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Scientifically Speaking, Which Sport Has the Fittest Athletes?

It’s a debate as old as sports, but when you frame the question right, there are some pretty clear winners

It’s the kind of thing that little kids and adult sports fans alike debate: Which sports have the best athletes? Hell, it’s gotta be the most common thought experiment in sports, and no doubt everyone talks about it every time the Olympics roll around. You know you’ve thought about it yourself. 

To settle this once and for all (I mean, of course it won’t, but let’s just pretend for now), we brought in Paul Gallo, a fellow at the American College of Sports Medicine and director of exercise science and wellness at Norwalk Community College, and also a strength and conditioning specialist, to figure out some answers based on (sports) science, rather than whatever logic you use when you’re spraying crumbs at your father-in-law during an impassioned dinner-time plea for him to acknowledge the real athleticism of street luge.

All right then, which sports have the best athletes?

The reason this question has such staying power is that there are so many different factors to consider. For every athletic attribute that you consider, there’s a sport or two that pushes it to its logical limit. For aerobic endurance, how can you possibly argue against distance running? For mental toughness, sports that require nerve, like golf, or the grind of baseball — or, for obvious reasons, mountain climbing — are probably among the top. So first, let’s lay out the criteria.

How do you define “athletic” here?

This is by no means comprehensive, but Gallo nonetheless breaks it down into some pretty familiar categories — speed, strength, aerobic endurance, anaerobic intensity, agility, coordination and physical and mental toughness. Gallo makes an important point in that last category: Solo sports, which require your performance and your performance alone, tend to have higher psychological stressors associated with them.

It’s worth noting too that Gallo actually used to debate this with his friends as a kid, following which they’d go out to the yard and play the sports in order to settle the argument. In other words, he’s spent a lot of time thinking about this. With all that in mind, Gallo reasons that the most athletic sport is probably whichever one maxes out all of these above categories the most.

So which one is it?

Weighing all the above factors and determining which sports would rank highest in all of them, Gallo came up with a few suggestions for which sports have the best athletes. “If I had to think across the board which sport would tax all the areas the most, it would be the pound-for-pound sports like boxing, wrestling and mixed martial arts, along with gymnastics, where it requires aerobic endurance, anaerobic stamina, speed, agility, and you’re going against competitors of the same body weight, which makes it an even playing field, if you will,” he says. “Not only because you have to have physical toughness, but you have to have a lot of mental toughness because it’s just you performing in that situation.”

I guess that makes sense, but what about, I don’t know, sprinting? Sprinters are literally the fastest humans on earth.

True, they need speed, power and explosiveness, and there’s even a mental toughness aspect of sprinting that Gallo factors in. He defines mental toughness two ways: gross-movement mental toughness and fine-motor-skill mental toughness. Top sprinters have gross-movement mental toughness in spades. In other words, they have perfected getting themselves in the mindset to go 100 percent when it counts. 

But while top sprinters work endlessly on their technique, does it require the same type of mental acuity that a quarterback must possess? Or the fine-motor-skill mental toughness required to put lumber on a curveball or your racket strings on a serve in the blink of an eye? Likewise, you can go in reverse and compare sports like these to ones like distance running, which requires immense levels of stamina and mental toughness. But fine motor skills? Explosive speed? Maybe not so much.

So we’re going with boxing, MMA, wrestling and/or gymnastics?

I mean, think about them: Most humans can’t do any of these sports even remotely well — when was the last time you tried to do a cartwheel? There’s the incredible fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination required; the immense, at times explosive, strength; the combination of endurance and anaerobic expenditures; the agility; the mental acuity (boxing’s got movement patterns and cadences not unlike dancing, Gallo points out). And toughness? The combat sports obviously require loads of it. And in terms of degree of difficulty, all the stuff that Olympic gymnasts could routinely do in their sleep — never mind when the pressure is on — is jaw-dropping at times.

How do famous two-sport athletes like Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders factor into this?

Lots of star athletes played several sports in school, and many legends got drafted professionally in a second sport but chose not to play it. There’s something to that, Gallo says — two-sport athletes in ball sports tend to have exceptional hand-eye coordination and athleticism that happens to translate across sports.

However, take a guy like Roger Craig, who was a three-time Super Bowl champion and running back. In retirement, he became a prolific marathoner, having run over 40 of them. Guys like him speak to the mindset required of top athletes: Sure, they’ve spent their lives being exceptionally well conditioned and so their athleticism can carry them through, but there’s also an astonishing level of mental grit they either naturally have, or have developed, that also allow them to perform such a wide array of extremely demanding sports.

One other important takeaway is that professional athletes cross-train in activities that benefit their sport. In their off-seasons, football and basketball players, for example, are known to study MMA, ballet, Barre, Pilates or yoga. That is to say they leverage other difficult sports or activities to become better at their own difficult sport.

So… we can consider the “Which sports have the best athletes?” debate settled?

Possibly? Before speaking to Gallo, I sent him this list ESPN made awhile back of the most difficult sports, voted on by a panel. Gallo didn’t want to read it until after we talked, but whaddaya know? Boxing is No. 1 on this list, too. The criteria are a bit different, though similar — there’s a wide array of sports in the top 10 (hockey! martial arts! tennis!), though wrestling and gymnastics (and MMA, or at least martial arts) are also in the top 10.

Still, just because the very top end of sports all feature the world’s best athletes, don’t think you can’t do any of them just because you don’t consider yourself athletic. “No matter what you think is the toughest or easiest sport, just do what you enjoy, stay active and keep moving,” Gallo says. They’re all fun and challenging in their own way. But yeah, when it comes to which sports have the best athletes? Next time someone wants to debate this, consider the matter settled.