The Value of Being a Multiple Sport Athlete for Baseball Players

Editor's Note: I'm pleased to introduce guest writer Karr Fager, a college athlete currently attending Northwestern University. Karr has played baseball, basketball, and soccer in high school and beyond, so I jumped at the opportunity when he offered to share his thoughts about the multi-sports athlete experience. Karr discusses many other issues related to the physical and mental side of baseball at his blog, Baseball Hideout - Joe Golton

As a multiple sport athlete, I have long wondered how much the other sports I played affected my baseball play, if at all. Baseball was my main sport from a young age, but I thoroughly enjoyed pickup games of football, basketball, volleyball, and really any other sport I could get my hands on.

I finally joined my school’s basketball team in 8th grade and played through high school. I even played soccer, which, according to my family, was the most boring sport on the planet. I played soccer for the last two years of high school. This led to my body being introduced to a wide variety of sporting types and physical excursions.

Reading from some of FilterJoe’s articles, mainly Key Youth Baseball Decisions for Parents: Money, Time, and Beyond, he believes that kids playing multiple sports from a young age is healthy for baseball players. He says that it keeps players’ bodies in good condition and promotes a more balanced physical development.

I would think that a lot of professional baseball players agree with this, given that a lot of them were multi-sport athletes. Let’s look at a few of them who were.

Tom Glavine: He won over 300 games in his MLB career. But before he proved himself in the Majors, he was drafted by the Los Angeles Kings (NHL team) ahead of other NHL hall of famers.

Carl Crawford: He was a career .290 hitter over 15 years in the Majors. Before reaching the MLB, he was a high school standout in football and basketball. He was even recruited by UCLA and Nebraska in those sports.

Tony Gwynn: The former San Diego Padres great posted a remarkable .338 career batting average during his career. However, he had the option to play basketball for the Aztecs team. He was even drafted by the San Diego (now Los Angeles) Clippers before choosing his path in baseball.

Dave Winfield: This guy was one talented man. He was drafted by four teams in three different sports. He played baseball, basketball, and football in high school, and was drafted professionally in all three of those sports. Oddly enough, he didn’t even play football in college. That just shows how talented he was.

Other famous athletes who were multi-sport athletes: J.J. Watt (NFL), Chad Johnson (NFL), Allen Iverson (NBA), Herschel Walker (NFL), Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (wrestling, NCAAF), Pat Riley (NBA), Michael Vick (NFL), and the list goes on.

We can see from that list that it is definitely possible to play multiple sports and still excel at one of them.

The question we are left with is whether playing multiple sports helped them become better at baseball, or if they were just naturally gifted with abilities to excel at all sports. Let’s see what one of them has to say on the matter.

J.J. Watt (pro football player) says, “Single-sport specialization amongst youth today is troubling. Let kids be kids. They’ll become better all-around athletes and have more fun.” Also, “If someone encourages your child to specialize in a single sport, that person generally does not have your child’s best interests in mind.” So in Watt’s opinion, it is not just the fact that some kids have naturally good athletic abilities, but also that playing multiple sports will help kids become better all-around athletes.

I think that, when talking about professional athletes, most of them just had naturally good athletic abilities. Not all, but most. This is what allows them to perform well in multiple sports. I also believe, like J.J. Watt said, that whether you are incredibly gifted athletically or not, playing multiple sports can help you improve your abilities, either way.

So rather than just saying how each individual sport affected my baseball play, I wanted to see which attributes were increased and which were decreased from my multi-sport participation. I especially wanted to see if I was a better baseball player because of my multi-sport participation or if I was a worse baseball player. I will start with physical conditioning and then move onto the mental aspect, which I believe is just as important as the physical part.

Physical Conditioning

Endurance

I like to think of endurance as perseverance and being able to push through and excel until the end. I am talking physical endurance here, not mental. I will get to the mental aspect later. The truth is baseball players need endurance. This isn’t necessarily the endurance that we need to run long distances or to last long in the gym, but it is more the endurance to last the season injury-free. Endurance also helps with brain cognitive abilities.

What I did a lot of in basketball and soccer was running, something rarely done in baseball. I always wondered why. I realize that baseball is not a sport where we are continuously running. It is more a game of sprints. But let’s say you sprint for a ball 100 feet away. Or maybe you hit a triple and had to dash around the base pads. After the sprint, you are panting and gasping for air rather than focusing on the next play and communicating with your teammates. If we are out of shape, our mental capacity is shrunken because all of our energy is focused on recovering from the sprint.

