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A Whole New Ball Game


Engineers are changing the face of sports by developing all sorts of new technology that helps athletes move quicker and play harder.

Sometimes you just have to take advantage of your situation. You can call it blatant opportunism, but I found myself on the phone with Stanley Johnson, an engineering professor at Lehigh University for 27 years but, more important, a consultant to the United States Golf Association on equipment technology. I'm supposed to be talking to Johnson about the issues of sports and technology, using his studies of the microphysics of the golf ball, but all I can think about is my own game.

See, I've spent the past three years bringing my handicap down to about 10, but like most golfers, I'm pretty much stuck there. With 10 years before I can qualify for the senior tour (at age 50), I figure I only need to drop a shot a year and I'm there. And I figure that Johnson holds the key, as he can tell me which ball to use and which forged-irons to buy and which big-headed driver to use to get me to where I want to go. After all, he's got science on his side. All I want from him is the expertise to drive and hit my irons like Tiger Woods.

So while we're talking about bodies in motion and dimple effect, I can't help but sneaking in a few personal questions. "If I want more length off the tee, which ball should I use?" I ask him.

"For your skill level, it wouldn't matter much, as all the balls are within similar parameters," he tells me.

"What about spin, is there not a ball that will give me more feel on shots like that?"
"Can you spin it now?"

"Not when I want to."

"Well, it won't make much difference then," Johnson tells me.

"You can't believe all those claims by the manufacturers. For the casual golfer, the equipment you use isn't going to make much difference."

He goes on to tell me that the increase in golfing performance at the pro level is due to many factors. The athletes are stronger and better, their swings are more efficient, the newer course designs often favors the longer hitter, and even the grass is better to hit from, he says. The increase in performance due to better equipment, Johnson says, is about 5 percent for the pros. For the rest of us, he tells me, no matter how much we spend on equipment, improvement in our scores will be negligible.

"So what should I do?" I ask.

"Practice," he says.

I was afraid he was going to say that.


Fun and Games

The very nature of sport is one of measured performance, sometimes down to the thousandths of a second. Swimmers want a suit that let's them move more quickly through the water, sprinters want shoes that will given them added push off the track, bobsledders want their sled aerodynamically configured to reduce drag, and golfers want to drive the ball 10 yards farther down the fairway.

But as a course of study, many engineering schools have looked down on using their time and brainpower to study in science's toy box. Why study, for example, the aerodynamics of a baseball when one can use the same principles to study booster rockets used in the space shuttle? Should one use one's intellectual capital to improve metals used in building construction or to find better alloys for tennis rackets?

Many prefer to concentrate on topics that they find to be more fun. And while studying sports might not be rocket science in a literal sense, it kind of is, when you break it down to basic theories. Many engineering professors now are seeing the study of technology and its effect on sports as not only a good way to teach basic theories but also a way to allow students to bring their designs to the marketplace. "If you had to choose between finding a cure for cancer and how to throw a javelin farther, you know which one you would pick," says Mont Hubbard, a professor of mechanical and aeronautical engineering at the University of California-Davis and director of the Sports Biomechanics Laboratory at the school. "But studying some of the dynamic effects contained in sports, we can introduce all of the dynamic systems that we are trying to teach our students. Students tend to tune out when studying the same old greasy gearbox."

"When you study the motion of a spacecraft and then apply those principles to the concept of a bobsled moving through the air, the concepts are identical," Hubbard continues. "Ultimately, one is as complex as the other. The only difference is that the student gets jazzed up about one and bored with the other. I think that's the key to why we teach the way we do."

Virtually everyone within the engineering field who researches sports agrees that using America's infatuation with balls and speed and high performance on the field is a good way to teach basic principles. But beyond that there is some divisiveness as to how engineers go beyond using sports as a valuable teaching aid. The argument is the same one that has surfaced in recent years in other fields of study, particularly software development. Namely, should engineering schools and their students push the sports research as an end in itself, such as proving or debunking existing theories? Or should schools work toward specific product development—and work with manufacturers within the sports industry—as a way to teach and allow for entrepreneurship within the industry? As with all such disputes, there is a lot of room in the middle.

