don’t think you do.”
The Trick to It All
At the end of the day, Mike believes the benefits to the multi-sport athlete boils down to one simple concept.
“It’s really life balance,” he said.
And for all the kids out there, he said to shut out the peer pressure, and if you want to play another sport, go for it.
“All I want is for kids to just do whatever makes them happy and if playing multiple sports makes you happy, do it. And when you’re no longer happy doing something, then don’t. It’s as simplistic as that. Don’t feel the peer pressure or the pressure from home that you have to quit in order to excel. Only the athlete is going to know that, nobody else is going to give you that answer except yourself.”
To learn more about the dangers of early sport specialization and the benefits of playing multiple sports, or to read more stories like Mike’s, visit our website and check out the #PlayMoreBeMore campaign.