The Top 10 Hardest Sports | Toughest Sports to Play

Boxing is at the top of the list. Then comes a bunch of team sports. Check it out.

| Read: 7 min

A woman doing jump rope exercises to exhaustion
Why isn't jumping rope on this list?

ESPN, at a time when they actually cared about sports, put together a list of the toughest, most demanding sports to play, and ranked them according to which was the most difficult sport.

They gathered up a panel of 8 experts, including Brian Jordan, a multi-sport professional athlete who was among one of the most qualified individuals to discuss the topic at the time. Brian Jordan enjoyed a three year NFL career, where he was named a NFL Pro Bowl alternate in 1991, before becoming a MLB player from 1992 to 2006, with an All-Star performance in 1999.

The experts graded 60 popular sports by ranking both the mental and physical demands that the sport required in order to play. This included not only physical strength, endurance, speed, but also mental toughness, which they loosely broke down into nerve, as well as analytic aptitude, which is basically how smart and strategic a player needed to be.

Given those requirements, it should not come as a surprise that the Top 10 is littered with contact and combat sports, as the mental strength necessary to continue competing after taking a punch is immense.

We’d also like to believe that a major contributing factor to the difficulty of a professional sport is whether or not that sport is a team sport. Boxing, MMA, and Tennis, for example, force you to rely solely on your own performance. There are no days or plays to take off when you want to be the best.

It does make arguing over who is the greatest of all-time in sports a bit more difficult.

ESPN’s Top Ten Hardest Sports to Play

For this list, we analyze the recommendations of the world-wide leader in sports, ESPN.

  1. Boxing
  2. Ice Hockey
  3. Football
  4. Basketball
  5. Wrestling
  6. Martial Arts
  7. Tennis
  8. Gymnastics
  9. Baseball/Softball
  10. Soccer
A boxer striking a heavy bag as he trains in the local boxing gym
Jab jab uppercut!

What makes Boxing hard?

Former boxing champ, Mike Tyson, a man not known for subtleties or eloquence, summed up why boxing is #1 in a list of toughest sports best when he said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”

That’s it in a nutshell, folks. Not only do you have to be in world class shape to box, you have to be able to take a punch. And not just a single punch, repeated jabs to the jaw and the abdomen.

Want more? Boxers need the agility of a point guard, the strength of a linebacker, and the endurance of a marathon runner. And if that’s not enough, they need to be outstanding tacticians.

The most famous example of boxing strategy comes from boxing legend, Muhammad Ali. His rope-a-dope maneuver delivered him to victory against George Foreman in The Rumble in the Jungle. Ali and team correctly surmised that assuming a defensive posture would tire out the hard-hitting Foreman, who was then the heavyweight champ.

Hockey pregame in Ottawa, Canada
Even the announcers are tough

What makes Ice Hockey hard?

The NHL is not for the timid. A tough sport among tough sports, hockey players won’t miss a playoff game for anything short of actual death. And even then, we’re not totally sure.

Sure, that’s a bit hyperbolic. But, what makes ice hockey such a tough sport is that it takes every skill and attribute needed to compete in other sports, combines it into one sport, and then does it faster than the rest.

Hockey players are like NFL-shaped running backs who can play lacrosse on ice skates. Then, once every 9 or 10 games or so, get into a boxing match on the ice.

Beyond being one of the best sports of our time, Hockey is Canada's National Sport. Well, hockey and lacrosse.

Referees at a Football Game
Some of the refs have serious muscles because they are tough

What makes Football hard?

Ever have a 300lb man run full speed and tackle you? If so, you’d know exactly what makes football a tough sport.

Beyond being tough to play, American Football is one of the more challenging sports to learn, especially at the Quarterback, and even the Tight End, position.

Football players need to be able to do it all when it comes to strength, agility, speed and endurance. They also need to be able to drag another grown man to the ground, or, preventing having one do so to them.

American football is such a hard sport that they only play once per week, because any more would cause too many injuries. Football, unlike Tennis, Basketball or Baseball, causes so many long-term injuries that a movie with the super straight-forward name, Concussion, got made.

Football is also one of the hardest sports to win consecutive championships in.

Magic Johnson dribbling by a defender on the court
He's probably going to pass, right?

What makes Basketball hard?

Professional Basketball players are among some of the most well-rounded, fit athletes in the world. This is doubly true when you look at the list of the best all-time NBA players, as they are the cream of the crop.

Excellent basketball play sits at the juncture of figure skating’s grace and volleyball’s explosive leaping, set against the running requirements of a track and field match.

