Achieving the Perfect 10: Speed, Velocity, and Torque in Gymnastics

The vault is one of the most visually thrilling events in collegiate gymnastics but it can also be one of the most dangerous.

  • The vault, as with other gymnastics events, calls for an athlete to be in the best physical shape possible. Gymnasts need power in their legs, arms, core, and must possess huge mental capacity to focus on completing the right moves at the right time.  Other key factors involved in pulling off the perfect vault include agility and flexibility. A gymnast must strive to be in the top physical and mental shape in all of these areas if they hope to score the coveted perfect 10!
  • The vault begins with the approach down the runway. A top gymnast can reach up to 17 miles per hour when approaching the vault! This means that a gymnast running at 17 mph would go from the Jon M Huntsman Center to Rice-Eccles Stadium in under 95 seconds! Time = Distance / Speed.
  • The gymnast will need this high speed in order to pull off the complicated aerial stunts required in today’s world of competitive college gymnastics. When she hits the vault she will compress her arms and hands to spring herself into the air. Some gymnasts reach as high as 13 feet in the air!
  • As she is flipping and spinning in the air, the gymnast must use torque in order to get the proper angular velocity to pull off the combination. Torque is basically the amount of force placed on an object, in this case the gymnasts body, to get it to rotate. The more torque a gymnast places on her body, the more rotation she will be able to achieve. Angular velocity, or the speed at which something is rotating, is also determined by the torque.  Higher torque causes higher angular velocity.
  • Ute Senior gymnast, Kyndal Robarts, has one of the most difficult vaults in the country. After she hits the vault, she does two front flips in under 1 second! This means that she must put enough torque on her body to increase her angular velocity to more than 720 degrees per second! In order to do this, Kyndal tucks her legs in and keeps her arms close to her body. Much like an Olympic figure skater, this shrinks her center of mass (the area about which her body rotates) and she is able to spin faster.
  • As she is in the air, Kyndal must come out of her spin at just the right time and have complete focus so that she can land and not take a step (aka “stick it”).
  • These are all the steps that are required to pull off a perfect 10!


Articles by Kenny Morley.

Curling: The Friction Sport

pic_curlingCurling was first created in 16th century Scotland, where river bottom rocks were slid across ice-covered lochs to a target. In modern times, the “roaring game,” named for the sound of the “stone” sliding across the ice, is more refined. It consists of a 41 pound granite stone sliding across 42 m of ice to a target called a house, utilizing pebbled ice rinks, brooms, curling shoes, and carefully formed stones.

The ice rinks used for Curling are not smooth, but have a pebbled surface made by spraying the rink with water and allowing the tiny droplets to freeze on its surface. This surface is necessary for the stone to have suction and slide across the ice. Two players with “brooms” vigorously sweep the ice immediately in front of the stone to influence the trajectory, or direction it travels. These players wear a “gripping” shoe and a “sliding shoe,” which allow them to use friction to move along the ice. As the stone travels, the interaction between the stone, ice, and sweeping changes the sources of friction, and cause the stone to “curl” in a curved trajectory, giving the sport its name.

Although there are many theories, it is poorly understood as to what causes the stone to curl as it travels along the ice. As the sport gains popularity, further scientific inquiry can be expected to explore the role of friction and different sweeping styles.

Learn the basics or read about the technical aspects of friction in curling.

Articles by Jessica Egan.

Skiing: It’s All About Friction

glide2It’s all about friction. Really. Friction from the snow, friction from the air, friction from the surface of the ski or the clothing you wear.  The physics of skiing is all about how to overcome drag and resistance and allow a skier to slice his/her way down the mountain.  And if Newton’s laws have anything to do with it, a skier who controls friction best has the best chance of winning.

Find out the basics of friction and skiing.

Articles by Marcia Howell.

From Tee to Fairway: How Physics Affects the Drive, the Club, and the Golf Ball

Golf Ball Velocity

Golf Ball Velocity

When a player exerts force on the golf ball, he/she swings an average of 4-5 miles per hour.  If the player uses a club with a flexible shaft, the act of swinging adds an additional measure of torque as the head of the club also propels forward to connect with the ball.  The head of the club has grooves that increase the friction between the club and the ball, allowing the club to more effectively focus the area of contact.

The optimal angle to hit the ball ranges from about 12 to 20 degrees.  Putting a backspin on the ball increases lift and can add significant distance to the drive.  The dimples on the golf ball itself help reduce drag from the air stream by reducing turbulent air pressure around and behind the ball, shifting the wake further behind the ball, thus allowing for smoother, less resistant flight.   Any combination of these variables contributes to how well the ball overcomes the forces of gravity and air resistance.

Learn the basics of how physics affects golf or read the more technical details here.

Articles by Trevor Stoddard.

Understanding Head Injuries Through Biomechanics and Math


In biomechanics, systems in motion — such as the impact of a ball on a player’s head — are described or “modeled” by mathematical differential equations. For example, these equations can show the relationship between the acceleration or force of the ball to the head at impact, and the change in shape of brain tissue in response to that form. The solution to these equations provides information that could be used to establish new safety regulations or adequate sports gear for players.

Current studies show that heading the ball may not be as much of a concern as physicians and parents thought, although it is not fully understood how repetitive head shooting, through many years of play, affects players. Further research will continue to help treat and prevent injuries, and improve athlete performance through individualized coaching.

Learn more about the basics of head injuries and biomechanics or read the more technical mathematical explanation.

Articles by Cristian Clavijo.

The Physics of Different Playing Surfaces

UTAH MEN'S TENNIS Ben TasevacSports, such as tennis and golf, require athletes to be versatile on several different types of playing surface. These different course and court textures developed because of regional climate and resources available to the builders at the time. Depending on which course you play on, the physics of the playing surface impact your own potential performance.

Learn the basics of different playing surfaces.

Articles by Kenny Morley.

Tennis Courts and Equipment: How Physics Affects the Speed of Play

tennis ballsTennis is played internationally.  Depending on what nation hosts a tennis tournament, players may find themselves competing on anything from grass (Wimbledon) to clay (Australia) to rubber coated concrete with acrylic paint (U.S.).  Other variables within the sport include ball types and rackets.

Different court surfaces, balls, and rackets impact the speed of the game. One way to address the issue of speed is to combine a faster court with a slower ball, or a slower court with a faster ball, to level out the pace.  Additionally, scientists continue to study the composition of rackets, shoes, balls, and court material to find solutions to these and other ongoing issues in the sport.

Learn the basics of how physics affects the speed of play or read the more technical explanation.

Articles by Lindsay Sanford.

Aerodynamics and Cycling

Cycling has undergone immense changes since its early days.  As science has opened our understanding of aerodynamics, it has driven changes in bicycle composition and design, the clothing worn by the cyclist, and even the positioning of the rider on the bicycle.

These three factors directly correlate to the amount of drag experienced by the cyclist.  In fact, researcher L. Brownlie reported that some styles of baggy clothes cost cyclists 1.17% of their finishing time in a 100-meter race.  Serious cyclists utilize this knowledge by dressing in sleek, close-fitting clothing to optimize their aerodynamics.

How much of a role do aerodynamics play? Learn the basics or read the more technical explanation.

Articles by Cristian Clavijo.