Scientists, technologists, engineers, and mathematicians all leave their marks on the sports we enjoy (and, for many, live by), though they may not necessarily be noticed. With March Madness in full swing, sports science has influenced everything from the perspiration-wicking uniforms worn by college basketball players to the aerodynamics of the ball with which they play.
As many employers say they cannot find enough qualified candidates for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics jobs, sports can serve as the inspiration for future STEM generations.
Sports hold high influence among much of the global population. How many kids grow up dreaming of becoming a professional ball player? But even for those who lack athleticism, they can still be involved with the world’s greatest games. Here are just three growing areas in which STEM jobs play no less important roles to the success of sports than the athletes and coaches themselves.
Anyone who watches ESPN or is even passively familiar with the book-turned-film Moneyball knows that competitive sports today is a game of data, which is why many teams employ statisticians and why ESPN has an entire tech/analyst group.
Dean Oliver, who helped pioneer the statistical evaluation of basketball, known as APBRmetrics, explains in Basketball on Paper, “I build statistical tools to better understand sports, who is good, what tactics work, and how to put all the pieces together.” Having worked in environmental engineering, risk analysis, and mathematical modeling, Oliver uses statistics, engineering, economics, and a good understanding of sports to create his models, Mashable recently noted.
For a sign of the increasing role of analytics in the sports industry, look no further than the MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. The annual academic conference and networking event drew more than 2,700 researchers, stats gurus, and analytical minds of every athletic stripe in the first two days alone. Research at the conference this year included a quantitative look at whether or not to crash the boards in basketball, forecasting the likelihood of field goal success in football, and exploring the effects of field vision in soccer.
As analytics continue to reshape how sports are played, the intersection of advanced metrics and sports business could become an increasingly popular area of work for STEM professionals.
Materials design is critical to an untold variety of aspects in athletic events, from high-performance uniforms to high-tech stadiums.
“Today, materials science is revolutionizing the way athletes train and compete,” IMT Career Journal sister publication Industry Market Trends explained recently. “Pole vaulting poles have become lighter and stronger with the optimum amount of flexibility. Swimmers’ bathing suits are made of materials so advanced they would have turned NASA engineers green with envy in previous decades. Running shoes have become more sophisticated, as has nearly every other type of sports accessory.”
Consider news this month from New Balance, which announced it is using 3-D printing to produce footwear that is customized to professional athletes’ specific needs. Utilizing an additive manufacturing process known as selective laser sintering, whereby powdered plastic resin is hardened layer-by-layer to form a part — the shoe manufacturer can create a spike plate that is lightweight but also caters to how an athlete runs. The design process for each plate is aided by New Balance’s Sports Research Lab, which analyzes biomechanical data for each athlete that’s collected using in-shoe sensors and motion capture technology.
Stadiums also depend on untold numbers of STEM professionals to maintain performance and efficiency and ensure the comfort and safety of spectators. Designers of London’s Olympic Stadium used unique fabrics, wind tunnel testing, computer models, and many other high-tech tools and processes to ensure the stadium was a model of design and engineering versatility. The venue is the lightest, most flexible, and most sustainable Olympic venue ever built.
There are 3.8 million sports-related concussions suffered in the U.S. each year, which is why helmet engineering is an ever-growing field in sports science. Today, researchers in a variety of STEM fields are working to design a football helmet that can dramatically reduce concussions and brain injuries at every level of the sport.
A Purdue University biomechanical engineer recently patented a helmet liner that reduces g-force to a player’s brain by 50 percent, and at Virginia Tech, biomedical engineering and injury biomechanics researchers are monitoring head impacts sustained by selected members of the school’s football team both in practice and games and conducting comprehensive lab tests on popular brands of football helmets.
Dean Sicking, an acclaimed engineer who helped revolutionize safety in auto racing and teaches at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, says football helmets can be improved greatly with further testing, along with state-of-the-art materials and engineering. Sicking recently told ESPN.com that engineering teams at MIT and the University of Nebraska, along with his team at UAB, are working on revolutionary helmet changes.
Helmets are just one focus for biomechanical engineering in sports. As long as athletes — whether in baseball, hockey, lacrosse, auto racing, or any other competitive sport — continue to become stronger and improve their performance, translating to greater velocities and more intense impacts, minimizing injury will remain paramount, and biomechanical engineers will be counted on to design and develop better gear.
Dreaming of a Sports Science Career
We’ve only scratched the surface of areas in which STEM professionals can thrive in sports. After all, who designs the constantly evolving technology required in scoreboards? Who explores how surface features like seams affect the aerodynamics of next-generation soccer balls? Who engineers Olympic swimming pools that reduce waves? Who builds specialized wheelchairs that maximize athletes’ performance in the Paralympics? And who studies race car or bicycle aerodynamics to help competitive drivers and cyclists go faster?
Athletes owe a great deal of their success (and fans their enjoyment) to the legions of STEM talent working behind the scenes. Sports science and sports industry careers can inspire future STEM generations to go for the goal, touchdown, and finish line.