Multiple Sports in One

The mighty Nadal has been swept out of the Wimbledon Tennis Tournament in straight sets by an unknown in the first round. Yes he has had some injuries lately, but he has been dominating clay court play for months. He could fairly point out that tennis on grass is a remarkably different sport than tennis on clay (or concrete).

Think how shocked we would be if a professional basketball team announced that they were changing the surface of their floor from wood to cement and were also going to raise their rim by six inches. We expect consistency in the conditions of basketball, ice hockey and bowling, but not tennis.

Is there a sport that allows as much variation in the game under the same name? The only one I could think of is baseball, in which a stadium can have artificial turf versus grass and the outfield fences can be arranged in a variety of ways.

Are there other examples of sports that are really multiple, different versions of a game? And are any of them as variable as is tennis?

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

49 thoughts on “Multiple Sports in One”

  1. There is football, if you allow for that. 🙂 And even if we exclude soccer as not really being football (over the complaints of the British), the Canadian rules are still quite different from the NFL’s or from college football.

    If you’re looking for a sport where the rules do not change, there is cross-country riding, usually as part of eventing. “The terrain is unique for each course, which usually incorporates the course into the natural terrain of the area, and therefore events in certain parts of the world may be held on mostly flat land, while others are over very strenuous hills.”

  2. Soccer has a pretty big tolerance for field dimensions:
    Minimum length: 100 yards (90 meters)
    Maximum length: 130 yards (120 meters)
    Minimum width: 50 yards (45 meters)
    Maximum width: 100 yards (90 meters)

    1. While FIFA allows enormous variation in field dimensions, the individual leagues are generally more restrictive. Having said that, there is still surprising variation even at the very highest level.

      Here is an (old) list of pitch dimensions for teams in the English Premier League:

      Largest: Manchester City, City of Manchester Stadium, 116 x 77 yards, 8932
      Smallest: West Ham United, Boleyn Ground, 110 x 70 yards, 7700

      I would also note that pitch conditions also vary enormously between stadiums. While this is also true in other sports (American football, baseball, etc.) has more influence in soccer as gameplay actually takes place on the field’s surface.

    1. Amen.

      I’d like to see a PGA event on a sand-green course in the midwest. That would be worth watching!

  3. A friend claims that if the American League (of American Baseball) had 5 bases that would be less weird and more like “baseball” than having the designated hitter. I think he’s wrong but that’s baseball fans for you.

  4. Cricket pitches vary all the time. It determines how the “ball comes onto the bat” in terms of spin, bounce, and even speed. Teams plan their strategy and composition, in part, around the nature of the pitch.

    1. Besides, cricket is played at the highest level in sevaral formats – from 20-over matches in an afternoon to 5-day Tests – that impose very different demands on the players.

  5. Bike racing – road racing – comes to mind. Courses change from race to race: hilly, flat, tarmac, cobbles. Depending on the course, different riders will be competitive. You won’t see Chris Froome or Alberto Contador winning a bunch sprint on a flat stage, and you won’t see Mark Cavendish or Andre Greipel winning a mountain-top finish.

    1. I will second road bike racing. Time trials, criteriums, and hill climbs are effectively different sports.

  6. What is true of bike racing is true of other endurance sports: e.g. running. Different courses reward different strengths. I’m sure skiing has a similar flavor. Etc.

    1. Yes, thank you for mentioning skiing. The design of the course adds a great deal of variability, but that’s nothing compared to the variability in snow conditions (or, in the global-warming-afflicted northeastern US, quasi-snow conditions). The course can literally melt away beneath your racers’ feet. See my comment below for more remarks.

  7. People who know more about horses than I do (which is pretty much everyone) can correct or clarify, but my impression is that some horses do relatively better on muddy terrain and others on dry, much like the difference between grass and clay in tennis.

    Two other tennis-related observations:
    – The difference between doubles and singles on any given surface is greater than the difference between singles on clay and singles on grass.
    – The difference in relative ability on difference surfaces is quite small, especially among recreational players. The reason it makes such a difference among the pros is that they are so good that small differences in ability are magnified.

