How to Bend it like Beckham: The Physics of Sports

With the Winter Olympics upon us, I found an interesting new book about the physics of athletic events.  Gold Medal Physics: The Science of Sports highlights what makes superior athletes able to do what everyone else views as nearly impossible.  As an athlete, I find this topic to be very interesting although I have never specifically thought about the in depth science behind different types of sports.  While many athletes focus on hard training, eating right and a tough mental attitude I’m sure most do not consider the properties behind the events that they compete in on a daily basis.  Many events such as football, soccer, cycling, skating, diving, long jumping, etc. are included in the book.  Goff provides specific examples and stories of well known and incredible athletes such as David Beckham and Greg Louganis.  Throughout the book he explains the basic properties that these athletes use to excel in their events.

As an example of the ways in which Goff explains the science, Katarina Witt from the Olympic Games in 1984 and 1988 is highlighted. Goff explains the specific properties of ice and of momentum to explain what skaters are able to do as well as the fulcrum of the diving board to explain different techniques and approaches to dives.  He continues and sites different Rules and Codes of sports so that the reader is able to understand the physics of the sport in addition to the objectives that he or she may be unaware of.  Although I am not someone particular good at science, I was able to follow what Goff was saying while I read what I did reader who may not be fully up to date on their physics can understand he includes many pictures, mathematical equations and diagrams to make it easier to understand.

In researching this topic further I found a website that highlights the physics of other events.  At exploratorium, you are able to look up specific sports and properties that might be useful for each of them.    Maybe, in order to excel,  sports teams should further their sports education and understand the mechanics behind their type of competition.


8 Responses

  1. Can you hot link the book please!

  2. Sports definitely involve physics, but I wonder if understanding these properties would lead to more success? I would guess that most elite athletes do not understand the physics behind their abilities, but rather have a keen knowledge of the techniques that contribute to such excellence. For example, David Beckham knows where to strike the ball to get a perfect bend, how much power to use, what part of the foot to use, and the ideal angle of follow through. Is it really important that he understand why this particular approach results in the soccer ball bending? It is certainly interesting, but I would tend to say that understanding these physics laws would not contribute to improved abilities. Let’s leave that to the physicists. Although, maybe I just say that because I can play soccer (albeit not quite like David Beckham) and am terrible at physics…

  3. “particularly good”

    Last sentence of penultimate paragraph is hard to read.

    Why capitalize rules and codes?

  4. I wonder how many of us know who Greg Lougainis is? ;<) You may want to explain. Are you a diver or swimmer? Was there nothing about swimming physics? What do you think about all the fancy swimsuits? Is that steroids of material science? Does it make it even harder for poor nation athletes to compete?

    Your discussion does well to get into specific details fo the book and to relate how it is a non-technical, accessible book.

    Did you play with the exploratorium site?

  5. I am a swimmer and there was nothing in the book about the physics of swimming but I looked up some of it online. Most of Physics of Swimming deals with the properties of water and the drag resistance and body position which many of my coaches have often focused on. I also looked at the Exploratorium site and much of it was similar to Goff’s book. It also includes pictures of many sports where physics plays a large role. Each sport has a separate page so it’s easy to focus on one thing in particular.

    As for the swimsuits, many of them have been banned in competitive swimming because of the way that they impact buoyancy of the swimmers. These full body suits were had properties of wet suits. As someone whohas worn one of these, I can tell you that it feel VERY different from other racing suits, as if you’re being lifted directly to the surface of the water. While the feeling was great, this year for championships we were forced by new regulations to take a step back and get an older version of these suits that do not have wet suit material or come all the way down to the ankles. These regulations are the same ones used for the Olympics and for other international competition. This puts everyone on a more equal playing field and allows for poor nations to compete with the same advantages that current swim suits may provide.

  6. […] How to Bend it like Beckham: The Physics of Sports […]

  7. Check spelling!

  8. Hello,

    A colleague alerted me to your discussion. Thanks for commenting on my new book!

    To Brooke: You bring up great points about how much an athlete is helped by personal knowledge of the science in his/her sport. I’ve always believed that knowledge is power. David Beckham does not ponder the physics involved in a free kick while he approaches the ball. But, a little better understanding of how the world works can only help. I think I’m a better physicist because I once spent five months immersed in a study of Moby Dick. That example is one of many that I can give that help me to see the world better, and to think better.

    To Jordi: I like the tongue-in-cheek comment about Greg Louganis. It’s hard for me to believe that he last won Olympic Gold nearly 22 years ago! It’s also weird to think of him turning 50 this past January.

    To Jordi and maceyk: I was not able to put much in my book about the physics of swimming. I did my graduate work at Indiana University, so I’m well familiar with the contributions to swimming science by the likes of Doc Counsilman. I simply couldn’t cover every aspect of every sport. I plan to write another book, and swimming may just take up a chapter. Regarding the clothing, that is one area where the scientists have made significant contributions. Cutting drag down by just a few tenths of a percent can be the difference between gold and silver. Michael Phelps won his eighth gold in 2008 by just 0.7 seconds in the 4 x 100-meter relay. Though clothing can help, his long arms and relatively short legs are a big part of the reason for his amazing speed in the water.

    To maceyk: That’s an interesting comment about the full-body suit. Listening to the athlete’s take on something is usually the first step I take before trying to understand the science.

    — John Eric Goff

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