Archive for the ‘Sports’ Category

Athletics and their brains

April 25, 2010

The brain begins by setting a goal—pick up the fork, say, or deliver the tennis serve—and calculates the best course of action to reach it. As the brain starts issuing commands, it also begins to make predictions about what sort of sensations should come back from the body if it achieves the goal. If those predictions don’t match the actual sensations, the brain then revises its plan to reduce error. Shadmehr and Krakauer’s work demonstrates that the brain does not merely issue rigid commands; it also continually updates its solution to the problem of how to move the body. Athletes may perform better than the rest of us because their brains can find better solutions than ours do.To understand how athletes arrive at these better solutions, other neuroscientists have run experiments in which athletes and nonathletes perform the same task. This past January Claudio Del Percio of Sapienza University in Rome and his colleagues reported the results of a study in which they measured the brain waves of karate champions and ordinary people, at rest with their eyes closed, and compared them. The athletes, it turned out, emitted stronger alpha waves, which indicate a restful state. This finding suggests that an athlete’s brain is like a race car idling in neutral, ready to spring into action.

Del Percio’s team has also measured brain waves of athletes and nonathletes in action. In one experiment the researchers observed pistol shooters as they fired 120 times. In another experiment Del Percio had fencers balance on one foot. In both cases the scientists arrived at the same surprising results: The athletes’ brains were quieter, which means they devoted less brain activity to these motor tasks than nonathletes did. The reason, Del Percio argues, is that the brains of athletes are more efficient, so they produce the desired result with the help of fewer neurons. Del Percio’s research suggests that the more efficient a brain, the better job it does in sports. The scientists also found that when the pistol shooters hit their target, their brains tended to be quieter than when they missed.

Good genes may account for some of the differences in ability, but even the most genetically well-endowed prodigy clearly needs practice—lots of it—to develop the brain of an athlete. As soon as someone starts to practice a new sport, his brain begins to change, and the changes continue for years. Scientists at the University of Regensburg in Germany documented the process by scanning people as they learned how to juggle. After a week, the jugglers were already developing extra gray matter in some brain areas. Their brains continued to change for months, the scientists found.

From this piece of Carl Zimmer. Link via Swarup.

Sports and the symmetry of rules!

March 30, 2009

Ram Guha in the Hindu:

This spring, we commemorate the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species. As the son and grandson of scientists, and as an agnostic myself, I suppose I have been shaped by the world that the Victorian scientists made and unmade. But — like so many of my readers, again — I owe a very great debt to the Victorian games-makers as well. The two may be connected — for, the beauty of such games as tennis and cricket is made possible only by the precision of its rules. The swerving aces of John McEnroe would have not been possible had the service box been somewhat smaller. Had the pitch in cricket been more than 22 yards long, the advantage would have rested even more securely with the batsman. The beauty of modern sport is a product in good measure of the symmetry of its rules. And so, while I shall concede that in the history of humankind Darwin is indisputably a more important figure than Pélé, I would still like to believe that it is in the realm of sport that we find the most appealing syntheses of Science and Art.

Take a look!

Swinging the ball and other such manoeuvres!

January 13, 2009

Yesterday, I heard a nice lecture by Dr David James of Sheffield Hallam University on Sports Engineering in general, and on the engineering aspects of cricket, in particular. Here is a summary based on my notes (and, my understanding, of course!)

Dr. James began his lecture with an introduction to sports Engineering and how the idea to use the scientific and engineering ideas to understand sports related mechanics is not really novel — apparently, Isaac Newton talked about the irregular flight of tennis balls (though, a cursory google search to locate the article tells me that it is Lord Rayleigh who wrote a piece titled thus — see here for example). He went on to mention some other recent pieces of engineering work that had been carried out at his university and elsewhere — helmut and bike design specialised for individual athletes (as in UK cycle racing team which, I understand is winning almost all the competitions across the globe, thanks to such design philosophy). However, sometimes the sports traditions are at variance with the engineering goals; for example, he feels that the tennis racket design has probably damaged the character of the game a bit. Also, sometimes, the sports engineer and the sports regulation authorities might not see eye-to-eye on issues; for example, a piece of research related to determining the 3D position of a football by triangulation using six receivers placed at different locations with the transmitter being at the centre of the football was discarded when the relevant authorities did not show enough interest in pursuing it.

