Monday, May 30, 2011

The Two-Sport Athlete: A Dying Breed, Part I

Look at French tennis player Gaël Monfils and what do you see? I see a tall, charismatic athlete who dazzles fan with his style of play. When he goes to the baseline to serve, I see a human spring. At Stade Roland Garros he has command of the crowd—he raises his arms to fire-up his countrymen. He is emotional and incredibly fit. Monfils would never need to ask the question, “have you been to the gun show?” because you see them every time he takes his first serve. His guns are what drive his serve to 125 mph on average. All joking aside, I hope you see what I see—someone who was at one point in time a two-sport athlete.Hungry to know more about a player I always keep a special eye out for, I did what I always do….I went for the quick hit—the Wikipedia entry. Most of what I read did not surprise me—his father was a professional football player (or in the US what we know as soccer). Born in Paris, Monfils is of Caribbean heritage. And then, I confirmed what I surmised. “If he was not a professional tennis player, he would seek to be a pro basketball player.” I stopped reading as I imagined Monfils inside the paint. His footwork on the court would easily transfer to the hardwood. His eye-hand coordination is exceptional. I have no doubt his lengthy arms would clean the glass, his command of his body allow him to set a mean screen and his passion for competition drive him to never let down.

I started to think of other players on the tour and their success in other sports—Nadal was a soccer player. Brad Gilbert claims that is he grew up in the US he would be solicited by every high school football coach to become a wide receiver. Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish played on the same high school basketball team. Something tells me they could set and block on the volleyball court as well. Steffi Graf is also an incredible runner (look at those legs) and her husband Andre Agassi may have hated tennis but he loved soccer. As I continued to think about other famous athletes and their gifts I also started to think about a dying breed—the two-sport athlete.Whereas the three-sport athlete is nearly extinct, the two-sport athlete is an endangered species. Unfortunately, the word that characterizes teen sports today is “specialize.” To be competitive in your best sport, athletes are led to believe they must only commit to one sport and when they aren’t playing for their club team, they can play for their high school team (or not!).

I believe this is a tragedy for many reasons. First, at its best, sports builds community. Different teams attract different mindsets and personalities. Participation in two disciplines is the seedbed for friendships that blossom from a common experience. Because tennis was my first love, I played with my high school team in the fall and ran track in the spring. As a distance runner, I became close to a number of girls who also ran cross country. I still remember that part of me wished that girls' tennis was in the spring so I could have run XC. I remember telling my track teammates/friends that I thought they participated in the tougher fall sport. They didn't disagree. And today, I coach cross country. I tell my own runners upright: I did not run XC... but I certainly came to know and revere many young women who did.

Second, cross training provides tremendous physical and mental health benefits. Some skills from one sport transfer well to the another. In some cases, participation in one sport may actually enhance the other. For example, during his junior year in St. Ignatius, JV basketball and volleyball coach Kareem Guilbeaux, played on the boys volleyball team for the first time. When the volleyball season ended and he returned to summer league basketball he realized something new. Whereas he once merely rolled the ball in at the rim, he could now easily dunk. Volleyball taught him how to use his body to properly jump. We call those "hops," volleyball players know its fundamental to the game.

Third, every sport provides us with its set of challenges and we confront our limitations. The lessons we learn on the field transfer to those off the field. John Paul II said it himself: Sports are the true school of human virtue.
Ultimately, those who can play two sports simply should because they can. If one is endowed with the talent and ability to participate in more than one sport, give thanks! Do so! The fact that we live in a place where we have options and the freedom to choose is also a gift. Many people in the world long to play, and many cannot for a host of reasons—physical limitations, a lack of resources, etc. Others lived in an era when sports were limited by gender and race. This is not the world most of my student athletes are growing up in—and thanks be to God for that!

Gaël Monfils will play Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. Its sure to be a great match. What is Fed's second sport? Watch him play and you can guess....

Photo Credits

Winning Round 16 at the French
So Athletic!
Roddick & Fish
Monfils and Murray

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