Sports: the Best, the Worst, and the Hardest

Many of us have tried to figure out what it is that makes a sport entertaining to watch or play. At first, you may have hypothesized that it’s the number of goals scored in a game… but then you remember basketball. Your next hypothesis may be that it’s how much actual playtime is in a game. For instance, there’s only 2 minutes of actual action in a baseball game and baseball is incredibly boring to watch. To be fair, though, those 2 minutes are quite intense. Then you consider soccer, which has over 90 minutes of action in a game and many people find it boring to watch. So what’s the deal?

In my opinion, the most exciting sport to spectate/play is the sport that allows for the most creativity and skill. Creativity cannot exist in “simple sports”, like running, swimming, weightlifting, most Olympic sports, and so on. These sports are only interesting because of the impressive physical feats. Aside from the record-setting performances, they’re not interesting to watch. In football (soccer), there’s the Portuguese saying “joga bonito”, which translates to “play beautifully”. I interpret this as meaning “play with creativity and skill rather than brute force”. Creativity and skill exist in sports with many variables involved. For example, instead of moving a ball around with hands, a stick can be used. And instead of playing on foot—something most humans have mastered—we can play on skates. Throw in some goals to give an overarching purpose to all player movements. Finally, throw in teammates and opponents for infinite decision-making possibilities. What do you get? Hockey.


The most difficult sport is based on the quantity and quality of the participants, or competitors. It does not make sense to remove the competition and then judge the difficulty of a sport. The competitors define the standard for success. For example, if success in golf is simply putting the ball in the hole, it’s easy. However, success is putting the ball in the hole with the fewest hits or “under par”, which is based on how others fare. So what’s the most difficult sport? It’s the one with most competitors and competitiveness—again, quantity and quality. So even though golf is a popular sport, the level of competiveness is low because it is mostly played by old people past their prime physical condition. Football (soccer) is probably the most difficult sport to succeed in.

Size Advantage

Most sports are height or size dominated. That is, the bigger you are, the easier it is to succeed. In running, this is evidenced by Usain Bolt, who stands at 1.95 m. He takes much fewer strides than the average man to reach the same distance. In swimming, this is evidenced by Michael Phelps, who has a wingspan of 2 m. The average man has a wingspan of 1.781 m. If the 100m swim was adjusted for height to be completely fair, Michael Phelps would swim the 100 meters while the average man would only have to swim 89 meters. But that would be silly. Basketball is inherently a height-dominated sport due to the height of the basket. Volleyball is height-dominated due to the height of the net.  American football is size-dominated due to the running-into-each-other aspect.

Why isn’t the tallest person always the most dominant? Or, why do shorter people still succeed sometimes? Because sports still require skill and physical ability. It’s basic statistics. Imagine a (normally distributed) bell curve. This represents the skill level of all athletes between 6’ and 7’. Now imagine another (normally distributed) bell curve that represents the skill level of all athletes between 5’ and 6’. This bell curve is located to the left of the first curve, and slightly overlapping. Basically, tall people yield a higher success rate in sports. The short professional athletes you sometimes see are extreme outliers, about 4 or 5 standard deviations from the mean.

Two sports that are not totally dominated by height or size are football (soccer) and hockey. Tall players still have the advantage of a bigger stride which allows them to win races. Also, in football, tall players have an advantage when it comes to headers. Also, in hockey, short players have a disadvantage of constantly receiving elbows to the head. Other than this, football and hockey are pretty fair.

In my opinion, the height advantage in basketball makes it about as interesting to watch and play as a 10k race. A height or size advantage can destroy the creativity and skill in a sport and turn it into a boring “simple sport”. For example, it can take a lot of skill to be a good hockey goalie or you can just be morbidly obese and cover the whole net. If you don’t know what creativity and skill look like, in hockey, it’s the jukes, dekes, dangles, fake shots, one-touch passing plays, sneaking by defenders, etc. “Brute force hockey” would be constantly whacking the puck in the general direction of the opponent’s net, or trying to jam a puck through a goalie’s pads on second and third rebounds. To summarize, the criteria for a good sport are many variables in play so that creativity and skill can thrive, and a minimized height or size advantage so that creativity and skill aren’t hindered. Go hockey!

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© Buism 2013