Monday, April 5, 2010

MAM Day 5: Sports and Math

In honor of the official Math Awareness Month theme, today's blog post is about sports and the underlying math that allows us to participate in and keep track of sports.

Being a big nerd, I have very limited experience with sports. Unfortunately, I did not make the basketball team and I was not coordinated enough to do anything else in grade school. I managed to eke through gym class and pass it so I could graduate. I enjoyed dodgeball, but hated volleyball because my wrists were too fragile to bump pass those rock hard white volleyballs.

I do, however, really enjoy watching sports. My dad and I used to watch football and after a while, I knew more about the game than he did. My favorite team was the Broncos, I think just because they were the closest professional team to my hometown. There was a period when they were on a good streak (the John Elway days) when I was especially interested in watching Monday Night Football.

The mechanics of playing sports baffle me, but if I had learned more physics and higher level math, I could've applied science and math to sports. What kind of spin and forces does it take to throw a football with surprising accuracy over 20 yards? I'm sure it takes different forces to pitch a curveball some 75+ miles per hour. Think about the angles and power needed to return a Williams sister's tennis serve back onto the court! Venus's average serve tops out at 130 mph - that's twice the allowed average highway speed!

Other sports involve math in different ways - ice skating and the physics of momentum, basketball and trignometry of shots, even golf (which I denounced as a sport for a long time) requires lots of power and mathematical analysis to hit a ball an average of over 200 yards to a certain area with varying weather conditions. I'm not saying that athletes are pulling out their pad and pencil to calculate what kind of swing they should be hitting or the correct angle to take a three pointer, but they've built up an unstated knowledge base of what angles work best for sinking a shot from certain areas, or what strategy, angle, and position would be best for going up against a Williams' serve. It's internal sports math that atheletes rely on but probably don't consciously think about when they're in the game.

Besides the math and science behind the mechanics of sports, many if not all sports have some sort of statistics: batting averages in baseball, point averages of NBA players, and scoring in many other sports. These are generally calculated by computers now, but back in the day, baseball batting averages were done by hand.

Don't even get me started on fantasy sports. Fantasy sports in a nutshell are sports (and secretly math) nerds who use real players' current and regularly updated statistics to make fantasy teams and play against other fantasy teams. Fantasy baseball, football, basketball, and hockey are the bigger sports that have fantasy players.

At the MAM webpage, there are essays and articles on the mathematics behind some of the bigger sports. Or check out their posters for Math Awareness Month. This website also shows how math is involved with scoring.


For those of you who work with youth who are also involved with sports, you could try starting up a conversation with them about math and sports. Ask him/her if she realizes there's math involved with the scoring, statistics, and actual mechanics of sports and just talk about sports, even if they don't like math.

If you don't work with youth but enjoy sports, try to think about the math behind the sport, it might surprise you that good athletes are also secretly good mathematicians who don't realize it.


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