    1. Not just horse racing (a horse that does better on a muddy track is known as a “mudder”) but also equestrian competitions. And then there’s cross-country steeplechase racing, in which the individual courses have a great deal of variation, the obstacles being natural features of the landscape.

  8. Rules of grammar are not the same as rules of sport, and they should be respected only insofar as they further communication, make or keep meaning transparent. This said, I wish people wouldn’t (as with increasing frequency they do) confuse “than” with “from,” as in “tennis on grass is a remarkably different sport than tennis on clay (or concrete).”

    Tennis on grass may be “faster than tennis on clay” and it is definitely “pricier than tennis on clay or concrete,” but absent some quantifiable comparison we should say “tennis on grass is very different from tennis on clay” etc.

    1. I used to feel that way about different from/than; eventually I realized that the English-speaking world is 99.99% against me, which by my philosophy of language means “usage has changed.”

      1. Yes, and a significant percentage of the “English-speaking” world would say, “I could care less about such stuff.”

        If by “usage has changed” you mean degenerated with respect to signal/noise, then I agree. Although that will require a change in the meaning of change too.

        1. By “usage has changed” I mean the same thing that “usage has changed” always means. Your gloss on it just tells me you don’t like it in this case, which is also how usage changes always go — that’s what makes them changes. There’s no new “degeneration with respect to signal-to-noise” introduced by changing which word is used after “different”.

          1. The number of ways in which my views differ from yours seems to be growing. Or perhaps they differ than yours.

    2. “Different from” is the most frequent usage on both sides of the Atlantic, but “different to” is common in the UK and “different than” is similarly common in the US. That is probably not a battle that is worth fighting.

  9. As others have noted, both baseball and (American) football play on either grass or artificial turf. There isn’t that much difference between grass and the current generation of artificial turf, particularly since the few baseball stadiums with turf now use a traditional dirt infield instead of the “sliding pit” setup that I believe remains only at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. Back in the days of Astroturf, however, there was quite a difference between how the surfaces played, especially for baseball. Many middle infielders became quite adept at using the bounce of the hard turf surface to get the ball to first base on plays where their momentum was opposite the direction of the throw.

    Also, basketball and hockey occasionally experiment with outdoor games. The Winter Classic (outdoor NHL game on New Year’s Day) has become quite popular, and there have been a few college basketball games played on aircraft carriers and the like. Obviously these are not major championships such as the French Open, but they are regular season games that count in the standings.

  10. As someone has already posted, Golf is the ultimate in changable conditions, and requires immense patience and adaptability from the top players. Not only do the great golf courses all have distinct layouts, each course varies tremendously in how it plays in different wind and weather conditions. The strategy and shot selection required can differ radically from day to day, or even between morning and afternoon rounds.

    PS: Did anyone notice who insistent Nadal was in refusing to blame his knee troubles for his defeat? Instead he simply praised his opponent’s play. Quite a gentleman!

    1. Nadal is one of the all-time greats in his sport, and he knows how to accept defeat gracefully without sullying his reputation. Many of the greats are like that. I’ve never heard Roger Federer whine, nor Rod Laver. Same in golf–you never heard Palmer or Nicklaus or Tom Watson complain about anything except their own mistakes, which they freely admitted.

      Maybe there’s a lesson in that for politicians.

  11. No sport – including tennis – features variances that are remotely comparable to Thoroughbred horse racing (I work in the industry).

    One of the most important races run in the word each year is the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. It is contested over a grass course at Longchamps racecourse in Paris each fall. Depending on the amount of rain that falls in close proximity to the race, the course can be anywhere from “firm” to “holding”, the latter being extremely heavy. To illustrate the yawning difference between the extremes of ground, consider that the race was won by a horse called Bago in 2004, and he was timed in two minutes and twenty-five seconds for the mile and a half. In 1999, a horse called Montjeu won over the same course and distance in two minutes and thirty-eight seconds. The disparity – 13 seconds – is the equivalent of approximately 65 lengths! This enormous disparity was due to ground conditions, and renders the surface switches in tennis trivial.