Picking Up Speed

UC-Davis' Hubbard counts himself among the former. "We aren't working with manufacturers," he says of his research group, "because I don't think they are interested in pure research to make their products better. We like to focus on the theoretical aspect, the mathematical characterizations, helping athletes to maximize their training. I guess maybe this comes from the fact that I don't find product development more interesting than the theoretical research."

To that end, Hubbard's Sports Biomechanic Laboratory tends to research theoretical science that might impact athletes. To do this, the UC-Davis scientists tend to work backwards. They look at the motion of the various balls and sticks and projectiles used in sports and then apply their research to the athletes who use those objects. Using high-speed video cameras, they can determine the most efficient trajectories for a javelin throw, for example, and find the best way for an athlete to achieve those goals.

They helped the U.S. bobsled team achieve more aerodynamic sleds for their performance in the 2002 Olympic Games in Utah, where the men's and women's team won medals for the first time in 50 years. Hubbard's most recent project disproved a fallacy in baseball, that a fastball will travel farther than a curve ball when hit by a batter. Hubbard's research proved that the top spin on a curveball will make it travel farther with the same force. And as any baseball player knows, the hanging curveball can travel farther than any other pitch.

The Center for Sports Innovation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology uses a different starting point. Launched in 1999, the goal of the center, according to its mission statement, it to develop "new technology and products" while linking "the expertise of MIT faculty, the passion of MIT students, and the experience and insight of corporate sponsors to create a dynamic environment for product development." CSI is led by Kim Blair, who is working under contract with MIT and is not a faculty member. The approach of product development is great for students, Blair says. "Using sports teaches product development and theoretical research in very clear terms," he says. "They can assess user needs, use innovation, track development of a product in terms where they can see the innovation first hand."

CSI has already worked with Trek to make its bicycles more aerodynamic, with New Balance to design a better foam in the soles of running shoes, and with a number of companies that manufacture rugged mountain-climbing gear. But the problem for CSI in drawing contracts from private industry is the speed with which innovation comes through research in new sports technology.

The main problem starts with the small margins in the sporting goods industry and manufacturers' unwillingness to pay for new products that another company can rip off quickly after the product goes to market. It's the old notion that the first to technology is not necessarily the first to profitability. Other problems include retaining patent and intellectual property rights. MIT is wrestling with its own policy of retaining right of research patents by students in the university labs. "It's a matter of who owns what, when, and for how long," Blair told Outside magazine. "And we can't always come to terms."

A case in point was research that an MIT student did for New Balance to make one of their triathelete shoes easier to slip on coming out of the water. The thesis for the shoe was completed, and less than one year later the product was in the stores. This type of speed leaves little time to publish, sort out the patent rights, sort out the school ownership, and find ways to protect the patent.

Thus far, CSI has fallen well short of its goals to have contracts worth $300,000 per year. But it still offers hope to smaller companies who may not have the R&D budget of behemoths like Nike. The Nike Research Lab in Beaverton, Ore., employs 24 researchers, including eight with Ph.D.s. The facility has 12,500 square feet, and $1.5 million in equipment at the researchers' disposal. They also have research contracts with six universities in Germany and Canada.

But the sporting goods market is huge and full of smaller players as well as the big boys. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association estimates the American sports consumers will buy $46.2 billion worth of athletic footwear, sports apparel, and sports equipment this year. Innovation drives sales, and smaller companies need help to enter the marketplace. The fees charged by CSI make it affordable for these small manufacturers—$15,000 for undergraduate research and $30,000 for graduate research. Thus far, most of its clients have been smaller companies in the outdoor equipment industry, mountain climbing, camping, and the like. The challenge for Blair is to negotiate through a fickle, for-profit industry, while keeping the research cutting edge. But there are caveats, not the least of which is MIT itself. "We may be not-for-profit," Blair says of CSI, "but of MIT, not-for-profit means not-for-loss, too."

