science of sport, sports science

The Science Behind Sports

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We all love watching our favorite sports teams win or lose, depending on their skills, but have you ever taken the time to think about the science of sport? There’s more to sports like football, soccer, baseball, gymnastics and running than kicking a ball, doing a flip or running a marathon. Let’s take a closer look at these sports and the science behind them.

The Science Behind Football

Throw the ball. Catch the ball. Run the ball down the field. Tackle the guy with the ball. Kick the ball occasionally. It doesn’t seem like much goes into the game of football until you start looking at the science behind it.

Every time a quarterback throws a pass across the field, he mentally calculates the ball’s vector so it ends up in the hands of their teammate rather than in the hands of the competition. By enabling the quarterback to calculate the speed and direction of the ball, they can pass it properly. If they mess up, and it’s the fourth down, it’s time to bring out the punter to punt the ball to the other team.

Kicking the ball for a field goal creates a parabola, which is a curved mathematical calculation. The kicker needs to understand this to score. The arch the ball makes while traveling downfield is another example of a parabola. Since the punter wants to get the ball as far away from his team’s end zone, he needs to understand the dramatic arch the ball makes when his foot connects with the ball.

You can also factor in velocity and acceleration that keep the players moving as they attempt to score a touchdown. Newton’s Laws of Motion help determine when a player keeps moving and when they stop suddenly. These only represent a couple of examples regarding the science behind the sport of football. Check out these videos for a more in-depth analysis.

The Science Behind Soccer

Soccer, or football as the rest of the world calls it, is sometimes more challenging than other sports because the only person who can use their hands is the goalie. It’s also a phenomenal example of physics applied in real life. When a player kicks a soccer ball, it generates what is known as the Magnus Effect. The ball starts to spin, which causes it to curve while in flight — something that isn’t demonstrated in any other sport.

This aerial curve makes it harder for the goalie to determine where the ball is going once in the air, so the next time your favorite striker makes a goal, thank the Magnus Effect and the physics of soccer balls.


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The Science Behind Baseball

Baseball is a game of reaction time, and baseball players have some of the fastest reaction times in the world. Without a quick reaction time, the ball that can move upwards of 100 miles per hour, will pass them by. At that speed, it takes the ball 0.4 seconds to travel the 60 feet, 6-inches from the pitcher’s hand to the plate.

It takes 0.1 seconds for the batter to find the ball with their eyes, then 0.07 seconds to calculate the speed and trajectory of the ball. By then, the ball has already traveled 22-feet of the 60-feet separating the batter from the pitcher. It takes 17 thousandths of a second to execute a swing, leaving 0.09 seconds for the batter to decide whether they want to swing or not.

These reactions times, more than anything else, determine whether someone will be successful as a baseball player.

The Science Behind Gymnastics

Not every sport takes place with a team behind you. You might belong to a gymnastics team but each event occurs solo. Professional gymnasts make their routines look easy, but there’s a lot of physics that goes into each move. One thing remains constant throughout the sport though — it’s all about balance, core strength and understanding the physics of motion.

Performing on a balance beam, for example, only requires that the gymnast keep their center of mass over the 4-inch wide regulation beam, but they don’t stand still up there. They do flips, handstands, twists and a variety of other moves, relying on balance and their hard-earned core strength to keep them off the floor.

According to physicists, the rings are probably the most challenging type of gymnastics — at least from a physics perspective. The further away the gymnast holds their arms, the less leverage they have to move — again, relying on massive core strength to overcome that lack of leverage.

The Science of Sport

Athletes need to fuel up and maintain a healthy lifestyle to perform their best. Whether you throw a baseball, kick a soccer ball or spin around the uneven parallel bars, science sits at the core of every single sport. Think about that the next time you watch a football player throw a pass clear across the field, or a baseball batter knocks the ball out of the park.

The Science Behind Sports
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Category: Everyday Science


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Article by: Megan Ray Nichols

Megan Ray Nichols is a freelance science writer and science enthusiast. Her favorite subjects include astronomy and the environment. Megan is also a regular contributor to The Naked Scientists, Thomas Insights, and Real Clear Science. When she isn't writing, Megan loves watching movies, hiking, and stargazing.