5 Reasons why Swimming Isn't One of the Hardest Sports!

A while back I read an ESPN the Magazine post, ranking the most difficult sports. When this list was released, I was a high school swimmer and was deeply disappointed to see swimming was ranked #36 (distance swimming), #45 (sprint swimming).

Recently, a new list of the hardest sports was released, placing swimming #2. This massive discrepancy got me thinking, is swimming a hard sport?

Before moving forward, I want to preface, this is purely an article for entertainment, as each sport is hard with its own unique challenges. I don’t think swimming is one of the hardest sports. Don't get me wrong, it is hard and not everyone can do it, especially do it well. Once again, swimming and any sport is extremely hard, but I don't think it is the hardest. This statement doesn't make me dislike swimming or think swimmers are weak, as it is still my favorite sport to watch and participate. I know, I’m going to get a lot of backlash for these statements, but here are the 5 reasons why swimming is not one of the most difficult sports:

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See why swimming may not be one of the hardest sports. Getty Images: The Image Bank

Swimming is extremely consistent. You can travel across the globe and you’ll find a very similar pool to the one you train at. Sure, the air quality may be different or the water temperature slightly different, but overall the pool is standardized. This standardization is great for determining the best swimmers and comparing times from different competitions, but this lack of variety makes the sport easier. A sport like water polo has tons of plays which are highly dependent on other people. For example, you could take your best shot, but simply have the goalie guess a direction and block your best shot! In swimming, no one can get in the way of your best swim. Someone could have a better start, but it wasn’t interrupted by pure chance.

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Minimal Pain

Swimming has low physical pain, so is it the hardest sport?

Now, physical pain is a complex topic. Some would argue there is no such thing as pure physical pain, as the mind plays a role in any type of pain. Nonetheless, swimmers rarely have to swim through multiple types of physical pain. This doesn’t mean swimmers don't have pain or have to swim through physical pain, but it is typically pain from exercise. Some sports, like football, water polo, rugby, have people hitting or tackling you, inflicting constant pain. This pain creates another level of difficulty for the body and mind to overcome on top of the pain already associated with high effort.

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Not Inflicting Pain

1912 - Drawing showing competitors in action during a Water Polo match
Drawing showing competitors in action during a Water Polo match at the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, Sweden. IOC Olympic Museum/Allsport/Getty Images

Boxing, mixed martial arts, rugby, and football are some sports which one player inflicts pain onto another player. Being able to inflict pain is challenging for some, requiring another level of mental training. Until full contact swimming becomes an event (who wants to start full contact sprint swimming 100 yards in the ocean to shore?), swimmers can hardly relate to this psychological stress.

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Set Distance and Speed

Swimming Open Turn
Learn how to perform a swimming open turn. Getty Images - Brian Behr

Most swimming races are performed at a relatively constant speed at a set distance. For example, a 50-meter free is performed at near maximum, while a mile is done at moderate pace. Other sports, like soccer (football overseas) use variable speeds, ranging from sprints to the ball, to slower jogs. This constant movement and change in speeds is much less dramatic in swimming, requiring a narrower skill set. 

Also, some sports, like soccer and football don't have a set distance beforehand. A soccer player could run 2 - 10 miles during a game, a swimmer (except for some open water races) have a set distance. 

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Less Athletic Individuals

Playing with a foam roll
Two guys playing with a foam roll. Getty Images

Before you get mad, hear me out. Everyone can agree, any sport will be harder with the more athletically gifted individuals. Ground sports will always get more athletically gifted participants, as they are recruited early. For example, everyone in the world runs as a child. They run during play time and physical education. The most gifted runners quickly notice they out run their peers and do it more frequently for the external reward. This external reward is a pipeline for children to run track or play a ground based sport early in their life. These ground based sports are also more lucrative, encouraging many kids to never try swimming. Not having this large pool (pun intended) of athletes reduces the overall athletic ability within the sport, making it easier. Also, swimming is not available for all children, once again decreasing the amount of children who try the sport.

Now, this is true for many sports and it varies by country. In the states, it’s a safe assumption that the most athletic kids do not enter swimming. In undeveloped countries where swimming pools aren't accessible, this is even more true. 

It Isn't Easy Either

Once again, swimming isn't easy. The grueling demands of practice, unfamiliarity of the pool, and individuality make it an extremely difficult sport. However, I think the 5 reasons above make a strong case for swimming not being one of the hardest sports. Updated by Gary John Mullen on November 29th 2015.