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Cricket, wickets, maths and physics

Dr David James is a sports engineer and course leader for the Sports Engineering MSc at Sheffield Hallam University. Read about how he helps big sports companies, sports governing bodies and professional teams in their quest for cutting-edge sports equipment.

David James Og

Dr David James bowled his way into sports engineering through a pioneering PhD investigating the dynamics of cricket balls and pitches.

After spending several summers watching cricket – a job which could knock other careers for six – he is now course leader for the Sports Engineering MSc at Sheffield Hallam University.  There he helps big sports companies, sports governing bodies and professional teams conduct research to help them produce cutting-edge sports equipment.

Dr James took time out from his busy schedule to speak to Tomorrow’s Engineers about his passion for mountain biking, naked athletes in ancient Greece and what he looks for in applicants to his sports engineering course…

Name: Dr David James
Job title: Senior sports engineer at Sheffield Hallam University and Royal Academy of Engineering Public Engagement Fellow

What first got you interested in engineering?

I was very passionate about mountain biking and cycling and spent many hours tinkering and trying to figure out how to make my bike work better. I think that ignited a bit of a passion for engineering. My brother and dad were engineers too so it was a bit of a family tradition.

I’ve always been passionate about sport and never knew I’d be able to mix that with engineering. I thought I’d have a fairly traditional career such as automotive or aerospace engineering and I switched to sports much later.

I was always pretty good at maths and physics and I liked design and product development as well so it seemed like the obvious thing to do.

What subjects did you study at school and how are they useful?

After GCSEs I went on to do maths, physics and design at A-Level. The two big things for me were maths and physics - they were very challenging at the time but you really have to get those fundamentals right to develop yourself as an engineer.

And then what did you study at university?

I went to the University of Sheffield where I studied Mechanical Engineering with French because I quite liked the idea of learning a language. I studied in a French university in the Alps during the third year of my degree which was fantastic and then came back to finish my four year MEng course.

It’s a brilliant place to be a student with one of the country’s best engineering departments.

I graduated in 2000. All my peers were out getting jobs and my old project supervisor offered me the possibility of doing a PhD in his newly emerging sports engineering group. The PhD was sponsored by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB). They posed the research question and were funding my work on how to improve cricket pitches.

That sounds interesting – what did that involve?

We really had to understand how balls bounce off the pitch and what factors influence the pitch. When a test match is going on they talk about the influence of the pitch and how it’s going to affect the game. People knew these things happened but nobody had yet developed and fully understood the physics or scientific knowledge in that area.

Was the project successful?

It went really well. It was a challenging project because there is so little that was known about the area. Often in engineering and science you “stand on the shoulders of giants” and incrementally tap away at work that’s been done in the past and move it forward slowly.

When there’s been so little understanding you have to go back to basics and get some rudimentary mechanics in place because you’re trying to understand what’s happening at a fundamental level.

We also had to work a lot with the ECB because we had to make sure that what we were doing was valuable for them. We had to visit every first class cricket pitch in the country every summer for four years. It was pretty good fun because we’d go around and film cricket for a couple of days in every first class cricket ground.

Obviously it was hard work, confusing and baffling at times, being swamped by data and very complicated mechanics, but it worked out well. We came up with some good findings and recommendations about how groundsmen should prepare cricket pitches and a few things to consider.

It established a baseline in new research so it’s interesting.

How does it feel to set things like this in motion and to affect the world of sport?

We’d like to feel like our work adds into a bigger picture. It’s very nice when other researchers are doing similar projects in the West Indies, South Africa and Australia and carry it forward globally. That’s how science works – you write these papers and then they get published globally and you hope that people read them and move them forward.

What is your favourite part of the job?

I share my passion for finding out how the world works with my passion for sport. Sports are a huge part of my life and I feel very lucky to work in an area that I care about so much.

What kind of personal qualities do you think are important for an engineer?

I think you have to be pretty inquisitive. The difference between being a pure scientist and an engineer is that an engineer lives in the real world and turns ideas into real things.

Because of that, as well as the technical skills you have to have, such as calculus or figuring out a complicated differential equation, you have to be very personable and be able to win people over with your arguments and ideas.

During my PhD I worked with a lot of groundsmen from cricket clubs who were very suspicious of anything related to science or technology. They came from a traditional background and I had to win them over with a bit of charm and influencing skills. It’s not purely theoretical, you have to make things work in practice.

It’s also useful to have a global perspective. We have some good small and medium sized British companies like Hawk-Eye, Mitre and Gunn & Moore but a lot of the big multi-national sports companies that people have heard of tend to be abroad in mainland Europe, like racket manufacturers and golf companies in America.

Can you see the impact of sports engineering in athletics?