    1. Interesting observation about horse racing. Don’t agree, though, about “no sport.” Perhaps you missed the US Open at Merion a couple of weeks ago.

      1. No, I didn’t miss that opening round. But, as I pointed out in another response below, humans can attempt to adjust to varying conditions, while racehorses cannot. Therefore, the sharp contrasts in course conditions are more meaningful in horse racing than in any other sport.

        If that first round of the Open were replayed 100 times, the results would change every time. In horse racing, if a given horse fails to handle a very soft surface, it would never have a chance of winning against comparable quality horses on such a surface.

    2. If you consider the athletes in horse racing to be the jockeys, rather than the horses, you can consider the fact that everybody has a different horse every time.

    3. Tinky says: No sport […] features variances that are remotely comparable to Thoroughbred horse racing (I work in the industry).

      You’re probably not familiar with nordic ski racing.

      If you want to talk about variable conditions, try running your sport on snow sometime. In the words of Canadian scientists D. Male and D. Gray, “There is no material of engineering significance that displays the bewildering complexities of snow.” I have coached races on every surface from slick ice to deep powder to soggy slush, and of course when the snow is thin you find your racers skiing over various mixtures of snow and mud.

      Skiers try to cope with this extreme variation by carefully adjusting the type and application methods of waxes, which adds another set of complications … and it’s all deeply dependent on the weather. During one big race in Norway (the Birkebeiner) meteorologists are stationed in ships offshore to provide continually updated weather forecasts so that ski teams can adjust their waxes.

      Courses can range from perfectly flat to lung-bustingly hilly, and from a few km to more than 50 km in length. Oh, and there are completely different styles of movement used in different races (skate vs classic). That alone is a much bigger difference than clay court vs grass court in tennis.

      Actually, to get the feeling for the extreme variability in nordic ski racing, the best analogy would be if …

      … “tennis” included regular tennis and racquetball and badminton …
      … played outdoors in winter on a hilly court of arbitrarily varying size …
      … by athletes wearing different kinds of footwear with a dizzying variety of chemically engineered waxes on the soles of their shoes.

      Plus in some events the tennis players would play with heavy rifles slung on their backs, and would stop every few minutes to take shots at a target.

      Oh, and approximately 0.0001% of the US population would even know that this sport existed. When it came time for this sport’s events to occur in the winter olympics, every US media outlet would switch over to re-broadcasting interviews with some figure skater’s aunt’s pet dachshund. Because — sorry! — there’s no money in your sport!

      1. Whoops, sorry about the un-closed “bold” tags. If we had an edit function, I would fix it. But we don’t.

      2. While you are correct that I am not very familiar with nordic ski racing, I stand by my original assertion. It is not uncommon for a racehorse that is clearly superior to a given rival (or rivals) on a fast surface, to finish hopelessly beaten by the same on a soft course. In skiing, the participants can adjust equipment and their approaches to the conditions, while racehorses cannot make any adjustments whatsoever. They either are, or are not well suited to a given surface condition.

        1. It is not uncommon for a racehorse that is clearly superior to a given rival (or rivals) on a fast surface, to finish hopelessly beaten by the same on a soft course.

          This happens in skiing as well. I have seen racers who are very fast under normal conditions perform terribly on sticky wet snow. It’s a horrible feeling when the snow starts balling up in great sticky masses on the bottom of your skis and you’re suddenly slogging instead of gliding … and then somebody else goes powering past you.

          Then it cools off later in the day and all that slush freezes over, and the next set of races are a challenge of too little rather than too much traction.

        2. Is that really a function of the horse, or is it a function of the way that horses are trained?

  12. Layout and structure are big variables as have been pointed out, but what about weather and its effect on how the game is played? Think football in LA and Greenbay.

    1. I would say that for every sport that is always or frequently played out of doors, the range of weather conditions likely changes the game at least as much as variations in the playing surface or shape of the playing field.

  13. “are any of them as variable as is tennis?”