And, unlike most other sports, there’s an unofficial minimum height requirement of 6 feet to be in the NBA. It’s true, there are only 9 NBA players under that mark. Some back of the napkin math suggests that if you are under 6 feet tall, you have a 1-in-400,000,000 chance of making the NBA.

Two wrestlers grappling on the competition mat
Wrestling takes a lot of inner fortitude

What makes Wrestling hard?

Wrestlers train as harder than everyone else in strength and endurance sports, probably because their demanding sport is both. With due respect to the athleticism of WWE wrestlers, we are talking about Olympic-style wrestling and what makes it one of the hardest sports on the planet.

Wrestling, like Tennis, is a solo sport. All of your success is based on your training and your performance alone. But what separates wrestling, and for that matter, MMA and Boxing, from Tennis is the ability to endure direct pain inflicted upon you by your opponent.

That kind of pain isn’t to be confused with the type that Serena Williams is doling out with her Terminator-style of Tennis play. The pain we’re talking about is getting slammed face first into the wrestling mat by an opponent who cut more weight than you did and is overpowering you.

A martial arts master kicking a heavy bag
Potential violence and damage definitely makes a sport hard

What makes Martial Arts hard?

Take wrestling, add boxing, then multiply both by the power of David Beckham’s right leg and you get Mixed Martial Arts. The wildly popular MMA bouts are popular for a reason - no mere mortals can participate on a whim.

Martial Arts requires a dedication to craft unlike most other sports. A true balance of speed, strength and endurance, MMA is actually half-lifestyle and half-sport.

If you’re going down the Martial Arts path, you better have the daring of a Freestyle Motocross racer mixed with the pain tolerance of a skateboarding legend like Tony Hawk, because bones will be broken at every stage along the way; both yours and your opponent’s.

Two tennis players playing a doubles match with one hitting the ball at the net
Tennis requires almost every skill & strength in the book

What makes Tennis hard?

Tennis Players need a basketball point guard’s body with the hand-eye coordination of a baseball lead-off hitter. Think Table Tennis, only much, much bigger.

A gymnast doing a routine on the parallel bars inside of a gym
Who has the strength to do that for even 10 seconds?

What makes Gymnastics hard?

The absolute ultimate in flexibility, Gymnastics is an extremely tough sport to excel in because of the outstanding commitment to training that is necessary.

We’ll be honest, an excellent athlete can be taught how to swing and have a reasonably good chance to become an excellent golfer. Not gymnastics. You start when you’re little or you don’t start at all.

To put it in better perspective, olympic gymnasts earn medals in their teens. Ex-MLB pitcher, Jamie Moyer, was out chucking 80mph curveballs in his late 40s and still collecting a paycheck. That would 100% never fly in a sport like gymnastics. Coaches are probably retiring from gymnastics in their late 40s.

Three Red Sox players getting ready to grind out at-bats
Buckner, Evans and Boggs, what a crew

What makes Baseball/Softball hard?

Baseball and Softball are not 9th on a list of the toughest sports in the world because of defense or gold gloves. They’re ranked so high because hitting a baseball/softball is the hardest thing to do in sports. It requires maximum hand-eye coordination.

A ball, traveling upwards of 100mph, or the equivalent reaction time in softball, with a variety of spin-types, needs to be struck with a wooden bat that is no more than 2.75 inches in diameter (different in softball), and into a field of play that is restricted to a 90 degrees conical pattern.

Should you manage to manage to hit the ball into fair territory, there are 9 defensive players eager to retrieve the ball in an attempt to get you out before you make it to first base, which happens to be 90 feet away.

Here's hitting by the numbers.

Hitting is hard. It’s so hard that every kid, starting in Little League, is taught that if you hit, you play. The greatest hitters in history tend to only get hits 30% of the time, that’s how hard it is.

Could you imagine a NFL QB with a 30% completion percentage or NBA basketball players with a 30% free throw percentage? They’d be kicked (or laughed) out of the league. Even Shaq has a better free throw percentage than that.

Two soccer players going after the ball
Is that a trip?

What makes Soccer hard?

Imagine training competitively for a marathon. Now imagine dribbling a soccer ball, in control mind you, for 26.2 miles. Now imagine 10 other runners trying to take that ball from you, complete with the occasional slide tackle. That’s Soccer.

Well, almost. Beyond the 10 guys trying to take the ball from you, you also have to possess the immense composure to accurately place a kick to get it past the 11th guy and into the net. And, you have to do this by sprinting full speed after you’ve run that marathon and kicking with whichever leg is best positioned to do so at the time when it is best to do so.

Did we also mention that those 10 soccer players are still trying to take the ball from you?

Honorable Mention

Not Even Close

References & Sources