ESPN Rates Surfing the 23rd Toughest Sport

I recently came across this interesting article on, and it really made me think about the perception people have about surfing and my conclusion was purely – If you don’t surf, you will never understand surfing.

Like the Billabong slogan states “Only a surfer knows the feeling”

Below is the actual article:

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.

  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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