Imagine a sport that features roundhouse and bicycle kicks that look like outtakes from a martial arts movie. The athletes would have the flexibility of a pre-pubescent gymnast, the agility of Rafael Nadal in last summer’s French Open tournament and the explosiveness of Lebron James on a breakaway dunk. Actually, you don’t really have to imagine. That sport already exists and it’s called sepak takraw.
Sepak takraw, or takraw for short, is a traditional Southeast Asian game that started as a benign, mildly athletic endeavor like Cat’s Cradle or Double Dutch. It was just something to do to pass the time — no competitive nature required. Most similar to our Hacky Sack, the purpose of the game was just to keep the ball in the air.
Over time, it has evolved into a fast-paced, highly skilled game. It combines elements of volleyball, where two sets of teams separated by a net get three chances to get the ball over, and soccer, where athletes can use every part of their bodies except their hands. The origins of the game are somewhat debated. The invention of the game has been claimed by both Thailand and Malaysia. There are theories that China and Indonesia have had a hand in creating the sport, too. No matter the origin, that sport has taken root in Southeast Asia and the popularity of the game rivals that of soccer in other countries.
And why wouldn’t it? The game itself is just so visually appealing. You can’t watch the game and not marvel at the ability of the human body. The game is so visceral and instinctual that you feel like you have to develop a certain skill just to watch. Here, check it out for yourself:
Make no mistake, it takes years and years to get to this level. You may be telling yourself, “Hey, that’s a sport I want to try.” But first, ask yourselves these questions. These are the things that long-time players Kong Vang and Outou Rathida have to say about what makes a legit takraw player.
1.) Do you have killer reflexes?
No? Then maybe checkers and Go Fish are more your speed. Like tennis and badminton, a big part of this game is played on instinct. You have to telegraph where the ball’s going to go.
2.) Can you do the splits on a dime?
If you can, then you have the flexibility to play takraw. For attackers, there are two types of approaches that require great flexibility. There’s the roll spike, essentially a bicycle kick, where attackers jump up on one leg and flip in the direction he wants the ball to move. He uses the other foot to kick the ball over his opposite shoulder. There’s also the sunback spike, a jumping scissor kick.
3.) How much control do you have over your body?
This means foot-eye coordination, correct positioning, and understanding how the ball bounces off certain parts of your body.
4.) Are you afraid of fast-moving balls flying toward your face?
If so, this is not the sport for you. Heading the ball is an essential maneuver as it can be used for offensive or defensive plays. Players can spike the ball with a header or use their forehead to get the ball high in the air on the defensive end.
5.) Are you a ninja?
Because, seriously, there’s no way that the players playing high-level takraw are NOT ninjas. They have grace, agility and explosive acrobatic moves.
And finally, ask yourself these questions: How much would you pay to watch Gabby Douglas, Rafael Nadal and Lebron James in action? What if you could get all of that in one dynamic package? And, why wouldn’t you want to watch ninjas in their natural element? Take a good, hard look at yourself and then ask why this game isn’t more popular in the United States.