Studies were done (with mice. I know we are not mice, but we react similarly to them in some ways) trying to test how cardiovascular exercise affects brainpower. The scientists found that cardiovascular exercise can actually create new brain cells. This is called neurogenesis. This, in return, can improve overall brain performance. And that is not all. “Tough” workouts (loosely defined) increase a brain-deprived protein (BDNF), which is believed to help with thinking, learning, and decision making.

So that is saying that the harder we workout, the better we will be able to think in game situations. That is, the better our endurance and perseverance, the better our performance.

Being a soccer and basketball player, we ran all practice and all game. According to reports by SportVU, soccer players have been tracked running 9.5 miles in a single game. They say it is not uncommon for players to run seven miles per game. Talk about endurance! A lot of this running for me was sprints. Playing soccer in the fall prepared me for the basketball season in the winter, and the basketball season prepared me for baseball in the spring.

Agility

Agility is the ability to move quickly and easily. When talking about baseball players, agility wasn’t brought up much when I played. I believe it should be. For infielders and outfielders, the first step is very crucial.

The MLB has a system, called Statcast, which analyzes player movements and athletics abilities. That is where the announcers on TV get a lot of the crazy statistics they mention. The cameras track the movements of players, analyze them, and then produce them as statistics. “First step” is one of the statistics they measure. If you have time to check it out, there is a short article on MLB.com talking about the defensive first step. This is what I am talking about:

This is where agility comes into play. If players are agile, they will have a quick first step to the ball. Think about a third baseman who has to charge on a bunt. The quicker he takes that first step in, the quicker he will reach the ball and the quicker the ball will reach the first baseman’s glove. For an outfielder, the quicker he reacts to the ball, the quicker he will be able to catch it. Simple enough, right?

This can even apply to pitchers and catchers. A quick first step for pitchers is helpful for bunts or ground balls up the middle. The same goes for catchers on bunts and passed balls. And agility is important for anybody who gets on the base pads.

How is agility gained? Looking around to what others are saying, it seems that a mix between plyometrics (jumping exercises to increase speed and power), balance exercises, and quick foot drills is the best option. It turns out that some of those we already do in other sports. Basketball incorporates some plyometrics and quick foot drills. Football has a lot of quick foot drills and movements. Soccer can increase quick feet as well.

It seems to me, from these sports and most others, that the physical conditioning aspect that is missing is balance. That leads us into our next segment.

Balance

This is huge in baseball. Giancarlo Stanton, one of the MLB’s most predominant players, is currently on pace to hit over 60 home runs this season. He attributes a lot of his success to yoga. Yes, yoga.

Stanton first tried yoga right after high school. He explains it like this. “I was looking for ways to maximize my strength, conditioning and flexibility,” Stanton said. “Yoga helps strengthen your core, which is a key component of the swing—and all aspects of baseball, really. It also stretches and strengthens the other muscles in your arms and legs.”

Stanton works with his instructor Kent Katich, based in Los Angeles. Katich says, “He’s gifted with that power, so we just wanted to work on unlocking it.”

The way I see this is that a lot of players are currently not using the abilities they were given to their full potential. Katich goes on to explain that his goal was to help Stanton loosen and condition any tight areas in his hips and hamstrings. Not only that, but Katich understands that baseball is not only physical, but mental as well. He wanted to help Stanton sharpen his focus, something yoga does wonderfully if taken seriously. “You see guys who aren’t necessarily powerful, but who can rotate their hips the right way at the right time, and they hit the ball hard,” Katich said. “When you can get a guy like Giancarlo, who has so much sheer mass and power, to rotate his hips properly, the results are amazing.”

Jake Arrieta agrees. He says that “Hamstring flexibility and hip mobility for me are the two most important factors on the field. Obviously we need to have a strong shoulder, strong scap, strong lats and a durable elbow to have longevity as a pitcher, but being durable and being mobile in the hips and flexible in the hamstrings take so much pressure and stress off of my arm. My flexibility is a huge asset.” Arrieta trains with Pilates, which is similar to yoga, in-season and in the off-season. I’ll talk about the flexibility Arrieta was talking about in just a bit.

Unfortunately, I don’t believe being a multi-sport athlete, playing the specific sports that I did, helped me in this area, nor could I find anyone who thought that it did. There are, however, some sports which do incorporate balance. This would include dance, gymnastics, surfing, boxing, and others. Outside of sports, yoga is the main way athletes can find balance. It also helps with breathing control, simple meditation, and adopting specific bodily postures, so we generally won’t find these types of movements participating in sports alone. Stanton explains it perfectly when he says “Yoga teaches you all about controlling your breath and your mental patience, which translates to hitting very well.”

