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What Is The Hardest Sport In The World? 11 Toughest Sports

We'll look at which sports are the toughest, and whether or not there is one tough sport to beat them all.

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By nature, athletes are competitive people. The 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 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 all other sports. 

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? And what are the toughest professional sports overall? In this guide, we will try to settle the debate, by answering these questions.

Let’s get started!

People playing hockey.

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.

But 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, harder sports require more energy, power, level of fitness, strength, endurance, body involvement, and skill.

As can be seen, it becomes extremely challenging to rank the most difficult 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—are 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.

For example, team sports have a different level of difficulty in the sense that a single player cannot win a game, and winning requires coordination between players in additon to direction from a coach.

On the other hand, one-on-one competitive sports such as martial arts have a strong psycological element of competitiveness, requiring a different type of mental toughness.

A person boxing, the answer to what is the hardest sport in the world.

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.1ESPN. (2020). ESPN.com: Page 2 – Sport Skills Difficulty Rankings. Espn.com. https://www.espn.com/espn/page2/sportSkills

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.

A gymnast grabbing the bar.

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.2Maria. (2022, May 15). Top 10 Hardest Sports In The World – [2023 Ranking]. Sports Virsa. https://sportsvirsa.com/hardest-sports-in-the-world/

Another super comprehensive and quantitative approach to ranking the hardest sports in the world was Bleacher Report’s take on the seemingly impossible task.3Siddell, C. (2011, September 14). What Is the Toughest Sport in the World? Bleacher Report; Bleacher Report. https://bleacherreport.com/articles/832927-what-is-the-worlds-toughest-sport

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 on earth 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.4Top-10 Hardest Sports In The World | SportyTell. (n.d.). https://sportytell.com/sports/hardest-sports-world/

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 on earth and what makes them so hard.

Related: Game-Changing Wisdom: All-Time 30 Greatest Sports Quotes

People playing rugby.

11 Super Tough Sports

In no particular order, here are some of the world’s toughest sports:

#1: Boxing

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. Moreover, it goes without saying that the constant risk of being hit in the face certainly gives another mental aspect of diffculty.

Related: Float Like A Butterfly: 30 Iconic Muhammad Ali Quotes

#2: Rugby

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.

Water polo.

#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 of ice hockey players 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 one of the most popular 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 physical contact in the form of 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 and hand-eye coordination. 

American football.

#6: American Football

Almost any NFL 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 football players are also required to have 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.

#7: Hurling

Whilst not yet an Olympic sport, 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.

A person running out of the water.

#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, potentially being one of the most exhausting sports on earth.

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.

#10: Gymnastics

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.

People playing basketball.

#11: Basketball 

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 basketball players need decent endurance.

Related: 30 Kobe Bryant Quotes In Honor Of The Basketball Legend

Honorable Mentions

  • Soccer
  • Tennis 
  • Gaelic Football
  • Squash 
  • Decathlon
  • Wrestling
  • Adventure Racing
  • Figure Skating
  • Free Climbing
  • Skeleton
  • Skateboarding

What Is The Most Demanding Sport Technically?

Again, it’s not an easy question to answer, but sports such as figure skating, gymnastics, or some martial arts, which require so much technical skill that complete beginners may have to train for a long time to master even the basics are pretty good contenders.

Despite the low physicality required to be a golfer, some might argue that due to the high skill required to be a pro, golf is one the most techincally demanding sports.

What Is The Most Demanding Sport Physically?

Again, there is no exact answer to this question, and it depends on how we define physically demanding.

All of the sports on our list demand peak physical fitness, with different sports demanding a focus on different types of fitness and muscle groups.

However, there are sports such as skeleton or free climbing, where a small mistake can end your life – the ultimate physical price.

Martial arts, boxing, contact ball sports, and skeleton again also all take a big toll on the body through repetitive injuries, strain, and impacts on the body across an entire career, which is incredibly demanding on the physical body in the long term, making them all good contenders for the most physically demanding sport.

Sports such as figure skating and gymnastics and also strong contenders for the most physically demanding sport, as they require physical fitness, have a high risk of physical injury, and require excellent physical balance and coordination – a different form of physical demand.

What Is The Hardest Sport With A Ball?

Again, it depends on how you define ‘hardest’, and could be any one of water polo, ice hockey, soccer, Aussie Rules, rugby, or others.

If you’re not a fan of big physical collisions with others, then you might consider Aussie Rules the hardest. On the other hand, some might consider water polo the hardest due to the multiple different types of skills it requires to compete.

The Wrap-Up

What do you think is the hardest sport in the world?

Perhaps there are some lesser known non-western sports we’ve missed off the list?

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!

People wrestling.

References

Photo of author
Amber Sayer is a Fitness, Nutrition, and Wellness Writer and Editor, as well as a NASM-Certified Nutrition Coach and UESCA-certified running, endurance nutrition, and triathlon coach. She holds two Masters Degrees—one in Exercise Science and one in Prosthetics and Orthotics. As a Certified Personal Trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, she likes running, cycling, cooking, and tackling any type of puzzle.