Winning margins can be very small in many events. What we do is try to find those gains and small margins in all sorts of different things. It could be the training environment or through devices that help coaches measure and understand what the athletes are doing or not doing.

Sports engineering is also about the design of the equipment that athletes are using in competition. Obviously this raises some issues around fairness and also access to this high level kit but you have to balance these concerns.

The question “how much technology we want in our sport?” is a controversial one. Do we want to keep it in its natural state or do we want to let it evolve and progress through technology? It’s a debate that’s been going on for many decades. It actually started at the ancient Olympics when athletes had to race naked so they couldn’t be influenced by any external factors so it’s a debate that’s been going on for millennia and will continue.

Most of the time the difference we can make to sporting performance through engineering is very small; hundredths of seconds for example, and top athletes can win by a much larger margin. The athlete is still in control and winning the medals.

Can you tell us about some of your work at the university?

As a research centre we work with pretty large sporting companies. We get funding from lots of different sources and a lot of our work is commercial, working with sports companies on different areas of their innovation. We work with national teams and Olympic teams through UK sport. We also do research funded by Research Councils UK.

We’ve worked with Adidas on their footwear. We’ve been looking at traction for quite a few years now because, by understanding how traction works, you can optimise boot design. You want to get high levels of traction so you can accelerate and stop very quickly on a sports pitch but too much traction can lead to injury. It’s a very complicated mechanism and you have different surfaces and weather at different times of the year so we need to understand how this whole system works to make sure we can get the best possible performance

Again, it’s an area where there is very little understanding out there. So we had to go right back to basics, to the drawing board and do fundamental experiments and modelling to find the basic physics of what’s going on. We build up the basic knowledge then it feeds into the innovation process for the commercial companies so they can create new products which perform better.

What do you look for in applicants to your sports engineering course?

There are different methods and options for getting into our world of work. My preferred route is for students to study a fairly traditional engineering degree such as mechanical engineering, but it doesn’t have to be. People have come to work with us from a range of backgrounds; from electrical engineering courses through to civil, control and materials engineering courses.

We offer a post-graduate route which translates the solid, core engineering knowledge and applies it to the world of sport. That’s really useful because students have a good enough grounding in the core key skills and disciplines but it also keeps their options open so they can work in the sports industry as well as automotive and aerospace engineering, for example.

Students have to be quite careful when they’re looking at those courses because some are industrial design and not really engineering. They don’t cover many of the core engineering disciplines, so they wouldn’t learn about aerodynamics, fluid mechanics or solid mechanics and these key things that are really valuable.

The key bit of information for students is to get a good engineering degree first and specialise later because what sport needs is really good engineers.

What engineering and technology could we expect to see being used in sports this year?

We’ll see a lot of exciting engineering in action with the track bikes in the Velodrome at the Olympics. It’s not just the bikes that have been optimised and engineered over many years but also the venue itself. The Velodrome is run at a raised temperature to reduce the air density and that will help the cyclists go faster.

We’ll also hopefully see Oscar Pistorius in athletics, the South African double amputee runner who has a pair of specially designed prosthetic legs; an incredible piece of engineering. He has lightweight legs that have been made by people who have understood the biomechanics of human locomotion and replicated that through their design - it’s a fantastic piece of engineering.

If you could go back in time and invent anything, what piece of sports engineering would you invent?

There are some really amazing things that have moved sport forward such as the oversized tennis racket in the late 1970s, early 1980s, that was a huge leap forward which came from new materials that allowed different shapes to be made.

(Watch a short video presented by Dr David James that goes into more detail about the development of the tennis racket by sports engineers - Ed)

Mountain biking is quite a new sport and new designs are emerging all the time. The sport has progressed hugely since I started and that’s been made possible through the bikes. Cyclists can jump off 30 and 50 foot cliffs on their bikes quite happily and in the early 1990s that wouldn’t have been possible! (Don’t try this at home readers – Ed)

What technologies should we look out for in sport in the near future?

The 1980s and 1990s were a great period for innovation using new materials, particularly carbon fibre which was an amazing new material which became ubiquitous.

This century the digital revolution is having an effect. We’ve all got very clever mobile phones with fast processors to log data and other clever things. Data is everywhere and that has driven a whole new wave of innovative ideas in the sports industry about gathering data, measuring and tracking things.

I think we’ll see more devices in the clothes we’re wearing, telling us how you’re playing, how far you’re running or how many times you kick the ball. Then it’s about how we use and share that data on online platforms and this is a key area for innovation.

Further information and links

The International Sports Engineering Association

Useful news and interesting articles can be found on Engineering Sport Blog: The Centre for Sports Engineering Research

 Blog post on "Becoming a sports engineer"

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