Strength/Power

This is the big one that I hear people talking about most frequently. I cannot count the number of times that I heard my teammates talking about the “gains” they were making in the weight room. I would ask them, “Okay, but what else are you doing to get your body in shape?” Their answer went usually something like this, “What . . . What do you mean? What else is there other than weightlifting?”

Believe it or not, my college baseball coach was also the physical trainer for all sports at the school. He did not include one exercise in our training program that didn’t include weights. I simply could not understand how a physical trainer at a university can overlook endurance, agility, speed, flexibility, and balance as important parts of a training program.

Anyways, now that my mini rant is over, let’s talk about strength and power in multi-sport athletes. I would say that two or three sport athletes do tend to be a bit stronger than single sport athletes. I wouldn’t say that there is a noticeable difference in physical appearance, but more in overall strength and power.

Generally, in baseball, power is transferred by using fast twitch muscle fibers. Now, if you have no clue what fast twitch muscle fibers are, that’s totally okay, I’ll explain. In fact, I didn’t know what they were either until I hit college.

The body has two different kinds of muscle fibers; some classify them into three categories:

Type I: (Slow twitch, oxidative)

  • Fatigue slowly
  • Small diameter
  • Contract slowly
  • High number of mitochondria (power cells in our muscles)
  • High oxidative capacity (uses fat stores as energy)
  • Used for low intensity and prolonged excursions (posture or running)

Type IIa (Fast twitch, oxidative-glycolytic)

  • Decent number of mitochondria
  • Can use either glycogen or fat stores as energy
  • Recovery is quick
  • Resists fatigue
  • Used for fast, low-intensity, repetitive motion

Type IIx (Fast twitch, non-oxidative)

  • Low number of mitochondria
  • Diameter is large
  • Fatigues quickly
  • Used for high-intensity, large-power output

Stack.com explains this very well.

To be clear, powerful fast twitch muscle fibers are good. The reason for this is because fast twitch muscle fibers can contract ten times faster than slow twitch muscle fibers.

Now, because fast twitch muscle fibers are not gained until heavy fatigue hits in, generally single sport baseball players will have a harder time building them. When do you see baseball players exhausted up at the plate? Not very often, except from dehydration.

So the question then is, does being a multiple sport athlete give you a better chance of having more fast twitch muscle fibers? I would, and others would agree, yes. Josh Williams, a certified strength and conditioning specialist through the NSCA, mentions four ways to build Type IIx muscle fibers-speed training, heavy strength training, Olympic lift training, and plyometric training.

Two out of the four are used in most sports outside of baseball. Speed training (quickness and agility work) is used in most sports like basketball, soccer, and football. And plyometrics (jump training) is incorporated by a few sports as well. Williams says that the two main ways to build fast twitch muscle fibers are heavy weights and fast acceleration, not necessarily together. I mentioned earlier that agility is gained with most other sports, which is perfect for building these fibers. Speed is the other one gained through other sports. With that in mind…

Speed

Training for speed is critical for baseball players. As I briefly talked about in the last section, we want quick sprints rather than long, slow runs. Playing other sports can also help baseball players keep any extra weight off, which makes for less baggage to carry around on the field.

The idea of speed training is to create a quicker stride frequency. The quicker the frequency, the quicker our feet are going to hit the ground, and the more often will we get to our destination faster. And like I explained, those fast twitch muscle fibers will be increased, helping players out with hip speed and power, which will give our bats more pop. It will also give players the ability to throw harder.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that only one in three children are active every day. That can lead to large obesity issues, as we are currently seeing. What better way to combat obesity than sports (and eating healthy)? I don’t think there is a better way. Single sport athletes may grow obese in the off-season, as some sport seasons last only 2-3 months. This leaves 9-10 months of inactivity. This is one of the most basic reasons why I believe getting kids into multiple sports from a young age is so important, or at least letting them have an active childhood.

Flexibility

It is my opinion that flexibility is the second most overlooked aspect of baseball, the most overlooked being mental toughness.

I will also add that working with weights can actually hurt your baseball performance if you don’t add in flexibility training. This won’t be true in all cases, but if you go out on the field stiff and inflexible, you won’t be able to use that strength you’ve gained in your training. Like Giancarlo Stanton and his instructor explained, yoga and flexibility training helped to unlock Stanton’s strength and power.

A quick example of this is the baseball swing.

For athletes in multiple sports, this can be a good thing, and it can also be a bad thing. Let me explain.