29 thoughts on “What Is The Hardest Sport In The World? 11 Toughest Sports”

    • Great point! Too bad no one knows or would consider this. VO2 max testing has indicated that of all tested activities, motocross requires the highest. Accept this support from a former varsity-level rugby player, and national-level competitive swimmer.

      Reply
  1. water polo players tread in a 10ft deep pool and play back and forth on a 25 meter court. they beat the ever living crap out of eachother while displaying some of the most athletic movements in all of sports.
    these athletes literally have to tread water during dead time. half of the worlds “athletes” can’t even tread water. the word “brutality” is in the rule book more than the word “swimming.”

    baseball? hockey? football? rugby?

    anyone can play those sports- probably not well, but anyone could play.

    not everyone can just hop in a pool and play polo. not even swimmers.

    Reply
    • lol no.
      im a swimmer. after a practice meet we bring out the goals and polo ball and play.
      it’s stupid easy lmao. not to mention that it’s actually much easier for us because we can sprint a 25 to reach the other side of the pool in 9 seconds.

      git gud.

      Reply
      • Statistically, it’s Baseball and Jai Lai. Hitting a 100 mile per hrs round hard fastball with a round bat. Your contact area is thinner than a paper plate. 2nd, hitting hockey Puck accurately while skating. But the top hitters in MLB history achieve a nearly impossible feat each at bat. To sum it up. If, as a MLB star, you FAIL 7 out of ten times over your career, Your career batting avg is .300. AND…..YOURE GOING TO THE HALL OF FAME. NAME ANOTHER SPORT CLOSE TO THAT %. DOESNT EXIST. BYE YALL!!!

  2. It may not look like it to people who have watched but never played, but using the 6 criteria, hockey scores 60. But the missing 7th attribute is intelligence and that’s another 10 for hockey. Outsmarting your opponents and coordinating with teammates while moving 40km an hour and controlling a 3” disc on the end of a stick in a full contact sport requires the ability to read the play and react quickly. It’s much easier to control the game in a one on one sport.

    Reply
    • Seems like a lot of people here have never tried to play ice hockey.
      I don’t think people realize just how much time you need to practice just ice skating.
      Just getting to a point where you can move comfortably on ice, in a game setting takes years. Now we have to learn how to skate with an ice stick and a puck, learn all the puck handling techniques, passing, and arguably the most difficult skill, mastering the different shot types. Now put that all together and you still need to learn how to do this all while the opposing players are crashing into you. There’s a reason why ESPN has this sport at #2.

      Reply
  3. Baseball is the hardest sport when ur 60ft away form somebody throwing 102 mph u cant even see the ball. Its a white blur and u have to decide wether or not to swing in 0.4 seconds, remember, it takes u 0.1 seconds to react so u really only have 0.3 seconds to react. If you’ve ever watched a game it looks easy but there is a lot more work behind the scenes.

    Reply
  4. LOL – swimmers finding water polo easy LOL!!! We have had many competition swimmers come to our water polo club in their late teens early twenties. Swim, yes you’s can, once you have a hand on your shoulder, well, it’s scuba diving gear you’s need. LOL!

    Reply
  5. Ballet is 150% the hardest! All of the flexibility and muscle strength you need to have. And don’t even get me started on how tough the teachers can be. Dancers will literally have to stand on their toes if they have pointe shoes. Most professional athletes will take ballet to help them get better at the original sport they played. I know that it may not look like much, but ballet dancers have to have so many things on their mind as they dance. “Am I standing straight?” “Am I turned out?” “Is my behind pulled in?” “Am I rolling my ankles?” “Are my shoulders back?” “Is my stomach pulled up?” “Are my knees straight?” “Am I not on my heels?” And on top of that they have to stay on the counts of the music. Do you know how hard it is to remember all that and be going like 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. And sometimes the counts go really quickly. Ballet is definitely the hardest sport.

    Reply
  6. Ok you guys have obviously never even tried figure skating. You try going 50 miles an hour on slippery ice with knife shoes and launching yourself 5 feet into the air with your toes, somehow spinning around 4 and a half times, landing on a blade 1 millimeter thick and zooming accross, all the while making sure to not fall because the ice you skate on is harder than concrete. YOU try doing all of that, while still having a peaceful smile on your face. Also, its not just about the skating itself. The judges judge not as much about your skating and more about the image you portray. Take tonya harding. She did the first EVER tripple axel in competition and still lost a lot because she wasn’t super rich. figure skaters have to wake up at 5 AM, do off ice training, do 2 hours of skating, go to school, spend another 4 hours at the rink, take a ballet or other supplementary class, do an off ice workout, then go to sleep. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. Not to mention how much mental pressure is put on figure skaters, not to mention pressure to have the ‘perfect’ stick-figure body? Football players, lets see you do a split-jump quad-axel combo, then a belliman spin.

    Reply

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