Articles for parents

The link between sports and maths

Jul 2021
Have you ever given much thought to the maths involved in sports?

A fantastic summer of sport is well underway. Wimbledon and the Tour de France are in full swing, the Olympic Games are around the corner, and of course, the excitement of England reaching the final of the Euros is nearing fever pitch!

Have you ever considered just how much maths is involved in sports? From predicting outcomes, to finding the right corner in the goal, to spinning the perfect serve, most successful sportsmen and women are secret mathematicians at heart.

Let's begin with football!

Dr Ken Bray of the University of Bath has concluded that 30% of the best players in the world have an intuitive understanding of maths, particularly geometry, aiding their precision in passing, taking free kicks, and positioning themselves on the field.

When it comes to free kicks, Dr. Bray has worked out that the ball ideally needs to be struck with an elevation of 16 degrees, at a speed of 60-70mph, and spun at 600 revolutions per minute, from 25 yards . That's some impressive calculating!

Let's consider the perfect tennis serve. It's no good just serving as fast as you can and hoping for the best. If you serve in the same way every time, your opponent will learn how to respond. To keep your opponent guessing, you must put a certain amount of spin on the ball, which makes it very hard to predict where that ball will go.

In fact it's a careful combination of slice spin, top spin and bounce direction that make it so difficult for a good serve to be returned. And all of these rely on hitting the tennis ball in certain positions and at various speeds, to create different angles of elevation. 

In throwing, jumping, gymnastics, the velodrome, diving, and so many other athletic sports, there are a number of mathematical elements involved, particularly when it comes to the rotation of the body.

If you think about diving, in order to flip and spin effectively, the athlete must be symmetrical and learn to distribute their body mass to create the shapes seamlessly. This involves the mathematical concept of inertia.

There are many other characteristics that athletes demonstrate. The ability to persevere, to work hard and develop their skill even when they are faced with seemingly impossible barriers to overcome, is key. Not dissimilar characteristics to those required to learn complex mathematical problems.

Thus in many ways, a celebration of sport is a celebration of maths! So, next time you're watching your favourite team or cheering on your sporting hero, remember the maths that's at work!