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The Maya Ball Game - Information for Kids

Updated: Aug 21, 2023

The Maya Ball Game being played Pok-A-Tok
The Maya Ball Game being played - Credit Weiditz Trachtenbuch

Human beings are obsessed with sports. Whether we’re playing sports or watching sports, we just can’t get enough. According to the World Sports Encyclopedia, there are around 8000 different sports and sporting games played around the world today.

Pok-A-Tok Maya Ball game
Could this be an ancient slide tackle? - Credit Adrian Hernandez

But our obsession with sports is by no means a recent occurrence. Cave paintings depicting wrestling (considered to be the oldest sport in the world) have been found dating back to 15,300 years ago. And running was the first (and only) sport featured in the first ever Olympics, hosted in Ancient Greece almost 3000 years ago in 776BC.

In fact, many ancient cultures enjoyed sports and games as popular pastimes; the Ancient Romans hosted Gladiator competitions and the Vikings had a great love for skiing. And the Maya were no different. The Maya are well known for their “Ball Game” – a sport invented in the Mesoamerican area around 3,500 years ago, making it the oldest organised sports game in history.

What was the “Ball Game” called?

The Maya Ball Game is known by a wide variety of names. In the Classic Maya language (or Classic Ch'olti') the Ball Game is called “Pitz”. But in English, it is often referred to as “Pok-A-Tok”, a name coined by Danish Archaeologist Frans Blom in 1932.

How was Pok-A-Tok played?

Pok-A-Tok Maya Ball game
A Maya Ball Game player trying to keep the ball in the air! - Credit Daniel Lobo

The rules of Pok-A-Tok varied depending on where in Mesoamerica you were and in what era the game was being played.

But there were a few concrete rules that never really changed:

  • There are two teams –with two to five players on each team.

  • The ball must not touch the ground.

  • The players must keep the ball in the air without using their hands or their feet. This meant using your hips, knees, thighs, upper arms and elbows to keep the ball in the air.

Sounds fairly straight-forward right?

Pok-A-Tok Maya Ball game
A Ball Game player bounces an enormous ball off their hip - Credit Wolgang Sauber

There was an added risk though. The balls the Maya used to play Pok-A-Tok were made from solid rubber, unlike balls used for sports like tennis or football today which have a rubber outer surface but are filled with air. This meant Pok-A-Tok balls were very heavy and very hard. The balls would vary in size, but the larger ones (approximately the size of a football) were only a little lighter than the weight of a bowling ball! These balls could cause serious injury and sometimes even death if not handled correctly during the game. Players would sometimes wear padding, called Yokes, to protect their limbs from injury.

How do you win Pok-A-Tok?

Pok-A-Tok Maya Ball game
Get the ball through the ring for an instant win! - credit Kåre Thor Olsen

Again, the rules in Pok-A-Tok vary, especially when it comes to winning the game. Some games were based merely on keeping the ball in the air. The team that drops the ball first loses the game. Other games were won by scoring points. These points were scored by getting the ball past the opposing team and into the empty space at the back of the pitch behind them.

Later, stone rings were added onto the pitch. These stone rings were raised high above the ground and the aim was to get the ball through the ring. This was considered such a challenge that if a player got the ball through one of the rings, it resulted in an instant win. Pok-A-Tok was such a difficult sport that one game could often stretch out for days on end!

What did the Pok-A-Tok pitch look like?

Most Pok-A-Tok pitches were rectangular, with two stone sloping walls running along the sides of the pitch. The sloping walls created an “I” shape for the players to use; a narrow playing field down the centre and two wider zones on each end. Some archaeologists believe the sloping walls were used to bounce the ball off to help keep it in the air.

There are over a thousand Pok-A-Tok pitches scattered across Mesoamerica. The largest pitch is at the ruins of Chichen Itza. This pitch (aptly named the Great Ballcourt of Chichen Itza) is 168 metres long and 70 metres wide – this is bigger than a Premier League football pitch!

The Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza Pok-A-Tok Maya Ball game
The Great Ballcourt at Chichen Itza - Credit Brian Snelson

Why did they play Pok-A-Tok?

Sports today are often played for the enjoyment of the players and the spectators. And this was also the case for Pok-A-Tok. Sometimes. It was a popular game and, on the rare occasions where Pok-A-Tok was played just for fun, the spectators would often gamble on the teams and players.

Pok-A-Tok Maya Ball game
A bird's-eye view of a Pok-A-Tok court, Can you spot the players, balls and scoring rings? Credit Codex-borgia-tlachtli

However, most of the time, games of Pok-A-Tok became a religious spectacle filled with ritual importance. The sport played a political role and was often used as a way of solving disputes between rivals and sometimes offered an alternative to battle between warring towns.

Pok-A-Tok was a sport played to please the gods. Games were sometimes played in a style that re-created the battles from Maya myths and legends. These games would often be “rigged” so that the team playing the winners of the battle would also be the winners of the game of Pok-A-Tok. The team deemed to lose the game would sometimes be made up of captives or prisoners who would be killed as a sacrifice at the end of the game.

Sacrificing a team for losing a ball game might seem a bit extreme. But killing the losing team was a regular occurrence and wasn’t just limited to teams of prisoners or captives. Human sacrifice was an important part of the Maya way of life because they believed it pleased their gods. In many games of Pok-A-Tok, there would be a sacrificial killing from the losing team. Sometimes this was just the captain of the losing team. But if you were really unlucky, the whole team might be sacrificed.

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