There’s an underrated path to NFL draft day success. Parents of athletes know it. NFL scouts definitely know it. And thanks to a study conducted by Tracking Football, there are cold numbers to back up this particular path to becoming an NFL player.
That one weird trick to breaking into the NFL? Play multiple sports alongside football. Counter-intuitively, spreading focus across seemingly unrelated athletic skill development churns out better football players. Let’s break down how it works.
Multiple youth sports players: the face of modern NFL players
Multiple sport athletes are exceedingly rare at the NFL level. Even more rare are those that have great professional success in both sports. Usually, athletes hit a crossroads. They have to pick one, even if they were among the best across two sports.
For developing athletes, the opposite is true. Participating in multiple sports correlates incredibly closely with producing quality NFL football players. It’s to the point that the Venn diagram of multiple sport athletes and players who move on to the NFL is nearly a single, solid circle.
The Tracking Football study found that 226 out of 256 players picked in the 2018 NFL draft — that’s a whopping 88.2%! — played at least one other youth sport. Far from being a distraction, the skills developed in other fields clearly has a role in hammering out elite football talent.
Which sports support football player development the most?
General participation in all youth sports is a prime indicator of NFL draft success. One stands out from the rest: track and field. The Tracking Football study found that of the aforementioned 88.2% of the 2018 draft class, 59% ran track. This matches up with a long history of track and field skills boosting NFL players.
Other notable secondary sports for 2018 NFL draft picks were basketball (49%), baseball (13%), and wrestling (3%). And some players go for more than one extra sport. An overachieving 4.3% of those players participated in four different sports. That’s an approach recommended by none other than legendary New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady.
Studies show that the benefits of multiple sport participation are twofold: mental, and physical. Focusing intensely on a single sport as demanding and complex as football creates high levels of anxiety and stress. Changing up that contexts allows for a mental “reset,” of sorts, that brings players back to football with a fresh perspective.
And physically, the specialization of modern football can be dangerous. Playing other sports allows young athletes the time to develop different muscle groups. They get time to lay off the particular repetitive motions of doing only the same football drills. This adds up to the surprising revelation that spending more time playing different sports leads to fewer injuries overall.
How NFL players with history in multiple sports fare at the highest level
The NFL draft is one thing. How well do multiple youth sport athletes hold up to the apex of football as a profession?
The answer, again via Tracking Football, is even starker than the 2018 draft study. Of the 106 players on active rosters for Super Bowl LII, 102 played sports alongside football growing up — 96%. For Super Bowl LIII, Patriots and Rams players followed suit to the tune of 90%.
Both inside and outside of football, parents increasingly push their children to focus on one sport year-round. Yet it’s the players who learn and develop within several sports who perform at the highest levels. There are certainly areas of life where focusing all of one’s effort on perfecting a single skill is the best approach.
Not so for football. This game rewards well-rounded athletes, equipped with intangible instincts that come only from playing multiple sports.