After the preliminaries, Dr. James discussed the engineering aspects of cricket: here, he spent most of his time in describing the dynamics of ball delivery, the flight of the ball, the bounce of the ball off the pitch and the measures that ground staff can take to make the pitches neither too batsmen-friendly not too bowler-friendly. He ended his presentation with a short discussion on bat technology. The entire talk lasted for about one-and-a-half hours (though, I did not realise that at that time).

The first interesting result is the recording and analysis of how bowlers bowl the ball in a live match; using a high speed camera that records 600 frames per second located perpendicular to the pitch and focussed on one end, Dr. James recorded a huge number of ball bounces off the pitch and measured the impact speeds. Schematically, the curve of the frequencies of bowling at various impact speeds looked something like this:

cric-ball-bowling-dataThe bowlers thus use three ranges of speeds: 45-60 mph for spin, 60 to 70 mph for swing, and above 70 till up to 95 or so for fast. In his experience, nobody bowled at more than 100 mph.

After mentioning Rabindra B Mehta (of NASA) as the authority on ball aerodynamics (many papers of whose you can get via a google search), Dr James went on to discuss the swing and reverse swing in cricket balls; he also showed a couple of videos of windtunnel experiments to support his conclusions. As I understood, the usual swing (apparently, it is called the magnus effect in sports engineering in general) is due to the differences in the surface finish — for low velocities, on the smooth side, the ball has a laminar flow with a boundary layer that separates from the ball surface relatively early, while, on the seam side, the boundary layer is thicker, hugs the ball surface much longer, and the flow pattern is turbulent — resulting in a wake behind the ball which is at an angle — resulting in swing. By the way, this need for turbulence so that the wake behind the ball is minimal (and hence the drag) is the reason why gold balls have dimples, football is made up of patches, tennis balls have felt on top of them and so on. On the other hand, for balls which are bowled at much higher velocities, even on the smoother side, the flow patterns are turbulent, and now, soemtimes, the wake could be such that it is at an angle which produces the reverse swing effect. Dr. james also described that in simulations they have observed an effect similar to this: if a football is kicked with very less of spin — say, one rotation for the full length of its flight — since in games other than cricket, it is the spin that gives rise to the magnus effect — the ball might traverse a zigzag path in air. I understand, in volleyball too, some players can produce a reverse magnus effect while serving.

The section on the ball bounce and the pitch properties of the talk concentrated on answering the question, namely, that whether the ground staff, with a set of given number of experiments, determine the quality of the pitch and modify it according to their requirements. Apparently, the answer is yes; it involves a prescription in terms of the rolling regimes for the pitch (which bascially determines how hard the pitch is going to be — affecting how the ball bounces off its surface) and the water management in terms of keeping just the required amount of moisture (which affects the coefficient of friction between the ball and the pitch). The idea here is to consider the ball and the pitch as a system of springs and dashpots; determine the constants for these springs and dashpots by dropping the balls on rigis surfaces and by dropping hammers on the pitch; from these values, using an empirical model (which is obtained by fitting curves to actual experiments of bouncing balls off pitches), we can determine the coefficients of restitution and and coefficients of friction. During these discussions, Dr James mentioned about using clay tubes that are nearly a few feet deep but small in diameter to repair pitches — basically, by using these clay tubes as some sort of nails. It was cool!

Finally, he told why he does not think the bats will improve tremendously in the years to come — because of the restrictions — namely, that the blade should be of wood. The only thing that can be improved is by making the handles stiffer (and also energy absorbant — so that no vibrations are felt by the player — or, make it so stiff that the heavy vibrations are of such small amplitude that the player does not feel them either); however, the limitation here is the fact that the handle is to be connected to a blade which has very different stiffness properties.

After a couple of questions (and a discussion on how it is easy to tune pitches in places like Australia where you can put lots of clay and allow the sun to dry it to get the required pitch properties, which, can not be done in England given the weather conditions), we adjourned for refreshments.

