Science and Sport
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Science and Sport

It has been another remarkable summer for British Sport. England retained the Ashes in convincing style, Chris Froome won the Tour de France with apparent ease, and Mo Farah continued his dominance in men’s distance running. Lewis Hamilton won the Hungarian Grand Prix, the Lions beat Australia, and Andy Murray ended a 77 year wait for a British Men’s Wimbledon champion with a straight-sets victory over Novak Djokovic. All this hot on the heels of the summer of 2012, when Britain taught the world a lesson both in how to host an Olympics, and how to win a hatful of medals.

The media coverage of our sportspeople over the last eighteen months has been extraordinary – a glorious celebration of success, somewhat at odds with the normal trend for griping and complaining. There’s been less coverage, though, of what goes on behind the scenes to make such success possible. The role of science in sport has probably never been greater than it is now. What sort of thing am I talking about? Well…

Formula 1 – all about the driver, right? Well, the driver and the pit crew. And the race engineers. And the research and development team back at base. And the logistics team, who move the operation from country to country every fortnight. And the media team. In fact, Formula 1 teams are pretty enormous. The drivers are just the tip of the iceberg.

Did you wonder what the lumps were between the shoulder blades of the Lions players as they trained in Australia this summer? They were GPS tracking devices. Every player’s training performance was monitored against his maximum capacity and the requirements for his position – distance covered, heart rate, fatigue, and so on. Sessions were videoed, the results assessed, and subsequent sessions tailored accordingly.

Technological innovation has had a significant role to play in the recent success of British cycling, too. Whether it’s the design of the helmet, the material the riding suit is made of or the construction of the bike, if it can save a few hundredths of a second, it’s investigated.

Another key factor has been Sir Dave Brailsford and his so-called ‘brains trust’ – a group of elite coaches from a number of different sports who meet regularly to share ideas and information.

So what?

We can often regard sport and academic endeavour as two separate things. We encourage our children to play sport because it keeps them fit, teaches them about winning and losing, hones their teamwork and leadership skills, and so on – but making a career of it? Don’t be daft. This is true, to an extent – Manchester United only have 11 players on the pitch at any one time, and the chances of becoming one of those 11 are very, very small – but as we’ve seen, elite sports are founded on a bedrock of educated, capable, academic people. Sport and academia can sit together.

You never know – that incentive might be the key that unlocks maths or science for your child! If you work hard in maths, one day you could work for McLaren and manage a race from the pit wall. If you pay attention in science, you could design the next generation of bikes for British cycling. Academia doesn’t have to take your child away from sports – it can give them an excellent route in.

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