Tuesday, November 9, 2010

5 Questions with Anthony J. Blazevich, author of Sports Biomechanics


For those who don't know, what's the book about?

This book could be classed as a hybrid between a standard, University-level sports biomechanics (physics for sport) text book and a mass market ‘how to do it’ book for people interested in improving their sports/exercise performance. The book details all the important physics-related information that is important for improving performance in pursuits ranging from running, throwing, hitting and swimming to basketball shooting and rugby tackling.

How'd the idea for it come about?

Probably like many people who decide to write something like this, the idea was borne out of my frustrations with current texts. Essentially, most students don’t enjoy maths and physics, so they don’t tend to want to read a maths/physics text book in their spare time, even when the examples given in the book sports related. The difficulty for me as a teacher then was to try to help students to understand quite complex phenomena without them also spending time learning for themselves. I’d worked a lot with coaches and athletes over many years and knew that they loved to hear about the basic science that underpinned sports performance, and many of them were amazed when they realised that the techniques they were coaching had no scientific basis (they were also excited when they adopted a different, scientifically viable technique that immediately and markedly improved performance!). So it didn’t take much of a leap to realise that it could be a great thing to write a book where the ‘ideal’ sporting techniques are explained from a physics perspective. So I started working with the idea that a textbook could be written such that each chapter answered an interesting question about sporting technique, and in order to read learn the answer the reader would learn about the physics along the way. So I developed a list of all the important concepts that were important to know and then married them with a question that I’d known coaches and athletes had wanted to know the answer to. For example, many coaches are surprised at how the elbow angle changes dramatically as the arm swings during fast running (many coaches still teach that the elbow should maintain a 90 degree) so I could teach the correct technique whilst explaining the concept of conservation of angular momentum (OK, you’ll have to read the book to find out what that is). Another example is that many students didn’t realise why swimmers spend so much time underwater in a competitive race when there should be more drag when swimming underwater than on top of it, so I was able to teach the difference between form drag and wave drag and thus explain why staying underwater might be useful. Students and coaches can then use this knowledge to optimise techniques in other sports.

What's the main concept or idea you want to get out to your readers?

The main concept I’m trying to get across is that all forms of movement, including the movements we make when playing sports or doing exercise, are subject to physical laws. These laws are common sense and are not difficult to understand if one takes a few minutes to really think about them. Once you understand these laws you can apply them to a movement in order to perform that movement better. So understanding physics, or in the case of this book understanding biomechanics (the physics related to biological systems), allows us to perform all of our movements optimally. Of course, in a university-level course we also have to learn the maths behind the theories, but by explaining a concept before introducing the maths, most students can see that the maths is simply a short-hand way of explaining the concept. It’s really not scary.

Which section of the book was most interesting for you to write?

I’d love to say that I loved writing the ‘Interview with an Expert’ sections because I think it’s so interesting to hear how some of the world’s top coaches and biomechanists use their knowledge or work with athletes, and to read about what characteristics they think are important in the best biomechanists. I think it’s quite unique for a book to have these extras. But of course I didn’t actually write them, so I can’t claim they were the best bits to write. So instead of telling you which part of the book I enjoyed writing the most, I would probably say that my favourite part of the process was to decide which 17 questions (for the 17 topic areas covered) I thought most sports people (and students) really wanted to learn about and then find a way to teach all the biomechanics concepts that need to be covered in an undergraduate university course…it wasn’t an easy task but it was an enjoyable and creative one!

What's next for yourself?

I work as a biomechanics lecturer and researcher so I can probably say I’m already in my dream job…it’s not a tough life to teach or research important questions in my favourite scientific area all day. I do have other ideas for books that I think would be of great interest to a lot of people, but unfortunately time is not a commodity I have in abundance. I think I need to find better techniques to improve work, rather than movement, efficiency.

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