A three-sport letterman was the gold standard for athletic prowess while I was in high school. The “big men on campus,” who I so badly wanted to emulate, typically starred in football, basketball and track. The elite nature of the three-sport letterman title was a definite draw for me, but honestly, I saw the other sports as developmental for the only sport I was truly passionate about – football. I started playing basketball to help develop my foot work, lateral speed and hand-eye coordination; track was simply a tool to improve my speed. So, in an abstract way, I was a specialized athlete, but only competed in my specialization for the three month long football season.
The idea of playing other sports to improve in one sport, football, was not something I dreamed up by myself. I read about the great athletes of my time and their stories inspired me. Legends like Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, and Michael Jordan were talented multi-sport athletes during their youth and beyond. I found that, foremost, these guys worked at being great athletes and not simply great players in their sport of choice. There is a difference. Those who specialize are working to be great players but not necessarily becoming the best athlete they can be.
When in junior high school, the head football coach at the local high school explained to me that he recruits kids from the basketball team to play specific positions for him. The combination of size, excellent hands, quick feet and ability to quickly separate from a defender to get open for a pass, essential skills for a basketball player, is the desired skillset and physical makeup for the tight end position in football.
My teammate in college, Tony Gonzalez, now a pro tight end for the Atlanta Falcons, was an excellent basketball player and even played in college after our football season. The physical nuances and skills from his basketball prowess were evident on the football field. During Tony’s professional debut on Monday Night Football years ago, the commentators remarked on how effectively he separates from defenders in tight corridors to get open for passes; they credited this skillset to his years of basketball and their comments were spot on.
Different sports obviously build different physical skills, agilities, and the change up during the year substantially reduces repetitive overuse injuries. These are some of the greatest benefits to the multi-sport athlete. Let’s not forget that alternating sports during the year curtails burnout from performing one sport year-round where an athlete never really gets a break from performance stress. Honestly, I didn’t care too much about my performance in the other sports and that gave me a period of the year where I could enjoy a great deal less performance related pressure and stresses. I’m certainly not saying I was lazy in those sports, not even close. I just understood I wasn’t great at them and it didn’t matter because greatness in football was my only goal. The other sports were part of the means to that end.
I ended up playing a lot of different sports outside of football during high school, including wrestling, lacrosse, track, baseball and basketball. Some I played for one season, others for a couple, but I was always in three sports a year working to be a better athlete, which ultimately made me a much better football player.
I get, as example, that swimmers aren’t likely going to improve their stroke playing soccer during the Fall. They will develop greater aerobic capacity and leg strength – all valuable to the swimmer - but most importantly they get a break from swimming, a different social experience than the swim team and these things keep young athletes fresh and hungry to compete at the sport they do best. I hope this inspires some consideration before spending thousands on club teams, tournament travel and such when the net result will more than likely not be a college or pro career.