Watch Sports, Teach Engineering

We analyse the new trend towards sports engineering


I watch sports in a different way. Rather than marvelling at Ray Allen’s near mathematically perfect jump shot, I’m curious to see if there are potential ways of getting him open more often through predictive path planning. To me, a home run ball does not just leave the park, but it also carries a tremendous amount of data which can be used for anything from designing new stadium wall depths to analyzing how baseball bats will react in different climates. When I watch sports, I see science, physics and a unique way to engage the next generation of engineering students.

Historically, sports have not been associated with science and engineering, but over the past few years the sports industry has invested more time and money incorporating technology into athletics. This includes everything from equipment design for improved durability and performance, biometric research about the health and safety of athletes, and even the psychology of “group think” and other behavioral studies. In the end, ultimiately, every coach, trainer, team and individual athlete is looking for a competitive edge and sports technology can deliver this, but what does this mean for the engineers that support these athletic endeavors?

Data is everywhere. Every play, every breath, and every piece of turf can be captured, analyzed and used to make important decisions that can be the difference between victory and defeat. Patterns and predictive algorithms now complement plyometrics and supplements as part of the equation that is modern-day sports. Today’s sports teams now rely on brains as much as brawn. Developing safer equipment to prevent injuries is as important as the technologies and medicines used while rehabilitating. Positioning the proper personnel in a lineup is as valuable as raw talent and all of this is made possible through science, technology and analytics. The casual fan may have heard of QBR or Quarterback Ranking (a qualitative measure of a quarterback’s performance and a way to compare quarterbacks against each other on an independent scale), but a quick trip to ESPN will reveal advanced algorithmic comparisons that could make a Harvard Statistician blush.

Sports science has found its way into popular culture as well. TV shows, movies and books now top best seller lists, and with the popularity of shows like ESPN’s “Sports Science”; hundreds of mobile apps that can track your fitness goals; and personal training devices like the Adidas miCoach or Nike Fuel Band; it is fair to say that technology has become a vital part of the game; but what can it teach us?

If you have been following recent news, it’s no secret that there is a lack of students enrolling in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) programs and pursuing careers in these fields. The U.S. is losing the battle of inspiring students to see STEM as exciting or relatable. In turn, we are graduating students at a rate that is far below the present and future demands of industry though professions that require STEM skills continue to grow. This is where sports technology becomes more than just part of the game.

Getting students to associate STEM education with something that they know and care about, like sports, is critical not only to their engagement in the classroom, but gives real-world context to otherwise complex or abstract ideas. For instance, instead of teaching the concept of deceleration due to atmospheric conditions, take the class outside and have them run into the wind. Try using the swimming team to display drag and have them investigate inelastic collisions by watching a professional football game. Students at all ages become more interested in STEM when it is presented in such a way that it almost seems like recess.

At National Instruments (NI), we build the hardware and software tools that engineers use to design systems. Everything from smartphones to medical devices and even spacecraft are built and tested using our tools; including sports technology. Using our products, engineers of all kinds are able to speed up their innovation and discovery. For instance, in 2013, NI partnered with Specialized Bicycle Components to build the world’s first custom wind tunnel used for sports to test their prototypes and sponsored athletes. Cycling is a sport where seconds often dictate the podium; therefore, it is critical to understand and optimize each factor affecting a rider’s body and cycle at every stage of the race. We helped Specialized create an accurate way to measure and test the effects of real-world aerodynamic drag on their bicycles and riders; and in doing so, Specialized can continue developing faster, safer bicycles and helping athletes race smarter and more efficiently. Better yet, the innovations discovered here will not only give Specialized athletes a competitive advantage, but will make biking to work faster and easier for the everyday commuter. Projects like this are not only technically challenging and of benefit to many people, but they provide a real world example for students that answers the question, ‘When will I ever use this’?

For the last few years, my role at NI has been to put these same technologies in the hands of undergraduate students across the country in an effort to familiarize them with our products before they graduate and become professional engineers. I’m responsible for getting students to not only understand complex engineering concepts, but to build projects and actually “Do Engineering” before they graduate. I’ve found that the actual topic of the project rarely matters as long as the students gain an understanding of the practical applications of what they learn in the classroom.

Over the past few semesters, I’ve worked with students at several universities to develop different engineering projects that demonstrate sports science concepts. One of earliest projects and most popular examples was a swimming study I conducted in 2011 with a group of mechanical engineering students from the University of Texas. The team was challenged with designing and building a training platform that swimmers could use to investigate their reaction speeds and body positioning as they entered the water. This project was a great success not only for the students, but NI estimated that those students achieved a 200% increase in the understanding of our hardware and software versus previous semesters using different projects and technologies.

Since the project at UT, I have gone on to sponsor more than 20 teams and over 100 students in sports technology projects and professors across the country have quickly realized their effectiveness. I now have more interest in my “Qualitative Free-Throw Analysis” projects than some of the more traditional academic offerings. These teams have done everything from underwater swimming analysis to eye tracking, and the quality of the deliverables is outstanding. These students go on to become professional engineers and scientists in a variety of fields, ranging from computer science to biochemistry. The tools, experience and knowledge these students possess is something that will help them in whatever ventures they pursue in the future. They understand engineering because it was presented to them in a digestible way they can relate to, through sports. Engineering isn’t rocket science – it’s sports science.

To see a video of the University of Texas’ Swimming and Diving Project visit


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