Olympic physics- the science of spin

A Moment of Science

What does soccer, baseball, tennis, and countless other sports featured in the Olympics have in common?

They all rely on the Magnus Force to bend it like Beckham, throw a mean fastball, or put massive topspin on a return. This aerodynamic force kicks in when an object traveling through the air starts spinning- creating areas of high and low pressure on different sides of the ball. This in turn, creates a force perpendicular to the object’s motion, curving the trajectory up, down, or even sideways! This force only gets bigger as the object spins faster, so skilled players must master techniques that use spin to outwit and outplay their opponent. 

Take tennis for example.

“Topspin I would say is the most common type of spin in high level or professional tennis,” says Patrick Hieber, Director of Tennis at LTP.

“(With topspin) you can have a very fast action with your racquet head coming up on the ball. So if you think about it, the motion of the racquet goes up and that creates a forward rotation of the ball, the topspin.” 

In this stroke, the Magnus Force acts downwards, working alongside gravity to pull the ball into the ground harder which then bounces higher. Compare it to the next type of spin: backspin, or slice. 

“So slice is the opposite, the racquet goes from high to low on contact and gives the ball a backwards spin… it will bounce the ball lower.”

As the magnus force acts upwards, against gravity- changing the ball’s trajectory as the added lift will bring the ball much much deeper in the opponent’s court.


And we’re just scratching the surface. Spin, speed, and bounce are impacted by a number of variables at play in tennis: court material, racquet strings, even the altitude or other conditions like wind and humidity have an effect as well.

Professional or newcomer, you can cultivate these different styles of play and spin with Patrick Hieber and the other pros at LTP in Mt. Pleasant and Daniel Island. More information on how to get out and play can be found at USTA’s website.

Storm Team 2 Meteorologist David Dickson

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Media Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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