The Secret Science of Sports: The Math, Physics, and Mechanical Engineering Behind Every Grand Slam, Triple Axel, and Penalty Kick

By Jennifer Swanson
Black Dog & Leventhal, July 2021

Review by Marcie Mathis, SWE Editorial Board

CREDIT: Courtesy of Black Dog & Leventhal

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are part of everything we do, from such basic functions as walking and breathing to using high-tech devices to communicate, get from place to place, and monitor various aspects of our lives. And though it may not seem intuitive at first, STEM plays a huge role in sports as well. The Secret Science of Sports: The Math, Physics, and Mechanical Engineering Behind Every Grand Slam, Triple Axel, and Penalty Kick targets eighth- to twelfth-grade student athletes and sports enthusiasts who might not otherwise realize the role that STEM concepts play in the sports they love.

Author Jennifer Swanson, of Jacksonville, Florida, is an award-winning author of more than 50 nonfiction and fiction children’s books, mostly STEM related. Just as importantly, she is a middle school science educator, having graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy with a B.S. in chemistry and from Walden University with an M.S. in education in kindergarten to eighth-grade science. In addition, she is the creator and cohost of Solve It! for Kids, a science podcast for youth and their families.

Swanson knows how to present complex topics in fun, easy-to-learn text, with age-appropriate illustrations that let the reader know this is definitely not a textbook. And though the material is presented as entertaining, the book gives problems regularly so students can gauge what they have learned.

The book is organized into four chapters, one each for science, technology, engineering (and physics), and math. Swanson uses a variety of individual and team sports — from golf to running, gymnastics, and football — in examples that help readers see themselves in the material.

The science chapter includes information on physiology, such as how we feel pain (including a message to tell parents and coaches if you are hurt), the cardiovascular system, breathing, and heart rate. It also includes a discussion of nutrition, how to balance what you eat, and how your body processes different types of food. Everything is connected to how it relates to athletes.

This chapter also includes a discussion of body types and the advantages of different body types for different sports. For example, bodies with more buoyancy might be better suited to swimming. Swanson doesn’t present these as hard-and-fast rules, though, and she gives examples of exceptions, like great basketball players who were not very tall.

The text emphasizes the importance of training your brain as well as your body, including some specific ideas, such as finding and practicing focus. The various parts of the brain, and the role they play in various sports and activities, are also discussed.

CREDIT: Illustrations by Laurène Boglio/Courtesy of Black Dog & Leventhal

The technology chapter is where I learned a few things about sports equipment, including the properties of carbon nanotube technology, the unique characteristics of graphene, and how both of these are used in sports equipment like biking helmets and shoes. (For information on how sports equipment is being better designed specifically for women athletes, see “In Support of Sports.”) Swanson also discusses wearable technologies such as fitness trackers, and how to use them to help measure and improve your performance as an athlete.

Engineering and physics topics include the shape, size, and bounciness of sports balls, and the fact that a bouncier ball works better in some sports — and why. Swanson also explains the reasons footballs are not round, and why the prolate spheroid shape creates more lift and makes it so effective in that sport.

Topics in this section related to gravity, projectile motion, velocity, and angles lead directly into a discussion of how all these things affect where a ball will land, a critical concept in such sports as golf and football. Some of this information may already be unconsciously processed by players, but understanding the path a ball takes after hitting or throwing it can help the player refine her performance.

This chapter also describes the fact that in some sports, arms and legs work as levers; Swanson describes how to optimize using them this way. She explains the “sweet spot” on a bat, including how to find it on your own bat, and how to use this knowledge to hit home runs. Additional topics in this chapter include how friction, drag, and lift all factor into ball movement; how different playing surfaces affect friction; and how the athlete’s body position can help reduce the effects of friction and drag in such sports as bicycling.

Math is used in many ways in sports, and the math chapter includes examples such as scoring, timing, and statistics. The chapter gives formulas for calculating various stats and provides examples of how coaches and others use these numbers to make decisions. Percentages and probability are explained with more formulas and examples, including win/loss percentages and the probability of a player making a basket from a certain spot on the court, for example.

This book will help young people understand how STEM is all around us and how all these subjects affect and contribute to sports. There are good ideas on how to improve performance and safety by understanding the STEM involved in the activity or sport, as well as explanations of why practice and focus are important. The book may inspire sports-minded students to pursue STEM studies, whether they are trying to improve their own or their teams’ athleticism, use scientific acumen to refine the use of sports statistics, or design associated equipment and gear.

Marcie Mathis (she, her, hers) graduated from the University of Washington with a B.S. in electrical engineering. She has spent most of her engineering career as a civilian U.S. Navy employee and works at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and Intermediate Maintenance Facility in Bremerton, Washington. She joined SWE in 1988 as a student and serves as a co-lead of the SWE LGBTQ+ and Allies Affinity Group and as a member of the editorial board.