PS: Dr. James has promised to send me some material that is in public domain — like his PhD thesis on pitches for example, which I will host in some page and leave the links here.

On inspiration

November 13, 2008

It comes in many forms. Arunn at Unruled Notebook gets it when he reads the online and newspaper columns of

Poet Pithamagar Peter ‘Split Tongue’ Roebuck.

A must-read post — to give you a flavour:

It goes like this in Sanskrit in India

Om, SuklAmbaradharam Dhonim, sasi varnam glovedbhujam, prasanna vadhanam dhyayeth, sarva cricket-vignaupashanthaye…

In English translation, it goes like this in all media that Peter pens, Indians read and Australians skip (like cricinfo):

Om, White Clothed Dhoni, the Beginner of Everything, Fair complexioned, Wielding Gloved Hands, Smiling radiant Faced, Meditate on Him for the Clearing of All (Indian Cricketing) Obstacles.

So I hope, no no, I expect you all realize the wisden, no wisdom of poet peter’s words. As an Indian cricket fan, after reciting the above chant throughout the cricket match and if possible three days after it is over, you will realize India victorious, Australia meritorious, Poet Peter Roll-in-bucks.

Now, if that is not inspired writing, you tell me, sister, what else is?

Cricket, democracy, and games without audience

June 22, 2008

Ram Guha quotes Ramu Gandhi in his latest piece in the Hindu:

Ramu continued: “Revealing the essence of democracy, undegenerate cricket at its heart is a many-voiced dialogue between bowlers and batsmen, supported and surrounded by fielders who draw out the dialogue without dominating it, an environing society which nourishes but does not queer the pitch of personal relationships. Cricket is the only game of significance and scale, I think, which can wholly do without an audience, because it has participants, the fielders, who are also witnesses, audience, delight and ideal of anthropology and logic, an intense factor of self-consciousness. And all batsmen, souls, enjoy a second innings, reincarnate! And double-angled double-umpiring brings to the ideal logic and metaphysics of cricket a realistic penal philosophy.

Take a look!

Rooting for Celtics

June 13, 2008

Being a 76ers fan, Sean has to weigh in on both the Lakers and Celtics before  making that decision, and the weighing in is worth your time; what is more, from what I hear of the fourth match from my friends who watched it, Sean’s wishes might even come true in a couple of days!

So the question of “who to root for?” becomes one of “who do you hate less?” A truly thorny issue. Points to be considered:

  • As much as the Lakers are historically annoying, there is no question that the Sixers-Celtics rivalry is the deeper and more passionate one. Two Eastern Seaboard metropolises with inferiority complexes regarding New York, this rivalry blossomed over the course of the famous Russell-Chamberlain duels, the like of which have never been repeated in NBA history. (I will just note that nobody would ever have asked Bill Russell to star in movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
  • But then Wilt left the Sixers — to join the Lakers! One of an unending series of Philadelphia sports tragedies.
  • Overall, the Lakers are probably more deserving of our disdain. Boston fans, while notoriously parochial, are at least passionate about their team, while for Lakers fans basketball games are just another opportunity to appear on TV.
  • Both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson were really annoying, even if one must grudgingly admit that they were good at basketball. But only Bird got into a fight with Julius Erving on the court. So that’s a point against the Celtics.
  • The Lakers are coached by Phil Jackson, who is quite a good coach but an incredibly irritating human being. After Celtics forward Paul Pierce was injured in Game One and managed to return to the game, Jackson was mockingly dismissive, scoffing that angels must have visited him at halftime. Phil Jackson does not deserve to win anything ever again.
  • LA is led by Kobe Bryant, while Boston is led by Kevin Garnett. A complicated situation. Both very talented, obviously. Kobe is originally from the Philadelphia area, but has managed to alienate his hometown fans so thoroughly that he cannot play against the Sixers without hearing a constant barrage of boos. More importantly, Garnett has always been intensely dedicated to the game and a consummate team player who struggled with inferior teammates and accordingly received all sorts of undeserved media criticism; Kobe, meanwhile, has always been a selfish and petulant media darling who undermined the Lakers franchise for a number of years by pushing Shaquille O’Neal out of town.

