The Science of Better Sports

By Spotts, Peter N. | The Christian Science Monitor, June 11, 1996 | Go to article overview

The Science of Better Sports


Spotts, Peter N., The Christian Science Monitor


'Katie! Go to the ball!" "Heather! Pass it! Jessica's open!" "Shoot, Dawn! Shoot!"

If you've watched a brother, sister, or friend play soccer, or if you've played on a team yourself, you've heard coaches bark instructions to help you become a better player.

A good coach will tell you that you don't just use your arms and legs to play. You also use your head. Applying a little science to your soccer may not turn you into a soccer legend like Pele, but it can help improve your game no matter how well you play now.

With a friend, a soccer ball, a stopwatch, a net, and a bucket or other marker you can do experiments that help uncover some of the physical principles behind the sport. Knowing and using these principles can literally put extra kick into your game.

Just ask Joan Roth, a mom and former math professor who confesses, "I'm not a great athlete." But, she adds, when she stopped to look at the science behind the games she played and used what she learned, her performance improved a lot. In fact, with help from scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, she put together a kit that includes a list of soccer experiments that can help you. (See story below.)

WHEN you kick the ball, for example, does it usually end up where you want it to? No? Try this experiment.

Take a bucket, shoe, or some other marker and put it inside the mouth of the goal, about six feet from one of the uprights. Use that narrow space as your target. Back away from the goal about 10 to 15 yards and try to kick the ball through that space. First, kick with the tip of your foot. Then use the upper part, where your shoelaces are, then the outside edge, and then the inside curve (instep) of your foot. Try several kicks using each method.

Which is most accurate, most often? The kicks using the inside of your foot. Why? When you use your toes to kick, you apply force only to a small area of the ball. If the tip of your shoe doesn't hit the center of the ball, the ball will head in a different direction. Using the top of your foot, you hit a larger area of the ball. But the inside part of your foot, which is curved, makes the most contact with the ball. This gives you the most control and therefore is the most accurate.

But if you paid close attention, you may have noticed that you had to kick the ball a bit harder with the inside of your foot than you did with your toe to get the ball into the goal. …

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