Sports Engineering Rules

As the inaugural post on the engineering sport blog, there is a weight of responsibility bearing down on the next few paragraphs to set the scene correctly for every post that will follow. Of primary importance is to set out the stall and identify what particular niché this blog will fill in the n-dimensional multiverse that is the ‘blogosphere’. We hope that engineering sport will fulfil a number of aims:

  • To inform readers of how engineering can influence the world of sport
  • To give expert views into major sporting events, achievements and what role science and technology had to play
  • To entertain!

You might have gathered from the use of bullet pointing within the first paragraph that this blog is written by scientists and engineers. Despite the boffins behind the blog, each article will not be a maelstrom of equations and complex diagrams; the aim is to remain accessible to the public as well as interested academics. However, we will apply scientific rigour and evidence based research to any frivolous claims we might be tempted to make.

Now that the stall is set (however sparse it may appear at this stage) the business can begin of tackling the question most frequently aimed at a sports engineer;


What is sports engineering?

In order to understand the answer to this question you must have a firm idea of just what sport and engineering are as separate entities.

Wikipedia (the first port of call for every serious research scientist) currently describes sport as:

an activity that is governed by a set of rules or customs and often engaged in competitively

The competitive aspect of sport renders it an ideal area for an engineer. Every serious athlete strives to gain an edge over their opponent; this could be something as intimidating as a team of 11 Brazilian footballers or something as seemingly benign as a stopwatch. Engineers concern themselves with understanding and overcoming problems through the use of a plethora of scientific techniques (see our research group website for examples). By using modern methods a sport engineer endeavours to give a competitive edge to an athlete or team in order to improve their performance. Certain things limit the possibilities of the sports engineer, of primary importance are the laws of physics and the rules and customs which define the individual sport. While these rules have very different origins they are equally as important. The laws of physics prevent an engineer from powering Paula Radcliffe to victory through perpetual motion in the same way that the rules of tennis prevent us from designing a shoulder mounted pneumatically powered racket cannon to allow Andy Murray to fire a ball at over 200 mph.

What comes around goes around

In order to confuse the already hazy waters, while the laws of physics don’t knowingly change weekly, the rules of sport can change at the whim of a governing body. How these rules change in the face of technological progression has a large role to play in how a sport evolves over time. If the rules don’t account for potential technological improvements then the sport is open to potentially game-changing innovation. The relationship between technology and sport is a constant compromise between innovation and tradition.

Prior to the 1980’s the International Tennis Federation‘s (ITF’s) rules were glaringly lax when it came to restrictions on the size and weight of the racket a player could use. Up until that point the physical restrictions of the wooden rackets had been sufficient. When large, lightweight aluminium rackets began to appear the ruling body had to react quickly to prevent the nature of the game from changing irrevocably. New rules were put in place restricting the size of the racket a player could use.

To stop themselves being caught out again the ITF set up their technical centre in 1997 ;

The mission of the ITF Technical Centre is to protect the nature of tennis by actively preserving the skills traditionally required to play the game and, to encourage innovation and improvements which maintain the challenge of the game and make it more exciting to play and watch.

The need for science

By understanding the scientific nature of future innovations, a governing body can stop itself from blindly reacting to products which appear to change the state of play. The USGA and Royal and Ancient golf bodies both have extensive technical centres which ensure that they understand why a particular club or ball appears to augment performance unfairly.

The recent controversy surrounding the speedy polyurethane swimsuits highlights how important it is for a governing body to maintain a good understanding of the physics and engineering of equipment progression. After outcries and hasty rule reversals, new rules have been put in place to ban the new suits which led to the unprecedented period of record breaking swims.

FINA, the governing body of swimming have had to engage with sports engineers in order to try and understand why these new suits behave as they do, and what legislation is necessary to control their use. FINA recognised this need for scientific engagement in their recent ‘Dubai Charter‘ on the regulation of swimwear.

In a rapidly evolving world, regulations need to progress as well to address new emerging issues. Before any discussion arose, FINA had initiated a process in view of adapting the equipment regulations. To improve their quality and credibility, FINA has not only consulted the manufacturers but has also sought the support of independent scientific experts of worldwide reputation who will notably assist in the determination of meaningful tests.

Well researched rules of sport shouldn’t rule out particular products but prevent a product from behaving in a way which is deemed to be contrary to the nature of the sport itself. The rules of golf only prohibit you from using a golf ball which is deemed to be unfairly efficient when struck. This level of efficiency is determined by strictly controlled and carefully designed testing procedures. Hopefully, FINA’s new rules have been properly researched in order to prevent a manufacturer re-designing a suit which creates exactly the same beneficial effect as its outlawed predecessors.

The role of the engineer

The sports engineer plays on both teams; they design the unsliceable golf ball or the super spin tennis racket, by understanding the physics of such technology they also help write the rules which keep the fundament of a particular sport intact. We hope that this blog will explore this delicate balance, looking at the technology which drives innovation and the research which uncovers the science lurking behind it.

We hope you enjoy the blog, feel free to comment on an article and let us know what you think!

Simon Choppin

About wiredchop

Simon Choppin Simon’s sports engineering career began at the age of six when he loosened the wheels of his skateboard in order to make it go faster. While the experiment was chalked up as his first failure, his resulting dimpled skull has provided an aerodynamic advantage in more recent sporting pursuits. Academically, Simon completed a degree in Mechanical Engineering with Mathematics at Nottingham University before joining the Sports Engineering Research Group at Sheffield to start his PhD. His main interests include work with high speed video, mathematical modelling of various sorts and experimental work involving machines with big buttons. As a sportsman, Simon has an unfortunate lack of talent for anything requiring skill, tactical awareness or the ability to learn from mistakes. He does however seem to posess the ability to move his legs around for a long time until other people get tired, for this reason you’re most likely to see him on a bike of some sort or running up a hill in offensively small shorts. Simon was fortunate enough to have a stint at the Guardian newspaper as part of the BSA’s media fellowship, which gave him the idea for this blog. Other than this, his writing experience includes his PhD thesis and various postcards to his Mum.

2 Responses

  1. […] Through further reading I learnt that the rules of the ski-jump have been changed in order to deter ski jumpers shedding dangerous amount of weight. Apparently, because low weight is such a great advantage in ski-jumping, the race to lower weight has put jumpers at risk of physical and mental damage. As a result, the rules now dictate that if a skier is below a particular BMI they must use shorter skis. The penalty is such that launch velocity is reduced due to lower mass, and the lift forces during the jump are reduced due to the stunted skis. I think this is a great example of a sport changing the rules in order to modify the incentives, as has been discussed in a previous post. […]

  2. I’ve always felt fialry welcomed in the world of fishing and supported as well. If anything, the guys grin a mile wide and encourage me more than they route each other on. On a professional level, there is certainly a lacking of representation of woman, but slowly and surely….it’s coming!Great post~

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