In the final calculation, and as painful as it is to say out loud — one has to root for the Celtics. Emotional attachment to a sports franchise is ultimately a completely irrational feeling, arising from unpredictable factors of geography and history rather than a sober contemplation of objective criteria. So you have to go with your gut, and my gut would very much like to see Kevin Garnett finally win the NBA Championship he so richly deserves. We’ll have to put aside the ugly reality that he’ll be wearing one of those horrible green uniforms when he does it.

And wait until next year.

Olympics as a prelude to multi-party democracy

May 10, 2008

Ramachandra Guha in the Hindu on some curious connection between one-party States that hosted Olympics and their turning into multi-party democracies soon after:

The history of the modern Olympics shows that one-party States that host the games seek to project an image of power and pride. But that history also shows that these one-party States are replaced, sooner or later, by democratic, multi-party regimes. Nazi Germany hosted the Olympics in 1936; 13 years later West Germany had the first of very many free elections. The 1980 Olympics were held in Moscow — nine years later the Soviet Union collapsed. The process was quickest in South Korea — which hosted the Olympics in 1988, and had its first free election in 1992. It was slowest in Mexico, where it was only in 2000 that the PRI was finally booted out of power.

So, nationalism and jingoism notwithstanding, the evidence of history prompts this less than pessimistic prediction — that multi-party democracy will come to China sometime within the next four to 32 years.

Interesting thought!

Ram Guha on Ponting’s and Don’s men!

March 14, 2008

Ponting’s men are a bunch of louts. Bradman’s men were gentlemen. None more so than Benaud’s three heroes in particular. Morris, Miller and Lindwall never sledged an opponent, never questioned an umpire’s decorum, never celebrated a victory to excess (nor mourned a defeat to excess, either). In other words, their behaviour, on the field and off it, was as immaculate as that of the great modern trinity of Indian cricket: Rahul Dravid, Anil Kumble, and Sachin Tendulkar.

Having said that, Guha, in his piece in the Telegraph, goes on to list the things that Indian cricketing administrators can learn from Australia:

For there are aspects of the game in which the Indians could learn from the Australians, rather than the other way around. I have in mind the game’s administration, which in India is in the hands of greedy men looking at filling their pockets in the short term, but in Australia is taken care of by visionary professionals concerned with the sustained success of their team. The boosters in the press have gone ballistic about India’s recent victory in the CB series in Australia. They seem to have forgotten that while Australia have won the last three World Cups, this is the first one-day tournament won by India in six whole years. Why, just a few months previously, Australia thrashed us in a one-day series in India. Even in this tournament they had much the better of the early games.

The truth is that in both Test and one-day cricket, India has a mediocre record, while Australia has consistently been the best team in the world. This difference is in part due to innate talent, and in part due to the way Cricket Australia is run. There are fine, focused academies to spot and nurture young talent; fair-minded selectors who are not subject to the pulls and pressures of nepotism or provincial biases; money managers whose dealings are transparent and, in both senses of the word, accountable.

The Indian Premier League is but the latest example of the malfunctioning of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Where else, but in India, would two senior officials of a sports body be able to float their own teams? Besides, we have far too much tamasha cricket already. Rather than make our top players take more trips on this merry-go-round, our board would have been better advised to make sure that they spend time playing the knock-out rounds of the Ranji Trophy. The Australians have demonstrated that the best, perhaps the only, way to keep talent flowing through the system is to cut down on one-day internationals, and ensure that the established players are matched against up-and-coming youngsters in the keenly fought Pura Cup (formerly the Sheffied Shield).

India plays far too much cricket already. One consequence of a schedule that is so full is that our younger players (and the fast bowlers in particular) break down at regular intervals. Not long ago, Sreesanth was out due to injury; he was back, playing in Australia, while Zaheer Khan and R.P. Singh had returned home with injuries. The oohs and aahs that now meet every ball bowled by Ishant Sharma will turn to moans and groans when he breaks down, as he surely will, and probably quite soon.