    When it comes to affecting the abilities of the competitors the answer is clearly no. Pete Sampras was the greatest player of his generation, and never had even a whiff of a chance on clay. Many of the best Spanish and French players are exactly the opposite: they have a shot at Roland Garros (if Nadal mysteriously disappears), but none at all at Flushing or Wimbledon. There’s nothing like that in other sports.

  14. I can’t be the only person who remembers the baltimore chop. There’s also a whole literature about tuning running tracks for different styles and speeds.

    My guess would be that gymnastics, bowling and pool are the only sports where competitors face truly reproducible conditions.

    1. Interesting you mention bowling. From week to week the PBA bowls on vastly different conditions, favoring vastly different styles, which in turn favors different bowlers. As a rule, strokers and crankers do not both do well at the same tournament. Then watch a tournament telecast and note how the lane conditions on a single pair may differ from the left lane to the right, and may confound one bowler, or perhaps both. Then watch a little longer and hear the announcers explaining that the lanes are changing significantly during the game. Frame 9 on the right lane may be quite a change from frame 1 on that same lane.

  15. While the NHL has a standard rink size this is not true of ice hockey as a sport. European leagues play on rinks that are 15 feet wider (100×200) than most North American leagues. At the NCAA level, there are some teams whose home arenas have the larger ice sheet. Of the 12 men’s teams in the WCHA last season (the landscape of men’s hockey west of the Appalachians is changing dramatically for this upcoming year) four (Minnesota; St. Cloud State; Colorado College; and Alaska-Anchorage) play on the international rink and one (Wisconsin) has a very odd rink that measures 97×200.

  16. Auto racing. Different tracks in the same series produce quite dramatically different conditions and require quite different car setups and race strategies. In Formula 1 (European-tradition open wheel racing) Monaco and Spa are poles (as it were) apart. In Indycar (American-tradition open wheel racing) oval, street, and road courses vary hugely. There’s a driver in the current lineup (Will Power, yes, his real name) who dominates on road courses but has never won on an oval. And rule changes dictating car design, engine capacity and configuration, tires, and race regulations often mean that both cars and races can change tremendously, often from one year to the next.

  17. Pretty much any form of racing sees huge variation in the characteristics of a likely winner based on the properties of the particular course and conditions of the race. My personal sport is motorcycle road racing. Road courses have a variety of personalities and place widely varying demands on riders, bikes, and tires. When you factor in weather (yes the pros race in the rain, it’s beautiful chaos) its easy to pick two extremely set of variables and call the competition in those two cases “nearly different sports”.

    I’d argue the variation based on venue is greater for road racing than for oval racing, but less than in wild course racing (Rally car racing, distance running, road cycling).

    Since we’re all implicitly plugging our own sports addictions, I have to put in the Isle of Mann TT as one of the greatest spectacles ever devised.

  18. About the only things that have stayed constant in bowling are the dimensions of the lane and the number of pins (well, OK, the linear dimensions of the pins as well). There still are a few wood lanes, but they are an endangered species that a few nostalgic bowlers like to try as a special treat; almost all lanes have an artificial surface (think Formica countertop & you’re not far off). The bowling ball surface has changed radically, to the point where not only is the friction between lane and ball quite different from what it once was, but the impact of the ball on the pins is drastically changed. What once was pretty close to a perfectly elastic collision, with little of the ball’s spin imparted to the pin, is now dominated by the friction between the ball and pin surface. The “ruling” bodies in bowling lost control of the game years ago; they will never regain it.

  19. I don’t think anyone mentioned hunting (British = chasing a fox with dogs and horses) hunting (US = finding and shooting birds and animals with firearms and bow & arrow), mountain climbing, & fishing.

  20. Fencing has its three different disciplines: foil, epee and sabre. They differ in which parts of the body count for scoring, tip-only vs tip-an-blade, and whether priority in the attack is required to score a point. I don’t know whether the world’s best fencers compete in more than one weapon; I suspect not.

  21. Volleyball comes in mind. It can be played indoors, or in a beach or grass. I really believe that the court factors in the player's performance.

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