During soccer practices and games, we would almost always stretch beforehand. Our stretching consisted of dynamic warm-up for pregame and static stretching post-game. Most everybody participated in the dynamic warm-up. However, most guys skipped out on the static stretching after the game. The dynamic warm-up was to get the muscles warm and ready to perform, and the static stretching was to lessen soreness the next day and to maintain flexibility.

The athletes who skipped out on the post-game stretching were usually the athletes who were coming up injured during the basketball and baseball seasons. Their muscles were tight, leaving them prone to muscle pulls and extreme soreness.

The athletes who did participate in the post-game static stretching were usually the ones who could last through a three game tournament and still be ready to go again the next day. They were also the ones who continued to maintain their flexibility through the baseball season, making them hard to injure.

Mentality

Like I mentioned a bit earlier, I am very big into mental toughness for baseball players. I truly believe that to unlock a baseball player’s full potential, you must first create mental toughness in the athlete. As Yogi Berra, baseball great, once said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental, and the other half is physical.” So without further ado, here is how being a multi-sport athlete can impact a baseball player’s mental toughness.

Tough Times

In all sports, players go through bad streaks. Sometimes they even go through bad seasons. It can definitely take a toll on a player’s love for the game, not to mention their performance. When I was roughly ten years old, I played baseball for the Red Wings. We were one of the best teams in the 11-and-under league, and we had a blast game in and game out. We finished 2nd overall, if I remember correctly.

The next year, however, was a different story. I played for a different team and things went downhill really quickly. Five losses turned into ten, and ten losses turned into 15. Soon enough, we had lost 23 games out of a 23 game season. Not a single win. How about that for a bad streak? Now, for a very competitive kid, as I was, that is emotionally draining. Little did I know that the 23 game losing season I just had would prepare me for so much in the future.

Because I had gone through such a rough time that season, I was prepared for losses in the future. I wasn’t expecting losses, but I was prepared to handle them. This is why being a multi-sport athlete helps ballplayers. No matter what game you play, there is always a winner and a loser, unless you’re playing soccer. Winning is great to be a part of because kids learn how to work together as teammates. And losing is great to be a part of because kids learn how to fix their mistakes for the future. Again, I am not condoning that kids should want to be on teams that are losing. I am simply saying that the more experience kids have at competing in general, the more chances they will have at improving in future competitions.

Nerves

If you have played a sport before, you probably know what it feels like to take the field or court for the first time. It is like going in front of a big crowd to give a speech. Some people describe it as “butterflies” or “jitters”. Usually it is only pregame, and once the game starts, they go away.

Ed Latimore, a successful heavyweight boxer, gives an outline of 7 ways to be less nervous before competition. The very first point that he accounts his success to is experience through the years. It took years for Latimore to understand how to lower his pre-competition nerves.

Let’s say Timmy plays baseball and baseball alone from ages 6-15.

Let’s say Billy plays baseball, soccer, and hockey from ages 6-15.

At the end of those ten years (let’s say they played the same amount of games per sport season), Timmy will have about 150 games under his belt. Billy, on the other hand, will have played about 450 games. They aren’t necessarily the same sport, but they are still competition. And that is how playing more than one sport can improve young athletes.

Like Latimore said, it took him years to figure out how to bring his nerves down. Billy will have 300 more opportunities to learn how to bring his nerves down and just play. Chances are, kids won’t be thinking about learning opportunities, but the more they compete, the better chances the nerves will go down naturally through repetition.

Chess Match

This one, again, probably won’t be on kids’ minds as they compete. It will just happen naturally. Sports are, in a way, chess matches. Players have to think about what the opposing teams are thinking. They have to try to predict how their competitors will react to certain actions. The more players experience and record these reactions in their minds, the better they will adapt to them in the future. Being a multiple sport athlete gives kids the opportunity to see three times, if not four times, as many reactions to their actions in sports competitions.

Downsides

Throughout this entire article, I have given mostly positives of being a multiple sport athlete. The reality is that we must also look at the negatives before making a decision to become multiple sport athletes or to put our kids through more than one sport.

Time Commitment

There is no doubt about it, sports are time consuming. My dad can attest to this. I have seven siblings, all of whom played several sports each. The sports ranged from bowling to baseball. In fact, to give you a better idea, here’s a list of sports my dad has let us kids participate and compete in:

  • bowling
  • football
  • basketball
  • soccer
  • rock climbing
  • track
  • tennis
  • gymnastics
  • dance
  • wake boarding
  • skiing
  • motocross racing
  • drag racing
  • baseball

If I were to throw out a rough estimate, I would say that the average time each of us kids spent on sports per week was about 10-15 hours. That can really add up, especially if the sports go all year around. I calculated it up, and this equals over 75 8-hour days spent on sports in a year. I do not condemn this type of commitment. I am simply helping you realize the downsides of playing more than one sport.

