Rugby and the Multi-sport Advantage

I played everything. I played lacrosse, baseball, hockey, soccer, track and field. I was a big believer that you played hockey in the winter and when the season was over you hung up your skates and you played something else.” – Wayne Gretzky

Nothing like starting off a blog with a quote from a token famous athlete, none other than The Great One… But his words on multi-sport participation ring true. There has been a ton of recent research to support and encourage multi- sport participation, mostly of young, developing athletes, but the benefits are seen at any age and skill level. We know that being a multi-sport athlete helps to prevent injuries caused by overuse of muscles associated with repetitive movements, avoid burnout of athletes who specialize in sports too young or too quickly, and increases overall athletic ability and performance.

I was a multi-sport athlete. I grew up playing hockey in the winter, baseball in the summer, and doing competitive dance all year round. By the time I was in junior high, I took multi-sport athlete to a whole new level. I was playing on two different hockey teams (a boys and a girls team) from fall to spring, volleyball in the fall, basketball in the winter, badminton in the spring, a baseball and a softball team in the summer, and dancing all year. And this continued into high school, where I replaced badminton with rugby in the spring and summer. Some may see this as incredibly insane, I see it differently. I loved playing all these sports and how the skills from each helped to develop me in the other sports I played.

So, how does playing other sports actually benefit rugby players?

Basketball

  • Basketball was literally invented to condition players for summer sports such as soccer, football, and rugby during colder months of the year.
  • The cuts and lines that players run in a basketball offense directly translate to running offensive lines in rugby, particularly for backs. Additionally, since the basketball court is smaller than the rugby field, it challenges a player to further see and find the open space to either break through a defense or to make themselves open to a pass. This means that rugby players who play basketball in the off-season or basketball players who try rugby are going to bring these offensive skills to their rugby game.
  • Concepts in basketball defense also share a common thread with rugby: focus on the waist/hips. Again, players who develop as rugby and basketball players bring this with them to their game.
  • Fitness, sprinting, and agility are also similar in basketball and rugby. Players will find that as they develop their fitness, sprinting, and agility in one sport, it will similarly benefit them in the other.
  • Height can also be an advantage in both basketball and rugby, so there’s that too for those who are blessed with height.

Hockey

  • Hockey is one of the best cross-training activities for rugby because it occurs in the off-season and skating involves some different sets of leg muscles and movements , which helps to reduce muscle imbalances, prevent overuse injuries, and promote overall lower body strength.
  • Concepts of seeing and finding open space in hockey will have similar benefits to rugby as basketball.
  • Body contact and body checking in hockey can help rugby players to build strength, stability, and skills to break tackles or to handle tackles. Hockey players become comfortable with a level of physicality that is obviously useful in rugby as a full contact, tackle sport. In this way, hockey can also be used as a great off-season sport to give rugby players’ bodies a little bit of a rest from a summer of being bashed and bruised, but still offer a piece of physicality until the next rugby season begins.

Baseball/Softball/and I guess (begrudgingly) Slo-Pitch – Note: these are technically all different sports

  • One of the most useful things that baseball gives to rugby players is excellent hand-eye coordinator. The ability to hit a baseball with a bat is one of the most difficult things in sport to perform, so for those who can master this, they have incredible hand-eye abilities. Additionally, simply throwing a baseball at a target requires advanced hand-eye coordination, which is fairly critical in rugby to pass and catch the ball. Players who have previously played sports that involve throwing and catching will bring increased skills to their rugby game.
  • Some may say baseball is a slow sport, while this may be some people’s complete and utter misunderstanding, baseball has a unique strategic framework; players on the same team are positioned quite distant from each other on the field and there are sudden bursts of action preceded and followed by brief pauses in play. For baseball players, mental preparation is a key for success that transfers to every other sport they will play.
  • Upper body strength development in baseball can help rugby players to pass farther.

Dance, Gymnastics, and Figure Skating

  • Flexibility from participation in dance or gymnastics can help rugby players to reduce and prevent injuries as well as to better perform their skills. Running requires a significant amount of hip, leg, ankle/foot flexibility. Another added bonus, the more flexible you are, the less it hurts when you are tackled or rucked into really awkward positions i.e. neck, shoulder, and hip flexibility.
  • It takes an incredible level of strength to literally through oneself in the air and spin/flip/tumble. Respect.
  • Development of coordination, balance, and quick foot movements in dance, gymnastics, and figure skating improve foot speed and agility and can be helpful in avoiding tackles and offensive moves in rugby.

Soccer

  • Kicking! If you’ve previously played soccer, it is 100% guaranteed that you will be asked if you can do the restarts and kick for goal/points/touch for the rugby team.
  • Foot speed and coordination are helpful in rugby and can be mastered through soccer.
  • Indoor soccer can be a great way for rugby players to improve their kicking and foot speed/coordination in the off-season.

Football

  • Obvious parallels can be drawn between the physicality in rugby and football, though the rugby tackle is proven to be more effective and safer for players to perform than the typical football tackle. The rugby tackle emphasizes contact with the shoulder, ideally, at the waist area of an opposing player, the wrap of the arms, and drive to the ground. Conversely, the football tackle is usually executed without emphasizing the wrap of the arms, which leaves a higher probability that players will actually stay on their feet rather than go to ground. So, while football players bring their experience from another full contact, tackle sport to the game of rugby and can very quickly learn the rugby tackle, playing rugby can help improve a players skills that they can bring back to football.

Thanks to Tara Sliwkanich, former Baseball Canada national team and Rugby Canada U-20 member, for her perspective on how rugby both benefits and is benefited by participation in multiple sports.

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