What is sports engineering?

We’ve had many questions asking us what we do as sports engineers. This article aims to describe that work we do at the Centre for Sports Engineering Research

If we take apart the term sports engineering and look at the meaning of each word:

1) Sports = see Simon Choppin’s first blog article in this series, a ‘winnable’ activity which requires a physical intervention

2) Engineering = Technical application of maths and physics to solve problems

Sports engineering is the technical application of maths and physics to solve sporting problems. These might include: designing equipment, building facilities, analysing athlete performance, regulating standards, ensuring safety requirements are met, developing coaching tools…

In 1998 Professor Steve Haake set up the International Sports Engineering Association (ISEA), reflecting the growth of Sports Engineering as a recognised academic discipline.

What is a sports engineer?

Last year Dr Dave James wrote a great article on the blog, how to become a sports engineer. A few things are essential; a love of sport (not necessarily an ability to do it!), an interest in maths and physics and a desire to understand how things work.

Many of us here come from a mechanical engineering background, but some of us are physicists, some biomechanists, a few are computer scientists, there’s also a mathematician and an aeronautical engineer… but all of us are applying our skills in the world of sport.

People often get confused between sport scientists and sports engineers. Whilst there is often a lot of cross over with the work we do, a somewhat simplified explanation is that a sport scientist is interested what is going on inside the athlete – how much oxygen they are using, which muscles are working the most… whereas as sports engineers, we are interested in the external factors – i.e. how the athlete may interact with the equipment or the environment.

What do we do?

Here at the Centre for Sports Engineering Research at Sheffield Hallam University our work falls into three main areas: Research, Consultancy and Education. Within those three areas we have expertise in the following:

1. Sports equipment product design and testing

We’ve worked with a number of sports equipment manufacturers to help redesign or test new sports equipment. Using computer aided design (CAD) skills, 3D laser scanners and expert manufacturing knowledge we’ve also helped build equipment that can be used in the sporting environment. Some examples of products we have been directly involved in are:

· Planet X Bikes – carbon fibre tri-bar handlebar

· STRI – Golf green ‘Trueness Meter

· ZEN Oracle – Golf putter design

· Golfbone Europe – T-bone carrying support

· Amy Williams BLACKROC sled – In partnership with Southampton University


Figure 1 – Design and analysis of Planet X tri-bars and Zen Oracle golf putter.

2. Analysis and simulation of equipment or athletes

Computers play a big part in our work, modern techniques allow us to look at how structures (such as tennis racket frames) bend and vibrate (finite element analysis, FEA) and also how air and water flow around athletes and equipment (computational fluid dynamics, CFD). These new tools make it possible to simulate how products perform in the real world and assess how changes in design may affect the sport. The changes we make may be to improve performance or to ensure regulations are upheld. Some examples of the sports we’ve worked in and the clients we’ve worked with are:

· Tennis – ITF and Prince – FEA analysis of ball interaction and racket performance

· Cycling – CFD of the cyclist, bike or equipment

· Golf – Ping – characterising performance of clubs or golf balls

· Football – adidas – Football trajectory simulation

3. Human movement analysis

We also undertake biomechanical research with equipment that is able to capture an athlete’s body position as they move (in a similar way to the motion capture technology used in modern film-making). We are lucky enough to be one of four universities that are a UK Sport Innovation Partner; supporting Team GB’s quest for medals at this summer’s Olympics and beyond. Some of the work we do in sport also transfers over to health related applications. Some of the examples of the work we do in this area are:

· Gymnastics, Boxing, Diving – Bespoke motion capture systems and coaching software

· Second Lives for the Third Age – Development of a virtual environment to allow older or less active users to control an avatar with rehabilitation benefits.

· Smartfloor Field Lab – Interactive floor space allowing balance to be assessed.

· SuPPORT 4 All – Developing a novel solution for safer breast radiotherapy.

4. Interactive education exhibits and public lecture tours

And finally, we like to tell people about all the cool stuff we do! Over the past years we’ve given numerous talks to schools, trying to encourage students that maths and science plays a really important part in sport too. We are currently involved in a lecture tour for the Institute of Physics (IOP), travelling around the country promoting the benefits of A-Level physics using sport and the Olympics as our motivator!


Figure 2 – Leon Foster and Heather Driscoll demonstrating the high-speed video camera at an IOP lecture (Image courtesy of Lee Dobson)

We don’t shy away from the ethical aspects of what we do either – Dr David James is a Royal Academy of Engineering public engagement fellow and is investigating the pros and cons of technological enhancements in sport. And obviously, the exhibit at theV&A museum lets you get involved in our work too!

For more examples of what we do, check out our YouTube site!

Dr Heather Driscoll

1 Response

  1. I have been questioned many times by both professional engineers and academics about what exactly is Sports Engineering. I like to explain it like this if engineering is finding real world solutions to problems then sports engineering is finding real world solutions to sports related problems using engineering methodology. i also like to quote that the only thing a Sports Engineer has to do with Sports is the title in the name the rest is engineering. Sports Engineers are real engineers but are multidisciplinary usually with a broad understanding of the application of Electronics, Mechanics and Human Movement. A sports engineer has the potential to realise a solution to a problem and develop an innovative solution based around the need using various hardware and software tools usually only used by more direct streamed engineers such Solid Works (CAD packages), ANSI C (Programming), 3D video motion analysis software.

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