As someone who played high school baseball, basketball and football at 5’7” and 150 pounds, I always appreciated athletes who were considered undersized.
Today, these underdogs may also be labeled as “vertically challenged” given the fact that many team sports tend to favor taller individuals.
This is especially true in basketball and volleyball, where regulation net heights are 10 feet and 7 feet, 11 ⅝ inches, respectively; while there are instances of shorter players excelling in these sports, they are rare.
For example, if we look at the National Basketball Association (NBA), it’s only once every decade or so that we see pro basketball players the likes of Spud Webb (5’7’’), Muggsy Bogues (5’3”), and Isaiah Thomas (5’9”).
Meanwhile, Calvin Murphy (5’9”) is the shortest player inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
In basketball, it is fairly easy to determine what position to play if you are undersized: guard.
The NBA players above are similar: highly skilled on offense as scorers and/or they set up teammates for scoring opportunities.
In volleyball, players who are undersized will typically play libero or defensive specialist. The role of these positions differs from basketball as they are less about direct scoring opportunities and more about set up and defense.
It would make sense that vertically gifted athletes dominate sports where the goal is elevated. However, are there team sports and positions where the vertically challenged are able to compete and in some instances, thrive?
Of course what denotes tall, short or undersized is all relative. As we review major sports leagues in North America, let’s use the average height of adult males in the United States, 5’10” (178 cm), as the benchmark.
Soccer (aka football) is the most welcoming team sport for athletes under 5’10’’. A review of Major League Soccer (MLS) roster data to finish the 2017 season provides the following data:
Major League Soccer (MLS)
- Total players: 504
- Players under 5’10”: 150 or approximately 30% of the league
Breakout by position:
- Forwards: 18
- Midfielders: 85
- Midfielders/Forwards: 8
- Defensemen/Midfielders: 4
- Defensemen: 34
- Goalies: 1
For the under 5’10” fraternity, midfielder is an ideal position. Midfielders are set up guys who control the flow and tempo of the game.
Shorter players have an advantage compared to taller players when it comes to quickness, coordination and timing – critical assets when it comes to ball control.
Physical fitness (particularly endurance) is key as players run up and down the field.
Midfielders typically log more miles than other positions and touch the ball more than any other position on the field.
The center midfielder is particularly important as they are tasked with setting up plays on offense and defense.
Although MLS doesn’t carry the prestige of European leagues, the talent level continues to improve as players from Europe and Latin America bolster rosters.
In 2018, Atlanta United FC forward Josef Martinez (5’7”) led the league in goals (34), while DC United midfielder Luciano Acosta (5’3”) was first in assists (15).
If we look to the global stage, many fans will argue that Argentina’s Lionel Messi (5’7”) is the best in the business.
If you are curious how other sports and positions stack up:
National Hockey League (NHL)
- Total players: 713
- Total players under 5’10”: 28 or 3.9% of the league
- Forwards: 16
- Centers: 7
- Defensemen: 5
- Goalies: 0
Aside from goalies, players will support both sides of the ice (offense and defense); however, opportunities for undersized guys tend to be on the offensive side.
As playmakers, forwards are either straight scoring machines, create goals for teammates, or a combination of both.
In addition to hockey skills, Gaudreau is business savvy. He trademarked the term Johnny Hockey.
Meanwhile, TMM readers will appreciate the fact Marchand was recognized by the Boston Globe as one of the best-dressed Bostonians.
National Football League (NFL)
- Total players: 1,700
- Total number of players under 5’10”: 90 or 5.3%
- Running back: 18
- Wide receiver: 11
- Kicker: 2
- Cornerback: 1
- Safety: 1
A lower center of gravity makes it more difficult to tackle shorter players, making guys below 5’10” an asset on offense.
This is especially true for the position of running back, as shorter players are able to change directions quickly and are adept at hiding behind offensive lineman ( who average 6’5” and 300-plus pounds) as they carry the ball upfield.
