In the ball game: staying fit with ball sports

Sports Tracker basketball, ball

The history of ball sports is long and varied. We look at popular (and weird) games, why we love them, and how to train for them.

The moment I first played basketball I knew I’d found my ball sport. I’d gone to my mum’s basketball games, and friends and I had played together on the side of the court. I remember feeling impatient to get on the court to show them how it’s done. 

I was eight years old, and now – 34 years later – I’m still “balling” whenever I can, as well as being a fanboy of NBA basketball. I’m not as athletic anymore, but the fundamentals of the game are still with me. And as soon as I step onto a basketball court, I forget all my worries and just enjoy the game.

Most ball sports are a fantastic way of staying fit. Many involve explosive movement, and demand hand and eye coordination, complex footwork, and endurance fitness. Nothing, not running, cycling or hiking, come close to giving me the workout that basketball does. Maybe this is why ball sports have been popular for so long …

Let’s go way back ….

Ball sports go a long way back in time. Some evidence suggests all the way back to 1600BC.  Polo and hockey, for example, go back to ancient times. One of the oldest records of people playing ball sports comes from Mesoamerica region, where the inhabitants were making rubber balls way back in 1600BC. That’s a long time ago!

In modern times, we’ve continued to invent and refine ball sports, like basketball (1891), American football (1880s), rugby (1823), football (17th century) … this list is long. Soccer has ancient roots; its origins can be traced back to China a couple of thousand years ago. The English made it the game we play today. American football also has an ancient predecessor – the ancient Greeks played a form of it. Same goes for tennis. 

Sports Tracker football

The wide world of ball sports

There are roughly, depending on how you cut it, six categories of ball sports. 

Bat and ball games, such as baseball, softball, cricket

Racquet and ball games: tennis, squash, ball badminton, table tennis

Hand and ball striking games: handball, four square

Goal sports: basketball, football, hockey, lacrosse, rugby

Non racquet net sports: volleyball

Target sports: golf, bowling, lawn bowls

Creating icons

The massive popularity of ball sports and the incredible athleticism of their elite players have combined to create some of the most iconic images, brands and personalities in history. The world wouldn’t be the same if Michael Jordan didn’t leap from the free throw line to dunk the ball, ultimately paving the way for the Air Jordan image and brand. 

Globally iconic and recognisable brands like Wilson’s Sporting Goods, which sells equipment and apparel for the most popular ball sports, are household names. Anyone who plays basketball, baseball, American football, tennis or golf, know this brand has been in the game since the early 20th century and represents quality goods. 

5 weird ball sports you never heard of

1. Pesäpallo: This sport played in Finland is similar to baseball, but with differences. Rather than a pitcher throwing the ball as fast as he or she can horizontally at the batter, the ball is thrown vertically and the batter then steps forward and tries to hit it. 

2. Pato: Do you like riding horses and also like playing basketball? Good, pato might be the sport for you. Native to Argentina, this sports is like the polo form of basketball!

3. Calcio storico: Don’t bother trying this sport unless you happen to be a champion boxer or martial artist. It’s an early form of rugby, but far more brutal. 

4. Sepak takraw: Popular in South-East Asia, this is basically like volleyball, but instead of players using their hands to strike the ball, they must use their feet!

5. Underwater football: If you’re a good swimmer, and can hold your breath well, give this sport a go. Wearing a snorkel and mask, players on two opposing teams attempt to take a weighted ball across the pool, trying to outmaneuver one another, and put the ball in the opposing team’s goal (called a gutter). It’s the underwater version of American Football.

Swamp soccer is a form of association football that is played in bogs or swamps

5 general training exercises for ball sports

Whatever your chosen ball sport, there are some basic exercises you can do to help your performance. Here are few to work on:

Core strength: This is an obvious one for all sports. It involves more than just doing sit ups and planks. Instead, focus on the inside out approach; work on the deep stabilising core muscles, such as the transversus abdominis. Here’s an exercise example.

Endurance: Running is one of the best ways for developing the endurance required for ball sports. Start with 30 mins, and increase 10 percent each week until you can run for an hour without stopping. You don’t need to run fast – jogging is fine.

Speed and agility: Being able to rapidly accelerate and suddenly change direction are essential for ball sports like football, basketball, tennis and many others. This short video offers four easily performed drills to help you improve your speed and agility. Unless you’re really fit, it’s wise to start slowly with these drills so you avoid injury. Prepare to sweat!

Plyometric power: The ability to jump, to suddenly explode forward or sideways, referred to as plyometric fitness, is one of the main reasons we love watching elite sports. Athletes sometimes seem to defy the laws of physics! Same as above: start slowly with these. This video gives you some examples to start with. 

Weight training: Condition your body, and get strong, by lifting weights once a week. They will give you the muscle strength required to support speed, explosive power and the knocks and tumbles common in ball sports. Here’s a video of NBA basketball players lifting weights in the gym.

What’s your favourite ball sport and why do you love it? Tell us in the comments below! 

Josh Gale

Josh Gale

Kiwi journalist tracking adventures great and small

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