Many assume athletes fall into a “dumb jocks” category, but science is everywhere in sports! When your favorite football team takes the field this fall, everything from the penalty kicks to tackling has to do with physics.

You don’t need to go to one of the top engineering schools in the country to engineer a perfect spiral. When a quarterback throws that perfect football spiral pass, there are tons of forces at work.  As the football travels through the air, it always follows a curved, or parabolic, path because the movement of the ball in the vertical direction is influenced by the force of gravity. As the ball travels up, gravity slows it down until it stops briefly at its peak height; the ball then comes down, and gravity accelerates it until it hits the ground or is caught.

A spiral pass can simply be explained in science as gyroscopic precession. Precession can be defined as the change in orientation of a spinning object’s rotational axis that occurs when it’s subject to an outside torque. This actually keeps the football headed in the right direction.

 

launch angle

The launch angle indicates how the football arches as it makes its way through the air. The larger the angle that the football is thrown, the higher that the football with fly into the air, causing a rainbow effect instead of a straight line.

 

The release velocity gives the ball the energy it needs to travel down the field. This energy comes from the thrower and it is transferred into the football.

 

Gyroscopic torque is another force at work. The football rotates perpendicular to the football’s horizontal axis, point to point. This ensures that it reaches its target. With the football wobbling, the gyroscopic aspect keeps the football traveling in the same direction.

So what are you waiting for? Get outside and start practicing your touchdown dance for when you make that perfect pass!

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