Home > mint-lounge > mint-on-sunday > Why are there so few dual-sport athletes?

Like most kids around me while growing up—or at least the ones inclined towards physical exertion—I tried my hand at several sports. In my case, I played hockey, cricket, badminton, squash, tennis, table tennis, football and basketball, and I ran and swam too, besides more sedentary pursuits like chess and Scrabble.

As I have confessed before in this space, I never got any good at any of these. But that hardly mattered. They were all fun in their own ways, though for no reason I can recount, I enjoyed football and hockey less than the others.

As the years went by, I stopped playing most games for one reason or another: cricket because when we once had to select a team from 12 people, I was the 12th man; badminton and squash because the wristiness they need interfered with playing tennis, my first love; running and basketball, because I damaged my knee and I wanted to preserve it to play tennis.

This must be the experience of most people who play regularly in their youth. Then, of course, some go on to become outstanding players in their chosen sports—representing their country, playing professionally. But most of the time, just that one chosen sport.

So, I have always wondered, why do so few great athletes become outstanding in more than one sport? Well, that’s not quite right, so put it this way. The list of multi-sport athletes is a long one, sure, but they form a small fraction of all those who have played at rarefied levels of their sports.

Here are a few from that list, picked at random.

Jonty Rhodes is one. For years, he charmed cricket fans the world over with his dazzling fielding. It’s not often attempted or discussed, but if there is a ranking of the greatest fielders to have played the game, fans would probably place him at the top. And Rhodes also played hockey for South Africa.

C.B. Fry, the great Ranjitsinhji’s friend and teammate for Sussex and England, was another. He played for and captained England in Test cricket, and was a colossus in county cricket for years. And Fry also played football for England. Add to that this astonishing titbit: in 1893, he equalled the world long jump record. Clearly, Fry was one remarkable athlete.

Danny Ainge won basketball championships with the Boston Celtics. He also played baseball for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Michael Jordan retired as unarguably basketball’s greatest-ever player and took to minor-league baseball. He wasn’t much of a success, so he returned to basketball.

Fred Perry won three consecutive Wimbledon titles in the 1930s; he was the last Briton to win a major tennis title for 76 years, until Andy Murray broke that jinx in 2012. In Budapest, four years before the first of his tennis titles, Perry had won the World Table Tennis Championship.

All those, and Marion Jones, Chuni Goswami, Ray Lindwall, Ellyse Perry... to this sports fan, there are several familiar names on the list of dual-sports athletes.

But the great majority of athletes eventually buckle down to just one sport. Why?

It’s not that they are somehow mentally not strong enough. If someone wins Wimbledon, for example, by definition she has a healthy dose of the mental fortitude high-level sports needs. She knows what it takes. Provided she can master the physical skills, she should be able play another game at the same level.

One reason I have always suspected is that most athletes can find the energy for only one pursuit. Apart from a general level of fitness, the physical skills you need for tennis, for example, are different from those you need for basketball or squash. (The wristiness I mentioned above is a case in point.)

If you are working hard to develop one set of skills, you will probably find it difficult to work on the other set too. (Some excellent multi-sport champion should pop up to prove me wrong here.)

But I also think it’s because most of us—high-class athletes included—eventually realize we enjoy one sport above all, and there’s a satisfaction in focusing on it. In my case, that sport is tennis. The morning I wrote these words, for example, I spent 45 minutes by myself in front of a wall, hitting a tennis ball: volleys, forehands, backhands. There’s no tournament I’m getting in shape for, no upcoming match, nobody pushing me to practise, nothing like that.

It’s just that I woke up this morning with the thought that I’d like to hit that ball for a while, as I have done hundreds of times before. So, I did so, as I have also done hundreds of times before. Yet, I have never done anything similar in the other games I used to play with some intensity—cricket, basketball, squash. What makes me do it for tennis? Simply put, I love the game. By now, it’s almost an instinct to want to go play it in some form, any form.

I suspect the great sportsmen turn that love, that instinct, into a driven passion for their chosen game. That’s what makes them so good. And it’s a hard task to find drive like that for more than one pursuit.

But here’s my final point in this meandering story: Interestingly, that drive also sometimes turns the love around completely. Tennis star Andre Agassi, for example, confesses in his wonderful autobiography Open that he grew to hate the game. What’s more, he had that in common with his wife, Steffi Graf.

And yet their hate doesn’t bother me. These are two greatly driven and yet always thoughtful, introspective human beings. Agassi’s pursuit of the summit of tennis tells us plenty about him, about what it takes to get there.

About, really, what’s important in life. And sometimes, it’s just one game.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His latest book is Final Test: Exit Sachin Tendulkar.

Twitter: @DeathEndsFun

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