By nature, athletes are competitive people. That drive to be the best is what helps them push through challenges in training and during competitions.
The competitive nature of athletes doesn’t always just begin and end with just the other athletes (and themselves) in their own sport; athletes also often want to compete with others outside of their primary sport.
One way they may scratch this never-ending competitive itch is to try and argue that their sport is the hardest sport in the world, comparing or “competing” in a theoretical head-to-head battle of their sport versus those of their friends or all other sports in general.
Some athletes will argue, “Football is the hardest sport,” while others will fire back with, “Hockey is much harder!” But what is the hardest sport?
Is it boxing or MMA fighting? Or perhaps you have endurance athletes who might attest that the Ironman triathlon is the most demanding sport. Where does the truth lie?
What is the hardest sport in the world? What are the toughest sports overall? In this guide, we will try to settle the debate, answering the question: What is the hardest sport in the world?
We’re going to cover:
- What Is the Hardest Sport In the World?
- 11 Super Tough Sports
Let’s get started!
What Is the Hardest Sport In the World?
Athletes and sports enthusiasts alike have long attempted to rank sports based on their difficulty in an attempt to crown one sport as the hardest in the world.
What makes one sport tougher than another?
Although different people or sports organizations may use alternative criteria or a different working definition of “difficulty” as it pertains to a sporting endeavor, usually, sports that are harder require more energy, power, level of fitness, strength, endurance, body involvement, and skill.
As can be seen, it becomes extremely challenging to rank the difficulty of sports because there are so many factors to consider simultaneously.
Even sites that try to take a scientific approach—assigning a numerical score for each factor for each sport and then ranking them based on their composite scores—is really just a glorified subjective assessment masquerading as an objective science.
After all, assigning a number for how much “skill” is required for water polo or how much “endurance” is required for soccer is subjective, especially when you consider different positions and even the fact that there are additional factors you could also probably include in the rating system.
With that said, these types of organized approaches that make as much of a scientific approach as possible by trying to quantify qualitative characteristics are certainly head and shoulders above picking and ranking the toughest sports in the world out of the ether.
One of the more widely-accepted “definitive” lists of the hardest sports in the world is an analysis ESPN released several years ago.
The ESPN rankings of the most physically demanding sports in the world are based on ratings of 1-10 for 10 attributes, or skills, that go into the athleticism required for a sport.
Eight panelists each scored the 60 sports, and then the totals were averaged to decide upon a definitive ranking of the hardest sports in the world.
Based on their rankings, the top 10 hardest sports in the world are as follows: Boxing (hardest), ice hockey, football, basketball, wrestling, mixed martial arts, tennis, gymnastics, baseball/softball, and soccer.
Although we have our own takes on some of these, as well as others we believe should edge into the top 10, it’s a pretty reasonable list.
According to Sports Virsa, the top 10 hardest sports in the world to play in 2022 are as follows: Boxing (hardest), American football, mixed martial arts, ice hockey, gymnastics, basketball, soccer, wrestling, rugby, and water polo.
Another super comprehensive and quantitative approach to ranking the hardest sports in the world was Bleacher Report’s take on the seemingly impossible task.
They chose six different attributes of each sport (speed, endurance, strength, agility, skill level, and physicality), assigned each of these attributes a score out of 10, and then ranked the summed scores using these final “toughness ratings” out of 60.
The higher the toughness rating, the harder the sport.
As per their ratings of the attributes for each sport, their rankings of the hardest sports in the world came out as follows (from hardest): Water polo, Aussie rules, boxing, rugby, ice hockey, American football, hurling, gymnastics, basketball, Gaelic football.
Finally, according to Top End Sports, the top 10 hardest sports in the world in reverse order are freestyle wrestling, horseback riding, bull riding, water polo, figure skating, motocross, swimming, gymnastics, boxing, and rugby, landing at number one.
Although this list is quite different from most of the others, it has some good entries and brings to light sports we often overlook.
As can be seen, there’s no agreed-upon list of the hardest sports in the world, but let’s take a look at some of the toughest sports in the world and what makes them so hard.
11 Super Tough Sports
In no particular order, here are some of the world’s toughest sports:
Chosen by ESPN as the hardest sport in the world—and routinely landing on the top 10 lists of the toughest sports in the world by other prominent rankings—boxing is universally recognized as a crazy-hard sport.
It requires a ton of physical fitness, agility, speed, cardiovascular fitness, and skill.
Rugby is a full-contact sport, and it’s not for the faint of heart.
It basically involves playing American football without pads, and instead of stopping the game each time a tackle occurs, rugby players wrestle for the ball, and you can’t pass the ball forward, so you have to go through the defense.
There’s a ton of tackling, hitting, and dodging, and you need speed, strength, and endurance.
#3: Ice Hockey
Ice hockey is intense. It involves racing around the ice for an hour, and there’s a ton of speed, strength, and agility required, not to mention the physicality required to fend off opponents.
There’s tackling, tasseling, chasing, weaving, changing directions, and lots of strategy.
#4: Aussie Rules
Although confined almost entirely to the pocket of the world in Australia, Aussie Rules or “footy” is a challenging sport played on a huge oval field that somewhat resembles American football.
It requires a lot of skill, for example bouncing the ball when running and only kicking or punching the ball to pass it, and there’s a lot of tackling.
#5: Water Polo
People often forget water polo because it’s not as popular as some of the hardest sports, but it’s undoubtedly a beast to play well.
You have to run in the water without drowning while fending off lots of vigorous kicking and grabbing.
Water polo requires a lot of cardiovascular endurance, strength, speed, power—basically every sort of aspect of athletic physicality.
In addition to a high level of physical fitness, water polo requires a fair amount of skill.
#6: American Football
Almost any fan or player of American football will argue that it is hands down the hardest sport in the world.
And, while it doesn’t get our vote for the hardest, it’s definitely a tough sport.
There’s tons of physicality, and it requires a lot of strength.
However, because the game starts and stops a lot, the endurance factor isn’t as demanding, which is what knocks it down a few pegs.
Hurling is an amateur sport popular in Ireland, similar to Gaelic football but played with a baseball-like ball and big sticks!
The game is fast, so it requires speed, and catching and striking the ball requires skill; plus, there’s a fair amount of physicality and endurance involved.
#8: Ironman Triathlon
The Ironman triathlon event requires tremendous endurance, so even if it scores lower in attributes like speed and physicality, it’s still a very demanding sport.
The full Ironman triathlon consists of a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike ride, and a 26.2-mile run.
#9: Mixed Martial Arts
Mixed martial arts requires a strong physique, agility, speed, and flexibility. It’s a physically demanding sport that requires tons of athleticism.
Gymnastics is often omitted from lists of the hardest sports in the world, but this tough sport basically requires everything—strength, agility, power, flexibility, speed, and skill.
Whether you’re considering men’s gymnastics events like the rings, parallel bars, or pommel horse, or women’s events like the vault, gymnastics is both highly technical and highly physical, making it one of the most challenging overall.
Even though basketball is essentially a non-contact sport, so the physicality component is low, it requires a high degree of physical fitness and skill, from sprinting down the court, rapid directional changes, and shooting and dribbling.
The speed of play tends to be high as well, so players need decent endurance.
- Gaelic Football
What do you think is the hardest sport in the world? Let us know!
Interested in trying out a triathlon, one of the mentioned hardest sports in the world? Check out our guide to the different distances to see which one you would like to train for!