New York Rangers captain Ryan McDonagh, gymnast and Olympic gold medalist Nastia Liukin, and retired undefeated boxer Laila Ali visited the U.S. Open on Monday to be a part of an event encouraging kids to be multi-sport athletes.
The event was hosted by the United States Tennis Association, which aims to help kids begin playing sports at a young age so they can be healthy and try to find something they are passionate about. The three athletes spoke to a group of youth tennis players and then joined the kids for a demonstration.
Everyone used equipment by Wilson, which has tried to develop products that are easier for kids to use and handle. Some of this equipment includes lighter tennis racquets and tennis balls that are bigger and not quite as bouncy.
After the demonstration ended, I spoke with McDonagh, Liukin, and Ali. They all mentioned that when kids play multiple sports, they can find what they’re really passionate about and be active and healthy. Each one of them gave great recommendations on how to handle time management and how to stay healthy while having fun!
What sports did you play as a kid aside from your main sport?
Liukin: Gymnastics was definitely a huge part of my life. I trained seven hours a day, six days a week, but actually outside of that I did play tennis a little bit. Sundays were our days off, and that’s when I liked playing tennis with my dad. It was kind of nice to do something to take my mind off of gymnastics, especially when I was training for the Olympics.
McDonagh: I played football, baseball, and soccer at a younger age.
Ali: I didn’t play many sports growing up, but I did try tennis; I took tennis lessons. At school I loved playing soccer, and I played a little bit of basketball but not for very long.
Did any of those sports help you become better at your main sport?
Liukin: Yes, I think tennis specifically. The eye-hand coordination helped because when you’re on bars and you do a release move and then have to catch the bar again, you need to have very good eye-hand coordination. Also, the quickness and being able to adjust to different things. You don’t know where the ball’s going to be going, so I think those things helped with gymnastics.
McDonagh: Absolutely. Baseball with eye-hand coordination. Football with the hitting relates to hockey with the hitting and checking. All of these sports helped me become a better hockey player.
Ali: I think indirectly they did because I learned that I was a very confident person and very competitive, and I think those are two things that are good to have while playing sports.
What sports do you play now to cross-train?
Liukin: I don’t compete anymore in gymnastics, so I play tennis with my fiancé and my dad. I always like to stay active, so I also do running, Pilates and yoga. I also like to dance, but tennis is kind of my thing. I also enjoy skiing; every Christmas I go.
McDonagh: I really like tennis. I really like basketball too — the jumping, the running up and down the court — and I do a lot of swimming in the summer.
Ali: I don’t play sports now, but I mostly go into fitness, as far as working out outside or in the gym and stuff like that. My kids play soccer, basketball, baseball, and I am out there with them a lot.
To what extent do you think cross-training is something important to do at a young age?
Liukin: I think that it’s very important to find something that you love to do and you’re passionate about, and the only way to do that is to try different things to find what it is that you love.
McDonagh: Just to experience multiple sports is great because you can figure out what you want to do and spend more time on. You can also find out what you’re passionate about and what you love to do!
Ali: I think it is important when you are young to try different things because you can learn a lot about yourself. You can find out what your strengths are, what your weaknesses are, and it’s good to change it up.
For kids who play multiple sports, what advice would you give them on how they can continue to play all the sports they love while still managing their time well?
Liukin: Time management is a huge thing. I trained seven hours a day, but school was very important to me, and I always had to make sure that I had my priorities right. My dad always told me that you never know how far your gymnastics career or tennis career is going to take you, but school will stick with you for the rest of your life. So really prioritize that and then balance your sports around it.
McDonagh: Schoolwork should always be a main focus. When I was in school and you didn’t do your homework, you couldn’t go to practice that day. So I would suggest focusing on school and then working your sports around that.
Ali: Time management is a challenge. From childhood all the way up to adulthood it’s one of the biggest challenges of life. We all have trouble with that, so as a kid you have to just listen to your parents, do what you’ve got to do, do your best at it, and make the most of your time doing it.
Looking back on when you were growing up, is there anything sports-wise or health-wise that you wish you had done or wish you had known?
Liukin: I think I was very lucky because both my parents were athletes and gymnasts. I really grew up with a healthy lifestyle. I was very active and doing sports. The only thing I wish I could have done was try other sports other than gymnastics and tennis, but I did just fall in love with gymnastics right away.
McDonagh: It’s tough, but eating a bit healthier. Also learning a little bit more about nutrition and how to be healthy I think would have helped me perform better.
Ali: I wish that I would have played organized sports growing up. It’s a big regret that I have. I wish that when I was a kid I would have gotten more into tennis or even golf. Those sports take many years to master, but I think if I took the time to master them I would have done well.
What are some things that you would recommend to kids so they can be healthy and become successful athletes?
Liukin: Set a goal for yourself, but not just a long-term goal. It can be daily, weekly, monthly — and write them down so they can hold you accountable. Just try other things and make sure to have fun doing it.
McDonagh: Make sure you don’t overdo it. It’s great that there are so many opportunities out there for kids to do so many athletic things, but you want to make sure that you’re not doing too much because that can lead to injury.
Ali: I think it is really important to focus on eating whole foods. What I mean by that is foods that come from the earth like fruits, vegetables, dairy, and other meats. You want to eat fewer foods out of packages, less foods out of boxes and cans and frozen things. Try to stick with fresh items.