Sports engineering is a sub-discipline of engineering that applies math and science to develop technology, equipment, and other resources as they pertain to sport.
Sports engineering was first introduced by Issac Newton’s observation of a tennis ball. In the mid-twentieth century, Howard Head became one of the first engineers to apply engineering principles to improve sports equipment. Starting in 1999, the biannual international conference for sports engineering was established to commemorate achievements in the field. Presently, the journal entitled “Sports Engineering,” details the innovations and research projects that sports engineers are working on.
The study of sports engineering requires an understanding of a variety of engineering topics including physics, mechanical engineering, materials science, and biomechanics. Many practitioners hold degrees in those topics rather than in sports engineering specifically. Specific study programs in sports engineering and technology are becoming more common at the graduate level, and also at the undergraduate level in Europe. Sports engineers also employ computational engineering tools like computer-aided design (CAD), computational fluid dynamics (CFD), and finite element analysis (FEA) to design and produce sports equipment, sportswear, and more.
One of the earliest instances of the application of scientific principles in sports context occurred in 1671 when English mathematician Issac Newton wrote a letter to German theologian and natural philosopher Henry Oldenburg regarding a tennis ball’s flight mechanics. In the following centuries, German scientist Heinrich Gustav Magnus further examined Newton’s analysis and applied Newtonian theories to the spinning properties of balls. Around 1760, in the midst of the Industrial Revolution, sports engineering was further explored with the acceleration of the manufacturing of sports equipment. During this stage, the manufacturers recognized an increase in sales being directly related to better quality of equipment. As a result, experimentation started to explore new designs and materials for enhanced athletic performance.
In modern times, sports engineers, such as Howard Head, applied engineering principles to sports equipment. After finding traditional snow skis to be too heavy, Head developed a lighter, more flexible skis in 1947. He used his knowledge from the aircraft industry to create skis with a metal-sandwich construction. After 40 iterations and 3 years, he released his skis commercially, and they soon set the standard for skis. Today, his skis are widely known and recognized under the brand Head, with Head Sportswear International, and the Head Ski Company. Head also developed the Prince Classic tennis racquet. He created a much lighter design, with a bigger frame supporting off-center hits, and a grip that did not twist in players' hands. As with his skis, Head's oversized racquets were embraced by top athletes in the sport.
In 1998, the International Sports Engineering Association (ISEA) was established and the journal “Sports Engineering” was published. In 1999, the first international sports engineering conference was organized by Steve Haake called “The International Conference on the Engineering of Sports” in Sheffield, England. The conference brings world-leading researchers, sports professionals, and industry organizations together to celebrate the profession, showcasing innovations in both research and industry.
Sports engineering in the United States is often part of universities' undergraduate mechanical engineering programs, rather than as stand-alone bachelor's degree programs. On the graduate level, research labs often use an interdisciplinary approach to sports engineering such as in the MIT Sports Lab and the Biosports Lab at UC Davis. Some graduate opportunities like the program offered through Purdue include concentrations in sports engineering within the mechanical engineering or materials engineering department.
Most sports engineering students pursue Bachelor’s degrees in other areas within engineering including mechanical, electrical, and materials engineering; there is no uniform educational path for becoming a sports engineer.
Although universities in the United States offer sports engineering courses or concentrations, more extensive degree programs in the subject are more common in the United Kingdom. Sports engineering in academics is more developed in the United Kingdom with programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels. The Sports Engineering Research Group at Sheffield Hallam University  - the 'home' of the Sports Engineering as a discipline, and Loughborough University offer a 1 year, full-time sports engineering postgraduate program. Nottingham Trent University offers a 3 year, full-time undergraduate program that is based on industry-oriented seminars and activities as well as on-campus research experiences like the Sports Engineering lab. A full list of courses is available from the ISEA.
Course offerings in sports engineering synthesize content from both engineering and sports science. Programs in sports engineering encompass engineering-oriented classes such as physics, aerodynamics, and materials science, as well as more sports science-based courses such as biomechanics and anatomy.
Computational modeling is commonly employed across many engineering disciplines and is often applied to sports. Computational fluid dynamics (CFD) can be used in sports engineering education to model flow in both air and water systems. Sports engineers can use computational modeling systems to analyze the behavior of an object without having to physically produce them. For example, CFD has been used to predict fluid patterns around a skier jumping through the air or a swimmer moving through the water, to reduce the drag acting on the athlete.
FEA or finite element analysis is another engineering modeling tool that applies to the field of sports engineering to simulate the physics of applied forces acting in a system. For example, FEA analysis can be used to analyze the impact of a ball against a tennis racket or different the deformation resulting from the impact of a football.
Undergraduate and graduate level programs in sports engineering are more common in Europe as opposed to the United States. The list below highlights offerings currently available in the field of sports engineering.
Sports engineering has a variety of applications across the sports industry. Some examples of these applications and related technologies are listed below.
Computer-aided design (CAD) and finite element analysis (FEA) can be used to design and test sports equipment. Engineers can use FEA to apply different stresses to an object and determine its strengths and weaknesses. For example, FEA can be used to model a tennis racket hitting the ball, including how the racket and ball might deform or vibrate as a result of the strike. Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) can be applied to sports such as cycling to examine the aerodynamics of cycles and riders' body positions. This information is useful in understanding how to increase cycling speeds and decrease exertion for riders.
One notable example of how engineering intersects with sportswear is Speedo’s LZR Racer, a swimsuit made in collaboration with NASA researchers and engineers. Sports engineers tested different materials and coatings in a wind tunnel to determine how to reduce drag. Engineers also optimized stability and mobility by using layering and welding techniques specific to particular body parts. For instance, the abdomen and lower back areas of the suit were made tighter to improve core stability. The LZR Racer was able to reduce skin friction drag by 24% compared to Speedo’s previously most advanced suit. These engineering applications helped swimmers who wore Speedo’s LZR Racer to set 93 world records.
Materials science, mechanical engineering, sports science, sports medicine, biomechanics, and physics are some fields that overlap with sports engineering.