Life As A Surfer

ESPN Rates Surfing the 23rd Toughest Sport

ESPN did a poll on which sports are considered pound for pound the toughest sports in the world.  It was decided by a panel of “sports scientists” from the United States Olympic Committee.

They consist of 8 panelist all ranging from Dr. Janet Starkes, a Professor in Kinesiology at McMaster University to Brian Jordan, a two sport athlete who played in Major League Baseball for the Texas Rangers and in the NFL for the Atlanta Falcons.  They rated 60 sports using 10 criteria.


surfing is one tough sport

ESPN's toughest 60 sports:

  1. Boxing                                                                    

  2. Ice Hockey

  3. Football

  4. Basketball

  5. Wrestling

  6. Martial Arts

  7. Tennis

  8. Gymnastics

  9. Baseball/Softball

  10. Soccer

  11. Skiing: Alpine

  12. Water Polo

  13. Rugby

  14. Lacrosse

  15. Rodeo: Steer Wrestling

  16. Track and Field: Pole Vault

  17. Field Hockey

  18. Speed Skating

  19. Figure Skating

  20. Cycling: Distance

  21. Volleyball

  22. Racquetball/Squash

  23. Surfing

  24. Fencing

  25. Skiing: Freestyle

  26. Team Handball

  27. Cycling: Sprints

  28. Bobsledding/Luge

  29. Ski Jumping

  30. Badminton

  31. Skiing: Nordic

  32. Auto Racing

  33. Track and Field: High Jump

  34. Track and Field: Long, Triple jumps

  35. Diving

  36. Swimming (all strokes): Distance

  37. Skateboarding

  38. Track and Field: Sprints

  39. Rowing

  40. Rodeo: Calf Roping

  41. Track and Field: Distance

  42. Rodeo: Bull/Bareback/Bronc Riding

  43. Track and Field: Middle Distance

  44. Weight-Lifting

  45. Swimming (all strokes): Sprints

  46. Water Skiing

  47. Table Tennis

  48. Track and Field: Weights

  49. Canoe/Kayak

  50. Horse Racing

  51. Golf

  52. Cheerleading

  53. Roller Skating

  54. Equestrian

  55. Archery

  56. Curling

  57. Bowling

  58. Shooting

  59. Billiards

  60. Fishing

According to 8 "sports scientist," boxing is the No. 1 sport and fishing is ranked No. 60. Although that may seem reasonable, where does Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) rank? Brutal physical fights where two athletes get caged into a ring using a wide array of discipline and physical skills seems deserving of credit. Well known fights brought to you by MMA fight leagues such as Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) is not rated in the top 60, or recognized as a sport.


ESPN recognizes fishing, billiards, shooting, weight-lifting, auto racing and equestrian as worthy sports to be considered amongst the 60 toughest. When consider equestrian as the 53rd toughest sport, perhaps they may be the horses as the athletes.


So where does our beloved sport, surfing, rank amongst the top 60? It is considered the 23rd toughest sport of all. At first glance, without much thought, that may seem like a reasonable ranking. That is until looking closely at the other sports ranked ahead. Surprisingly, surfing is ranked behind sports like tennis, baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, cycling, volleyball, and racquetball.  


Suppose these 8 panelists have the benefit of the doubt and assume they’ve all picked up a surfboard at least once in their lifetime and attempted to surf.  Lets suppose they paddled out, got into a wave and stood up a minimum of one time.  Perhaps one of these judges surfs on a regular basis.  That being said, surfing got the following scores on the ten criteria from a scale of 1-10 according to ESPN's poll:


Sports difficulty criteria:

  1. Endurance = 4.63

  2. Strength = 5.00

  3. Power = 4.13

  4. Speed = 4.25

  5. Agility = 6.63

  6. Flexibility = 5.50

  7. Nerve = 8.25

  8. Durability = 5.50

  9. Hand-Eye Coordination = 4.38

  10. Analytic Aptitude = 4.88


As expected, surfing received low scores on endurance, power, strength, speed, and hand-eye coordination. Some can argue that the best surfers are power surfers and speed is an important element to surfing well. However, it's unlikely the best surfers in the world would match up with such athletes as football players in terms of these criterias. 


Not surprisingly, surfing ranked high in “nerve," which was rated high with an 8.25 out of 10 score.  Again, perhaps one of those ESPN sports panelist surf on a regular basis and has dropped into a double overhead wave. 


An argument can be made that surfing deserves more respect when it comes to “analytic aptitude." Experienced surfers know that making reads and adjustments can make a big difference in your surfing ability especially when it comes to competition.  Everything from reading the waves, making adjustments, finding the sweet spots, and competing against other surfers should all tie into “analytic aptitude." 


The problem behind this rating is that it does not take into account surfing’s most difficult elements.  In order to give a fair assessment of surfing's difficult challenges, consideration has to be given to the following criteria:


Learning Curve

While some sports can be learned or played within the first day or hours, some sports require an athlete to put in months or even years to get acclimated. Most experienced surfers will agree that surfing has the longest learning curve of any sports. I’d expect surfing to rank high in this category whereas sports like cycling or racquetball should rank lower as it takes a much shorter time to learn.



Like many extreme sports, surfing has arguably the most dynamic environment. It is a skill of constant adjustments and a game of making the most out of what is given. Unlike other sports where you are competing against other people and the environment is constant, surfing has an added element where you compete against Mother Nature. In this case, Mother Nature is constantly moving.  



Surprisingly this is not among the list of criteria by which a tough sport is measured. If strength, speed, agility and flexibility are considered, why not balance?  If it was, surfing should rank high in this category as well.   



According to ESPN, baseball is ranked 14 spots ahead of surfing at #9. 


"The first time I've ever picked up a bat and baseball, I was hitting, catching and throwing the ball within a few hours," said Riley Stevens, an experienced surfer and baseball player. "The first time, I picked up a surfboard and got into the water, I couldn't even get past the break and in the line up. It took me three long sessions to ride my first wave."


ESPN could argue that although it might be easy to pick up a baseball and bat and learn how to hit pretty quickly, doing it on at a higher level when a ball is thrown towards you at 90 mph is a whole different matter.


"Okay, so there is a lot more hand eye coordination involved when swinging at a 90 mph fast ball than paddling a board," Stevens said. "I get that. How about this for consideration? What about dropping into Teahupoo on a heavy double overhead wave that is fast, steep, barreling and closing out quick? Call me crazy but I think the latter would be harder. Yes, that’s comparing apples to oranges but in either case, it demonstrates the toughest aspects of each sport. We are talking about the so called toughest sport in the world after all."


Many surfers can be in agreement to some of ESPN's top ranked sports.


I can see how ESPN ranks sports such as boxing, ice hockey, wrestling or water polo highly due to the physical demands," Stevens said. "I can even see how they can possibly rank rodeo steer wrestling above surfing. That just simply takes a lot of balls."


Many sports enthusiast can be appalled with ranking badminton in the top 30. That is the sport where one swings a miniature sized racket to hit a shuttlecock, a feathered projectile.


"Are you kidding? Badminton!" Stevens said. "That shouldn’t even be on the same page as surfing.  In fact, badminton shouldn't even touch this chart with a ten foot pole." 


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