The Science Behind Extreme Sports

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May the force be with you
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By Laura Schlereth

Extreme athletes such as Tony Hawk and Mat Hoffman have dangerous jobs. They risk serious injuries by attempting dangerous stunts that leave spectators in awe. Although a lot of their talent is natural ability, they would never have been able to master those complicated tricks without hard work and dedication. If you want to get into extreme sports, you have to start at the beginning and learn the basics. And you can only really understand extreme sports if you understand the science behind them.

James Riordon of the American Physical Society and an extreme athlete himself says that most physics concepts involved in extreme sports are considered “classical” because they date back to Sir Isaac Newton’s era in the 1600s when he described universal gravitation and laws of motion. Acceleration, velocity and energy conversion are all easy enough to understand once you break them down.

Take the most basic skateboarding trick—the ollie. Skaters use the ollie to jump onto curbs and other structures on their board. It might look like the skater has some kind of magical glue that holds the board to their feet temporarily, but actually it’s all a matter of momentum. Once in the air, the skater puts force on the back of the board, which causes the center of mass to rotate, and makes the front of the board rise. Then the skater immediately puts weight on the front, making the board level. Simply put: The skater has to push down on the board to get it to hop onto the curb.

More difficult jumps in skateboarding and BMX are performed off a half-pipe—a U-shaped ramp. To fly high, an athlete needs a lot of velocity at takeoff. Determining velocity involves potential (or stored) energy, or the athlete’s weight multiplied by the height of the slope. Because of the law of conservation, which states energy can’t be created or destroyed but can only change forms, the potential energy converts to kinetic (active) energy as the athlete accelerates down the ramp.

An athlete with high kinetic energy and high velocity will soar through the air off a sky-high ramp. The more speed, the better. However, work your way up to higher heights and speeds, and always make sure to wear proper padding to prevent injury.

If you’re easing into higher speeds in snowboarding, keep in mind the force of friction (rubbing of one object against another) because it causes negative acceleration. Using a thicker board will allow you to feel out the speed you’re comfortable with. As you become more skilled, you can reduce the size of your board, reducing friction.

Professional snowboarders who have the skill to control high speeds use sleeker and thinner boards and also wear tight suits made of slick Lycra to reduce what Riordon calls “air drag,” the result of pushing air in front of you. “The larger you are, the more air has to move out of the way, which is why tucking down, like speed skaters and bicycle racers do, can reduce drag,” Riordon says. “They are making themselves aerodynamically smaller.”

Turns in extreme sports also involve physics. To turn during a jump, snowboarders and skaters must create angular momentum (ability to rotate) by applying torque (twisting force), Riordon says. Athletes have to push against the ramp so rotation is initiated before they’re in the air. If they have enough speed and enough torque, they can pull off the trick.

Skateboard legend Tony Hawk used angular momentum to accomplish his record-setting two-and-a-half (900-degree) rotation. By increasing his rotational velocity and decreasing his inertia (willingness to change rotational state), he could turn faster.

Think you have what it takes? Great! But remember: determination and caution go hand in hand in extreme sports. Take lessons with a trained professional and learn all you need to know as a beginner by checking out books on extreme sports from your library. Then feel free to use physics’ forces to cause some awe of your own; use gravity to make it look like you’re defying it!

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