The next stage: the science of bigger balls

June 30, 2000

Now 25 years old, sports science has reached middle age, says Steve Haake, senior lecturer in Sheffield University's department of engineering.

"The new kid on the block is sports engineering. Although courses are just starting to appear, sports engineering has its own international association and journal, and the Department of Trade and Industry and the European Union have allocated sizeable amounts of funding for its development. A lot of people seem very keen."

Sports scientists approach their subject from the athlete's point of view, whereas sports engineers look at how athletes control a piece of equipment and predict how it will interact with their bodies, clothing and environment.

"Traditional engineers may regard the subject as a bit of an easy option, but believe me, the difficulties come when you put a sportsperson on the end of a golf club. That's when the real fun starts," says Haake.

Recent projects have proved that there is a lot more to the subject than first meets the eye. "We have been working with the International Tennis Federation to design a bigger tennis ball to slow the game down," says Haake. "As the average men's serve is 113 miles per hour, the ITF thought it was time to adapt the game to allow more people to learn, rather than watch ace after ace. Our bigger balls have already been used in a couple of Davis Cup ties."

Sheffield University's reshaped ice skates were used in this year's World Championships, and academics have been working on a machine to shoot out footballs for target practice.

"It's a blessingto teach as well," Haake says. "Trying to show ordinary engineers how beams bend can be quite a struggle, but introduce a tennis racquet into your analysis of bending and they all seemto sit up and take notice."

Haake admits that jobs for sports engineers will be hard to come by while the sector develops, but he is confident that this situation will quickly change. "The economy is such that I am sure there will be jobs by the time our first students graduate," he says.

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