While the majority of wide receivers are over 6 feet tall, there are opportunities for shorter players who combine speed, elusiveness and fearlessness for catching the ball in the middle of the field- where they may get lit up by heavy-hitting linebackers and safeties.
Football historians will recall epic ankle-breaking runs by the Detroit Lions’ Barry Sanders (5’8”), one of the all-time best RBs.
As we enter week 14 of the 2018 season, Denver Broncos’ rookie Phillip Lindsay (5’8”) ranks fourth in the league in rushing (934 yards) and first in yards per carry (6.1). Not too shabby if you consider this look-warm projection by an NFL.com analyst:
Lindsay's lack of desired size may limit his draft stock somewhat, but his versatility as a running back, pass catcher and special teams contributor should work in his favor. Lindsay plays with unbridled passion that is infectious on the field.
He goes on to say:
Lindsay has the ability to handle inside running duties and blitz protection despite his size. His football character and field demeanor give him a good chance of becoming a solid backup in the league.”
A solid backup indeed. Clearly the tale of the tape only goes so far on the gridiron. Let’s move on to hardball, shall we?
Major League Baseball (MLB)
- Total players: 864
- Players under 5’10”: 40 or approximately 4.6% of the league
Players under 5’10” by position:
- Infielders (second base, third base, first base or shortstop): 16
- Outfielders (left field, right field, center field): 15
- Pitchers: 6
- Catchers: 3
Playing middle infield (e.g. second base and shortstop) requires high levels of dexterity for fielding and throwing.
These players typically provide more defensive support than offense. However, there are instances where players at these positions deliver in the field as well as at the plate.
Meanwhile, outfielders may be offensive or defensive-led with regards to overall skill set.
During the last two seasons, the American League Most Valuable Player (MVP) has gone to the Houston Astros’ second baseman Jose Altuve (5’6”) and Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts (5’9”).
Coincidentally, each player also helped their team win the World Series the same year as they won the MVP award. Each player has been unique in delivering strong performances on defense and offense.
When Altuve won the award in 2017, he gained bragging rights as he beat out New York Yankees’ juggernaut Aaron Judge (6’7”). Score another for the underdogs.
Outside of traditional team sports, individual sports such as horse racing, cross fit, gymnastics and auto racing open doors for athletes who may be smaller in stature.
Horse racing has limits to weight, making the sport one of the friendliest for the not-so-tall.
A sport with height bias in our favor. For example, the Kentucky Derby weight limit for jockeys and their equipment is 126 pounds (57 kg).
Given the correlation of height and weight this sport caters to guys with smaller frames.
The average jockey height is 4’10” to 5’6”. In 2018, Mike Smith (5’4”) won the illustrious Triple Crown, which is taking first place at the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes the same year.
Already induced into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2003, Smith accomplished the feat at the age of 52.
Cross fit enthusiasts will recognize the name Mat Fraser (5’7”). He has won the Reebok CrossFit Games three years in a row (2016-2018), earning him bragging rights as the “fittest man on earth.”
Prior to Fraser’s three-peat, Mark Froning (5’9”) dominated the event, winning four times in a row (2011-2014). Froning has turned his winning ways to Reebok CrossFit team competitions and opened his own CrossFit gym.
Coincidentally, Fraser trains here. Perhaps training partners plus a gentleman’s agreement not to compete head-to-head?
To sum it up, quickness and dexterity tend to be the primary advantages of shorter athletes. Depending on the team sport, you may find players have niche skills for a specific position on offense or defense. In addition to height, weight is another consideration.
The majority of professional soccer players under 5’10” are in the range of 130-160 pounds (59 kg-73 kg). Individual sports represent another animal.
While guys such as Mat Fraser tip the scales at 190 pounds (86 kg) and are built to move serious weight repetitively, we also see the likes of Mike Smith come in at 114 pounds (52 kg), saddling up to make history.
As a follow-up, we’ll take a closer look at some of the individual athletes and sports where guys in our fraternity are making their mark.