Multi-Sport Athletes Decline in Numbers

Illustration by Leo Gordon

To excel in one sport is an admirable feat, but some athletes are able to surpass the standard and excel in two sports. All sports require certain skills, techniques, and strength of specific muscles. Because of this, many athletes spend their whole career focusing on a narrow set of drills and workouts that are specific to their sport. Many athletes work their entire careers to master these sets of skills and can still fall short of their goals. Yet, some athletes are able to rise above these challenges and shine in multiple sports.

One of the most famous two-sport athletes is Jim Thorpe. After receiving gold medals for the decathlon and the pentathlon at the 1912 Olympics, he continued his athletic career by making his Major League Baseball (MLB) debut as an outfielder with the New York Giants in 1913.

In 1915, he joined the Canton Bulldogs in the American Professional Football Association, which would later become the National Football League (NFL). He spent a total of seven years in the MLB and thirteen seasons in the NFL. Thorpe is a member of both the College Football Hall of Fame and the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Bob Hayes, also called “Bullet Bob”, was known as the fastest man in the world after winning gold medals in the 100 meters and 4×100 meters at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. That same year, the Dallas Cowboys drafted Hayes in the seventh round. Hayes had a very successful football career with some of his achievements including being the second player in the history of the Dallas Cowboys franchise to surpass 1,000 yards (ground or air) in a single season, along with leading the NFL in receiving touchdowns with twelve and thirteen touchdowns respectively in his first two seasons. Perhaps Hayes’ greatest football accomplishments, however, were helping the Dallas Cowboys win their first Super Bowl in 1972 and later joining the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2009.

While completely different stories, these examples of famous two-sport athletes all share something in common: the athletes all retired decades ago. This is likely a result of the pressure in sports culture today to specialize in one sport at a young age.

Sports have become so popular that it has become increasingly difficult to benefit through excellence in athletics. Less than seven percent of high school athletes represent their schools in college, and only 0.03 percent of high school athletes ever play professionally.

Competition is so high in every sport that when young athletes perform at a higher level than their peers, they are encouraged to stop playing other sports in order to focus and improve in this specific one.

One of Berkeley High School’s (BHS) two-sport athletes is Abigail Eng, a senior, who is captain for BHS girls varsity lacrosse and varsity field hockey. Eng said it can be challenging to play two sports because there is very little down time between the two seasons. Although this can be hard, it has forced her to focus on her schoolwork during her limited free time. “I use it [playing two sports] as motivation to work harder and more efficiently during my free time,” Eng said.

Eng also mentioned the advantages and enjoyable aspects of playing two sports, whether she is scoring off a short corner in field hockey or getting the ball back on defense in lacrosse.

What Eng is referencing is a technique called cross training. This is when an athlete trains in a sport other than their usual sport in order to improve overall performance. In almost every sport, balance and coordination are useful tools to have, so many athletes cross train in squash and gymnastics to improve these traits. It is also used as a way for athletes to stay in shape without putting repeated strain on the same muscles in their body.

The lives of student athletes are busy enough when they play one sport, but the athletic and mental rewards athletes can reap from playing multiple are worth considering for anyone looking to play a sport or two.

We provide the opportunity to comment in order to foster a healthy debating environment and reserve the right to reject comments that stray away from that objective. Read our full policy →