Physics of Sports

PoleVault.jpgParis, France 3-6 April 2012.

Event website.

Report by Simon Choppin, Agent and Postdoctoral researcher, Sheffield Hallam University.

The following report is short because our Agent had to be called back to the UK at short notice.


  • A different crowd to what I'm used to, presentations tackled the fundamentals of physical systems rather than specific experiments and applications.
  • Had an interesting conversation with a researcher from London using football data to make predictions about tactical effectiveness. His algorithms and processes are well developed, he lacks the information to feed into the system. We have a good relationship with a company which gathers this data, I hope his system and some good data can be joined together in the future.

Conference report

The Physics of Sport conference was the first of its kind. Held at École Polytechnique in the suburbs of Paris, it was run as a European Mechanics Society (EUROMECH) event, but included delegates from all over the world. The conference dealt primarily with the fundamentals of various sports, from football to sailing, slackline walking to the pole vault. Most of the presentations were concerned with the physical behaviours and concepts underpinning these pastimes. As sports research progresses the complexity of analysis increases. While early work may have focused on simple models and rigid bodies, modern research considers the complex interaction of millions of elements. One of the presentations (by Ignazio Viola) considered the aerodynamic performance of sails due to unsteady environmental conditions, the motions of waves, etc. The purpose of understanding such behaviour is the improvement in sail design for competition, but also to investigate possible future energy sources for commercial shipping. Work of this complexity requires access to powerful, modern computers and corresponding software. While commercial packages exist that are capable of complex analyses, bespoke software is often necessary to augment features or model uncommon behaviour. In the development of this software, efficiency and accuracy are paramount. Small inaccuracies in calculation can accumulate to yield significant error, making a result useless. It is also important that the software is written to make effective use of available hardware as cloud and parallel processing becomes more common, software developers must be able to make use of this technology to benefit those with significant computing demands.

I presented some work into a method of calculating the aerodynamic behaviour of footballs which was well received and prompted some interesting discussion. As an engineer my work and my ideas must be validated through experiment. These can expensive and difficult to conduct, experimental parameters must be tightly controlled with errors carefully monitored and accounted for. When exploring new ideas and methods it can be much more effective to simulate an environment in software. It was a software based validation that I presented at the conference. In a virtual environment parameters and uncertainties can be tightly controlled and manipulated. The effectiveness of the method can be appraised and its sensitivity to error can be assessed by introducing uncertainties which you can control. This approach is a great precursor to testing in the real world and is an acid test before the significant time and expense of physical experiments.