Does Height Affect Ability in Sports?

Men playing basketball
Two men play basketball on an outdoor court. (Image: AGL_Photography/iStock/Getty Images)

Besides obvious examples, such as race horse jockeys, the height of an athlete doesn't necessarily limit anyone's ability to participate in a particular sport. What height does impact, however, is your ability to play certain positions. For instance, almost all basketball centers are the tallest or among the tallest players on their team. In football, shorter players tend to be running backs or defensive backs. And while height doesn't necessarily reflect your ability, because hard work and skill are the most important factors, height can influence what sports you choose and where you channel your efforts to get better.

Advantages of Height

In general, taller athletes have advantages over shorter athletes in many sports. A taller boxer with a longer reach can make contact with his punches while keeping his head out of his opponent's reach. Taller swimmers can cover more distance and outreach their shorter opponents Taller basketball players can more easily block shots and out-rebound shorter players. Taller quarterbacks can see over the line of scrimmage easier than shorter passers, while taller volleyball players have an advantage at the net because they usually can strike the ball at a greater height and block shots more effectively.

When Shorter is Better

The main advantages shorter athletes often have are quickness and agility, which is why you're much more likely to see a 5-foot-10 running back than one 6 foot 10. Backs who run lower to the ground and can get under the pads of defenders offer a smaller, more compact target than a taller, lankier player. That same kind of quickness can be helpful in basketball when shorter, more agile players have to get past taller, slower opponents. And in gymnastics, being shorter, lighter and strong for their size gives gymnasts an advantage over taller gymnasts.

Height and Running

Running is a sport in which having longer legs can be an advantage because you have a longer stride, but because running requires you to lift your entire body off the ground, shorter and lighter runners have an advantage over their taller and larger counterparts. This is why sprinters tend to be taller than distance runners. Over a short distance, the extra work required by the body to move a larger athlete is rather negligible. But in a marathon, for instance, mile after mile of exertion gives the shorter runner a more distinct advantage. To illustrate the point, Carl Lewis, one of the greatest sprinters and long jumpers in Olympic history, is about 6 foot 2, while Frank Shorter, one of the all-time great American marathoners, was 5 foot 10.

Skill and Hard Work

Sports such as baseball and soccer have great players of all heights. Major League Baseball's American League MVPs, for instance, have included 5-foot-9 Dustin Pedroia in 2008 and 6-foot-3 Alex Rodriguez in 2007. While height might affect which sports kids choose to pursue, such as shorter kids seeking out gymnastics and taller kids being encouraged in basketball, ultimately their ability in any given sport will be equal to the time and effort they put into it. Shorter kids who love basketball might end up playing at a higher level than their taller peers simply because they work harder.

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