Youth Fitness and the “All-around Athlete”

Kids and teens that play multiple sports might not be as well-rounded and physically prepared as you think.

I’m sure you have all heard it said as many times as I have. When a child or teen excels at 2 or even 3 sports, they are labeled as a great “all-around athlete”. The goal of this blog post is not to put down kids who spend a lot of time playing sports or their parents. It is also not to suggest that your child is not a good athlete. It is essentially to offer an alternative value system for adults who are interacting with young athletes. First, I want to explore why I think the phrase “all-around athlete” is not accurate in the context in which most people use it. Then I’ll tell you how I think kids can actually become more balanced and physically ready for whatever they want to do.

TL;DR? Do CrossFit 😀

If you have read my other blog posts, you will remember that my brain interprets things very literally. I recently asked an Uncommon member if she played tennis and she said, “No I’ve never played.” I said, “Oh it’s a lot of fun!” She said, “I mean I’ve played with friends before, but not seriously.” My brain said, “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhdoesnotcomputezipzapzipzapcrash.” I thought she LITERALLY meant she had never played before. So when I see the phrase “all-around athlete” I think of somebody who excels at a broad spectrum of physical tasks. Sound familiar?

For simplicity, let’s focus on the most popular American sports. What does it take (physically) to be good at football? Power, agility, and exceptional strength for your bodyweight. The ability to move fast, to speed up quickly, and change directions quickly. Also having good hand-eye coordination helps in certain positions. How about basketball? Speed, power, agility, and hand-eye coordination. How about baseball and softball? Speed, power, agility, and hand-eye coordination. How about soccer? Endurance may be pretty important, but the big plays involve a lot of quickness, speed, and ball handling. Obviously you must put in the dedicated practice to get good at the skills involved with these sports, but if two players’ skills are equal, the faster one wins.

CrossFit has taught us that it’s important to have a broad range of physical abilities and be able to do work in a broad range of time domains. We already listed the important physical abilities in our most popular sports, but what about time domains? A pitch and swing in softball and baseball takes less than a second.  Chasing down a hit ball or running the bases is a sprint. This is normally followed by a long rest. A play in football takes a max of 10 seconds followed by a long rest. Basketball and soccer have long periods of movement so some is a relatively low intensity. But anybody who has played soccer or basketball knows that it’s the quick, explosive actions that result in successful plays on offense or defense. Essentially, the time domains in which athletes exert the majority of their effort are limited to very short windows.

Right now, I’m sure some of you are thinking of people you know who played one of these sports AND they swam or ran track or cross country or wrestled. Consider that:

  • I am not talking about people just participating in sports. At smaller schools, it’s not crazy to hear of one person doing like 5 different sports. I am talking about people who EXCEL at multiple sports.
  • Track and swimming both have sprint events. Even the mile takes a really good runner less than 5 minutes. Despite requiring endurance to survive practices, wrestling matches only last 6 minutes. Go watch some of those takedown moves. They are freaking fast!
  • People who are great athletes on the field or floor could very well be great endurance athletes too. I am sure they are out there. My point is simply that in the overwhelming majority of cases where a kid excels at multiple sports, those sports are much more similar than they are different.

So why am I getting all up in a fuss about this? I promise it’s not because I want to correct people who use the term “all-around athlete”. I have a genuine passion for teaching kids about health and fitness. I truly want to make kids into better athletes. But, in my opinion, that has nothing to do with making them better at sports. If a young kid learns how to move competently and confidently in the gym, working with barbells, odd objects, and their own body, they will not only develop an appreciation for what their body is capable of doing, but they will be much more durable for their sports. Being better in the gym is not about “lifting heavier weights” or “doing more reps”. Also, working at a high intensity for longer time domains will condition them well for any sport they choose. For us at Uncommon, it’s about moving your body in ways that it’s meant to move and doing things that a functionally capable body is meant to do.

If you are reading this and have kids involved in youth sports, I hope you don’t take my message as a personal attack. I believe people are doing what they think is best for their children. But there is a reason why some people are lawyers, some people are mechanics, and I’m a CrossFit Coach. I don’t know jack about lawyering, except for Bird Law (shout out to my Always Sunny fans), and all I can do on my car is change the tire. Not everybody has the desire or the ability to become knowledgeable in the development of health and fitness. The coaches at Uncommon do. And I happen to be channeling that knowledge and passion into helping kids and teens. If you or somebody you know has kids in youth sports, give them the best chance possible to develop physical competence and avoid injury throughout their sports career by encouraging them to engage in a wider variety of activities. Just because Joey down the street got a D-1 offer and he spent all his time playing one sport doesn’t mean that is the healthiest path for your child. More than likely, it is a path leading to burnout, injury, resentment, or all 3.

I always offer this to the kids I work with simply because I want the best for them. The last thing I want is to insult anyone or create a confrontation. But I would be more than happy to meet with any youth sports coach in the area to discuss the physical development of their athletes if that is something they think would be beneficial. You as parents could facilitate this communication.

If any parent or coach has any questions, shoot them over to Thanks for reading!

author: Jacob Watts


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