17 Sep How to use your science skills in high-level sports

This is me clearing one of the last waterpit barriers before i won the silver medal,.Solving problem by passing the waterpit at the Dutch championships in 2013. Image: Cas Grannetia

At first glance, combining a tough study with a time consuming hobby, like sporting, seems far from advantageous for either activity. There are, however, advantages. As already discussed in a previous post, you, as a student, can learn a thing or two from high-level athletes. But it works the other way around as well. Sports require a lot of analytical thinking, problem solving and patience: just what you practise at the faculty!

Analytical thinking

Some non-athletes might think: ‘In soccer or other team sports there’s tactics and team play. But if you run a marathon, you just run as fast as you can for 42 km, no thinking needed!’ Even if this were true, they forget what comes before the 42 km of running. It takes a long journey before you can perform at the moment it counts. The kind of analytical thinking you use in science, comes in very handy for that journey. There are many variables you have to analyse and adjust for your thorough training plan: strength training, endurance training, speed training and mental training – all of which can be split up in even more sub-factors.

To optimise those variables you have to keep track of what you did for training, how it felt and how well you rested. This is best done using a log! You will analyse the collected data after a race and draw conclusions on what you can improve or where it went wrong. The race can be seen as an experiment and your training is the method. With a log, method and an experiment, it looks just like doing science!


A few books from the first year of the Bachelor in Physics and Astronomy at the UvA. The right shoe is is a shoe especially made for the steeplechase: a steeplespike. The top shoe is a training shoe and a gold medal from the national championships.

Combining study with sports. Image: Simon Grannetia

Problem solving

Being an athlete you will encounter unexpected situations or problems and you need to deal with them. But you, as a science student, have the right skills to solve these problems!

At first glance, the problem at hand will not look similar to the tough calculus questions you have solved, but those questions did prepare you very well. If you solve science problems, you always start with a given situation and some variables. You choose one of the solving techniques you learned in class that best fits the problem and you start solving the problem. While you are working on your solution, you monitor whether or not you are approaching your goal and you may change the technique.

In sport situations this way of solving problems can be helpful as well. How exactly is the most clear for races. The problem with a race is winning and it’s solved with a good tactic. Before a race you come up with a tactic that best suits the circumstances. During the race you react to unforeseen things, check the viability of your tactic and change accordingly.

How you come up with the tactic and change it, requires the same skills as solving the tough calculus problem. And choosing the right approach and adjusting it to the situation is where the analytical thinking comes in handy!


Maybe the most important skill that you learned studying science which can help you as an athlete is patience. Rome wasn’t built in one day, and the same goes for gaining a proper understanding of the underlying principles of quantum entanglement or learning a good way of ice skating.

Ice skating back in the days. Image: Enerest Mittet & Co

Ice skating back in the days. Image: Enerest Mittet & Co

Unless you are a child prodigy with an IQ of 180 you didn’t understand the hard science topics the first time they were taught. You struggled with the ideas, you tried some exercises but couldn’t finish them, you weren’t even able to start in the first place! People around you struggled as well, while teachers kept explaining and teaching more about the topic. A lot of struggling, hardship and a couple of weeks, months or years (!) later you finally understood it. But you wouldn’t have come to that if you hadn’t had patience.

Patience helps you to not break down in tears the first days of trying to understand it. It helped you to keep studying for days on end. And the road to sporting success isn’t any smoother, so you definitely need that patience.

Do you know of any other ways in which science helps you in your sports career, or maybe with something else in your daily life, let me now in the comments!

WTF simon


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WTF Simon

WTF Simon

Runner, Physicist, Dutch 3000m steeplechase champion, day-dreamer, sport minded and science lover
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