STEM Beats - sports

To Nail the Landing, Olympic Gymnasts Embody Science

August 1, 2016

When gymnasts go to the mats, beams and bars at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, they’ll be judged on their routines, execution and artistry in performing one of the most difficult of all sports. Science explains the physical challenges of gymnastics—and science is helping world-class athletes up their games.

 An ESPN Sport Science: Gymnastics video and Gymnastics Zone highlight the scientific factors that make gymnastics so hard, including:

  • Balance
  • Rotation
  • Force
  • Velocity
  • Spatial awareness
  • Proprioception (the body’s awareness of its relative position in space) and kinesthetic awareness (the body’s ability to coordinate its movements in time and space)
  • Precision in timing
  • Sprint speed of 16+ miles an hour for women and 20+ miles an hour for men
  • Tumbling and vault heights of 13+ feet for woman and 16+ feet high for men

In a balance beam routine, a gymnast works to keep her center of mass directly above the four-inch beam—while performing explosive leaps, splits, dance moves and acrobatics in flight—so she keeps from losing her, um, balance. And she has to do this while moving with force and speed. Doing a backflip on the beam, a gymnast’s body rotates at 600 angular degrees per second.

On the uneven bars, a gymnast circles, swings and pirouettes, performing 15 or 20 skills in less than a minute. Giant swings subject her body to loads up to nine times her body weight. While using her strength to control that massive tug, she also needs lightning-quick spatial awareness, proprioception and kinesthetic awareness for her hands or feet to fly from one 1.6-inch bar to the next with split-second timing and accuracy. In fact, she has about six-thousandths of a second to get it right.

In the vault and floor routines, gymnasts burst into sprints to launch their bodies high into the air—the higher they go, the better the scores. But they also must control their movements for steady, solid landings. Check out a few performances by U.S. Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, who shows how to transform the science of the sport into an art.

At the University of Southern California, STEM experts are helping Olympic athletes do just that. Researchers in biomechanics work with athletes to apply basic science and engineering on movement so they can train smarter and improve their performance. The researchers collect data on athletes’ performance, using such technologies as high-speed video and force plates installed in the gym floor, and create dynamic and experimental models to share with coaches and athletes. By playing back the videos very slowly, USC can help gymnasts understand how they can adjust their movements—and nail their landings, according to a series on STEM careers supported by the foundation of CTEq member Northrup Grumman. 

Make sure to tune in to the 10 talented men and women representing USA in gymnastics for Rio 2016!

Tags: sports, science