Keeping Score

MIT's approach has raised some hackles within the sports technology research gang, a group that is relatively small and a group whose members know everyone in the field. "MIT has put the cart before the horse," says one researcher who didn't want to be identified. "The (sporting goods) industry is not always interested in innovation. Most manufacture their equipment offshore, and costs of manufacturing are the most important factor for them.

"So even if you come up with a better golf ball or moisture resistant clothing or a softball bat that hits the ball harder, the costs may prevent the companies from using that research in a timely manner. I think MIT is finding out that this is much different from developing a new software program."

But innovation and education and some entrepreneurship often can coexist. In 1998, The NASA Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., was in the midst of developing an educational program for elementary and high school students that would teach theories of aerodynamics. Rabi Mehta, a researcher at the Ames Center and an expert on the aerodynamics of sports balls, teamed with Jani Pallis at Cislunar Aerospace in Napa, Calif., to set up a Web site that would teach kids aerodynamics while focusing on sports. Mehta, with a Ph.D. in aeronautics from the University of London, had long studied the physics of cricket, his favorite sport. Pallis, with a Ph.D. from UC-Davis in mechanical and aeronautical engineering, had done research on a host of sports subjects at Cislunar. Together, they came up with a simple way to teach science to the students: the aerodynamics of the tennis ball.

Mehta and Pallis found that their Web site on sports had more hits than the other parts of the educational Web site. And while teaching kids about aerodynamics, they discovered a previously unknowns truth about tennis balls. "We realized that the fuzz on the ball plays a much larger role in the aerodynamics than had been anticipated in the past," Mehta says.

Fuzz matters, huh? So what? Well, at the time, the powers that be in world tennis had been contemplating how to slow the game down, especially for top male players. The problem was that fans were becoming less interested in tennis because the speed of the men's game prohibited extended volleying. Unlike most sports, which want to speed things up, the tennis federations wanted to slow things down. The original thinking was that a new, larger ball would have more aerodynamic drag, and thus slow the ball down.

But the discovery of "fuzz drag" by Mehta and Pallis made the tennis sanctioning bodies rethink their simple request for a bigger ball. The researchers found that the skin of the ball—the porous surface with the fuzz—reacted differently depending on speed and how worn the ball was. At high speeds, the fuzz lay down, cutting drag. A worn ball would have less drag. But even less-worn fuzz would resist drag, as it would create a wake behind it, slowing down drag.

So, it was not just the size of the ball, meaning that both size and fuzz mattered. The fuzz reacted differently to different playing conditions and to different velocity and at different times during the match. Mehta and Pallis came up with new specifications after wind tunnel research, and a new, larger ball with different fuzz configurations was approved by the International Tennis Federation. But even with the approval, the ball is seldom used at the elite men's tournament, which was the point in the first place. It seems that pro tennis players, like many athletes, are resistant to change and they don't want to use the new ball.

Breaking Down Barriers

Which brings us to a conundrum of research in sports technology. If the end users don't like the changes, they may never be implemented. In recent years, this was the attitude of race-car drivers. For decades, scientists had used their research to make race cars faster. Along the way, they tried to make race cars safer, but often this research was at odds with the pure speed.

"There are inherent dangers involved in making race cars go 200 miles per hour," says Dean Sicking, a professor of civil engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and director of the Midwest Roadside Safety Institute.

When driver Dale Earnheart died at the Daytona International Speedway in 2001, NASCAR and other racing-sanctioning bodies turned to Sicking to help make racing safer, or at least less fatal. One of the problems researchers found was that drivers were very used to existing restraints inside the car, like head and neck restraints and safer seat belts, and didn't really want much change. They were more concerned about comfort—which they thought gave them a better chance of winning—than their own safety. Earnheart himself didn't like the restraints, and this may have contributed to his death.