Take a look!

Can we please write about India without mentioning economic boom, please!

March 7, 2008

India’s economic boom has released a new sort of cricketer, tough, independent, materialistic and comfortable in his own skin.

That is Peter Roebuck in the Hindu; this economic boom stuff is getting me all worked up — does the comment mean that we were not tough, not independent, not materialistic, not comfortable in our own skin, or not all of it put together earlier? If so, how is the economic boom taking care of all these shortcomings?

Any case, that paragraph is padded in between this:

Australia was swept aside by an ambitious, fit, young, fresh and superbly led Indian side. Bound together by a sense of injustice, the Indians became formidable.

and, this:

Australia was confronted with a younger version of itself. India used to depend upon players steeped in the traditions of the game. Not any more. India has not merely copied Australia’s abrasive style. It is also producing the same sort of characters, who ask no quarter and give none.

I can not even understand how that economic boom stuff fits in! In fact, without that, the piece seems to read better.

The last quote is followed by an example to justify the boom mentioned in the first quote:

Take Irfan Pathan. He was not bothered about the pressure of bowling the final over at the ’Gabba. Growing up, he had watched his father trying to feed his family and did not think cricket compared with that. Like most of his comrades he comes from the poorer sections of society. He knows that life can be harsh. Of course it helped that a charismatic captain eased the pressure with a joke. But Irfan was not scared anyhow.

Roebuck goes on to introduce even some (Hindi cinema style) sociology (you know the one in which Govinda, though hails from some village in UP is really tough compared to the city born jokers — who are rich of course compared to the “poor” Govinda) into the analysis:

Mahendra Singh Dhoni understood and exploited the new Indian outlook. After all he was raised far from the fashionable crowd. Dhoni recently told India Today’s Sharda Ugra that “Guys from small places are tougher than those from the metros.” He fits the bill.

Of course, from his column it is clear that Australian defeat can neither be attributed to their economy nor to the demography of the team but only to their losing their equanimity:

Contrastingly Australia played like a team weighed down by worry. Amongst the locals only James Hopes and Nathan Bracken lasted the course. Neither had played in the Test series.

Australia made its worst mistake long before the ODI finals. The attempt to isolate and intimidate Harbhajan Singh served merely to strengthen India’s resolve. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the Sydney Test, the Australians lost their equanimity and never recovered.


Basketball and philosophy

February 26, 2008

Over at InsideHigherEd, Elia Powers interviews the authors of Basketball and philosophy: thinking outside the paint:

Q: Is there a quality inherent to basketball that makes it more ripe for philosophical conversation than, say, baseball or football?

A: (Walls) Well, as we point out in our book, Dr James Naismith, the minister who invented the game, was a philosophy major in college. So that perhaps gives hoops pride of place as the thinking fan’s game. And the fact that a minister invented it perhaps also explains why many fans follow it with something bordering on religious devotion. Basketball, perhaps more than football and baseball, is a game where superior strategy and intelligent execution can triumph over sheer athletic skill and speed. It is a game of constant action requiring split second decisions, any one of which may change the final outcome. Football depends crucially on brute strength, especially in the line. It is hard to win in football if you lose the battle of the line. While basketball is also in its own way a game of strength and speed, it does not depend on these to the same extent as football. So perhaps that fact also gives hoops an edge as a sport requiring thought and analysis. But there are interesting philosophical issues raised by all three sports.

(Bassham) Each sport has unique features that lend themselves to reflective analysis. [Bassham has contributed to a book on baseball and philosophy.] In baseball, for example, statistics provide endless fodder for discussions of comparative greatness. In basketball, the importance of teamwork leads to lots of interesting debates, particularly in a culture like ours that tends to valorize self-expression and individual achievement. There is also, I think, a kind of Zen-like artistry to basketball that makes it a joy to watch and affects us at deeper levels than the verbalizing intellect. That kind of interiority can itself provoke reflection, because we struggle to articulate what we experience in non-verbal modes of awareness.

What I would love to see is a review of the book by Charles Barkley.