It is really up to personal preference and goals. If you have something different in mind as an athlete or parent of an athlete, than maybe stick to one or two sports. Also, if multiple sports are getting in the way of physical conditioning (other than what they are already getting from those sports), this can be dangerous and lead to injuries, as Jeff Miller from Absolute Fitness explains.

Drainage/Worn Out

Sometimes a constant schedule of sporting events can take its toll on the mind as well as the body. I already talked about pre-event nerves and anxiety, which is one of the tests that Psychology Today used to find out if youth sports were too stressful for kids.

They found that the most common times when anxiety was present was before and after games, especially losses. The verdict was that sports in youth today are not overly stressful.

However, if the sports become too much and we let them overcome healthy habits, it can lead to mental and emotional issues. (Healthy habits being eating nutritious food, sleep, rest, and other necessities in youth).

Training Program for All

Going a little off track, my high school baseball coach gave us a training program before our senior year. This was the first training program any high school coach of mine had given the team. I had to find workouts to do on my own before this. This is a screenshot of the exact workout program:

Strength training schedule (click to enlarge)

That was just a quick sneak peak, but my point is that we were given weight lifting exercises, and that was it. It is my strong opinion that baseball players need more than just weight lifting exercises to excel at the sport. We may have been growing and strengthening our muscles, but we really weren’t in that great of shape at all for baseball.

Now, I realize that I just told you all of the benefits of being a multi-sport athlete, but simply being a multi-sport athlete isn’t enough. I soon realized, in the middle of my senior year of high school, that I hadn’t prepared well enough to compete to my full potential. Even after running and working my butt off for two full sports seasons, there was still something missing.

Ever since the end of my senior high school season, I have poured hours, days, months, and years into researching how baseball players can get into tip-top shape. I don’t know all of the secrets, but I sure have found some.

Here is my suggestion to you. Being that I played soccer and basketball right before the baseball season and still did not feel prepared enough for the baseball season, I suggest that all baseball players (whether they are multi-sport athletes or not) should incorporate physical conditioning into their routines on a regular basis. FilterJoe discusses this at length in this site’s Strength and Conditioning Guide for Pre-High School Athletes, and I will just give you a quick peak into what I would recommend if I were your baseball trainer:

  • Weightlifting
  • Body weight exercises
  • Shoulder specific exercises (scapula and rotator cuff)
  • Yoga
  • Stretching (dynamic as a warm up to workouts and static as a cool down or flexibility training)
  • Foam rolling or lacrosse ball rolling (Amazon has many foam roller options and even some lacrosse balls specifically designed for rolling, such as this pair from Kieba).
  • Rest

What STACK Says About Multi-Sport Participation

  • Chad Johnson (NFL) explains the importance of being a multi-sport athlete. A group from STACK studied sports specialization in youth sports. They found that the average age high school athletes started specializing in a sport was 12.7 years old. College was 14.8 years old. And professional was 14.1 years old. They also found that only 22.3% of professional athletes that were interviewed would want their child to specialize in one sport.
  • In the next article, they found that being a multiple sport athlete has four main benefits:
  1. Sport skills are learned faster
  2. Higher sport IQ’s
  3. Suffer less burnout
  4. Learn to compete
  • They also gathered three college sport coaches to find out their opinion on the matter. It turns out that the coaches believe displaying athletic gifts on more than one field is a positive. They say that doubling your time on the field will evolve your game and make it more multi-dimensional.

Summary

As I stated, there are both positives and negatives to being a multiple sport athlete. These are generalizations and not true in all circumstances.

Positives:

  • Opportunity for agility, endurance, power and speed to be increased
  • More chances to make friends
  • Body is overall healthier and in better shape
  • Mental capacity is increased
  • Opportunity to be a better baseball player

Negatives:

  • Failure to stretch regularly throughout the extra sports seasons will lead to muscle imbalances and overall body tightness
  • More opportunities for injury (I didn’t talk about this much, but it is kind of a given)
  • Overall body and mental drainage
  • Leaves less time for other activities and commitments
  • Personal life can be negatively affected, but it can also be empowered through sports

One last note I will leave you with is that I do not regret one second that I spent practicing and competing in all my years of sports through high school. I learned how to stay physically healthy, made lifelong friends, became mentally stronger, experienced great leadership role models to follow after, and found better ways to compete and persevere through hardships.

Being a multi-sport athlete does not automatically make you better than athletes who specialize in only one sport. But it can often help.

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