Making the Curveball Curve. Taking a Hard Look at the Incredible Science of Sports.
July 26, 2013
My first swing at a golf ball on a real golf course happened during my freshman year of high school. Our football coach had suggested golf as a sport for me since at ninety pounds and very skinny, football wasn’t my best option. It was heading high and long and then it started curving to the right. It ended up entering the woods at a ninety degree angle to the fairway. It was my first slice. It was also my first curve ball. I had never been able to throw a curve with a baseball, but it sure was easy to hit a curve with a golf club! It would be years until I learned how to take advantage of this skill, use it on purpose, and even correct it.
Just four years before, Jay Hook, a 26-year-old pitcher for the New York Mets had explained Bernoulli’s Law to a sports writer. Hook was a Northwestern engineering graduate who knew the science behind what makes a curve ball curve. At the end of the season, his manager, Casey Stengel said, “If Hook could only do what he knows.” He explains it all in his book: Why A Curve Ball Curves: The Incredible Science of Sports. Knowing the science can help an athlete learn new skills, practice better, and eventually perform better. Editor Frank Vizard promises this book will, “….make you love sports even more — and may even make you a better athlete.”
The book begins with a fascinating chapter on training. Al Michaels once told a great story about his interview with Michael Jordan and what incredible vision Jordan possessed. Jordan could read the graphics on a television over fifty feet away; and it was not a wide screen or over-sized model. Football officials often remind each other at the beginning of a game to “see the ball” before making a call. See the ball, hit the ball.
Generations of coaches have implored their protege’s to do just that. Now the emphasis is clearly focused on training the eyes. Improving the visual skills as well as the athlete’s actual vision both receive attention. Lasik surgery made a significant improvement in LSU receiver Dwayne Bowe’s career. Now coaches and players are working on dynamic visual acuity (the ability to see objects clearly while moving quickly), visual concentration(screening out distractions), visual memory, and visualization. New discoveries involving hydration, lactic acid, and internal body temperature monitoring are as amazing as the new generation drugs and treatments being developed for ailments and enhanced performance.
The next thirteen chapters cover specific sports as diverse as baseball, golf, tennis, and basketball (sorry Boris, no chess). Sports involving no moving spheres but the human body are examined as well, such as skiing, swimming, diving, and boxing. Articles from a sterling list of contributors including Lou Piniella, Matt Bahr, Laura Stamm, and Dr. Joe Vigil along with writers from Popular Mechanics offer the reader an opportunity to learn interesting technical details about the science of sports in an engagingly readable way. I discovered this book researching an article on football helmets and discovered that the chapter on football is the longest. Distinction is made between the long bomb and the hail Mary passes along with a thorough treatise on place kicking. Perhaps the most surprising and shocking article is “Anatomy of a Hit” which compares the G-forces of a fighter pilot or astronaut with a wicked football hit.
Thanks to this book, I watched Garrett Hartley kick a 40-yard field goal that put the Saints into the Superbowl from a new point of view. After the game, it occurred to me that with this book handy, I can enjoy anew, watching a dozen other sports, too!