Sicking and his crew are developing better and more comfortable restraints that the racing sanctioning bodies are now implementing. In addition, they have come up with a system of barriers on race track walls that will lessen impact and protect drivers in the event of crashes. The first of these additions to the walls were installed this year for the Indianapolis 500. They have been misrepresented as "soft walls" in the media but are actually formfitting energy-absorbing walls that are not "soft" by any means. "Soft was not what we wanted," Sicking says. "We wanted a barrier that controls and manages impact. It has to be very stiff, so a car can gouge into it and lessen the impact."

Since the barriers have to be designed for each track, NASCAR and the Indy Racing League funded the research and are paying for the installation at each track that wants the system, free of charge. They hold the rights to the design at the tracks, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln holds the rights for application of the safety barriers on the highway.

Sicking says Earnheart's death was a wake-up call to drivers about safety issues. "We're seeing more and more acceptance of the new seats and restraint systems," he says. "The sanctioning bodies realize that the drivers are their life's blood, and anything they can do to preserve their drivers is in their best interest. They have a financial motive and they want to do what is right."

Sicking says the new studies on race-car safety has yielded a curious trend. In the past, innovations in race cars—fuel efficiency, better tires, design changes that lessen drag—eventually made their way to passenger cars. But because automobile manufacturers have been spending large sums of money to make their cars safer, race cars designers are looking to the average automobile to make the 200 miles per hour model safer. "We had been focusing for years on how to make them faster," Sicking says, "but we haven't spent much time on how to safely slow them down once a driver loses control.

"The technology had always gone from the track to the passenger car," he says. "Now it's going the other way. The research to save lives had been concentrated in the passenger car industry. Now the racing sanctioning bodies are realizing that that research will serve them as well."

Mechanical Athlete

Research into sports technology involves hard science, but in the whole scheme of things, it is up to the athletes and fans who must accept or reject the innovations. We can make the athlete run faster, the golf ball fly farther, the mountain climbing gear stronger, the swimmer more sleek, and the race-car driver safer. But when we are concerned with thousandths of a second in what is still a very human performance field, what does that say about us?

Who gets access to the latest research? Should we be spending all of this time pushing limits of what, when all is said and done, are games and leisure activities, the veritable toy box of life?

Ted Butryn, a professor of sports sociology and sports psychology at San Jose State University, thinks about this stuff for a living. "We are becoming blurred as to what is human and what is technological in sports," he says. "We are coming to the point where we will have the old-fashioned Cro-Magnon athlete and the modern Terminator athlete."

In the very near future, genetic engineering may turn sports into a freak show. The use of chemicals in diet and new advances in medicine may broaden the gap between the average weekend athletes and the high-performance athletes who compete on our stadium stages. "Are we really going to want to watch athletes compete when it comes down to who has the better access to higher tech?" Butryn says. "Are we going to start rooting for the high-tech canoe, or are we going to root for the person paddling it?"

"Whenever there has been a movement toward sports being more technological, there has been a backlash against techno sports," he says. "I think that is why you're seeing more of these ‘eco-challenge' type events, where it's just man against nature and running up a mountainside and its just the athlete against the mountain."

But even human beings running up a mountainside want the best shoes, the clothing that removes moisture from the skin better, the global positioning system that lets them know when they are lost. And they want this technology so they can beat the other humans racing up that mountain.

Which brings me back to golf. I've had to buy too many beers for the guys I play with on Tuesday afternoons. I'm getting tired of losing every week. But as Stanley Johnson, the Lehigh University golf guru told me, the key is practice. He made it sound so simple. But I wish it weren't so simple. I mean, Dr. Johnson, for God's sake, can't you just invent a driver I can hit 300 yards down the middle of the fairway? Is that too much to ask?

I know the answer to that question. Better get back to the driving range.


Dan McGraw is a freelance writer based in Fort Worth.
He can be reached at