Are engineers sports averse?
It’s true that there are literally just a handful of athletes within the top level major sports leagues that have received an engineering degree. These statistics play into the stereotype of the awkward introverted engineer who has never played sports.
However, is lack of participation at the top level an indication of lack of interest or simply a fact of life when it comes to a demanding degree? I believe that the answer is the latter and that engineering is a very demanding degree that does not allow for the time commitment required at college level sports which prepares one for entry to the major leagues.
I wanted to dig into this topic a bit more on a practical level and was very happy to find two engineers who didn’t let a demanding degree stop them from pursuing their sports interests.
Balancing Study Time and Practice
With the engineers I mentor, I make the point that simply studying for a longer period of time does not lead to success. The important part is having a method to really absorb the material in an efficient manner. In short, study SMARTER not HARDER. However, this becomes even more important when you are heavily involved in sports that take up a huge chunk of your time.
Can you imagine attending a top engineering school while prepping for the Olympics? Stephen Mozia graduated from Cornell with a degree in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and represented Nigeria in the 2014/16 Africa games as well as the 2016 Olympics. Remembering my experience in engineering school and I am in awe of someone who can pull this off. When asked how he pulled this off, Mozia told me that “It took a lot of sacrificing my leisure time, but I can say there is no magic in my story except hard work and a hunger to accomplish my goals.”
During her undergraduate engineering studies at Dartmouth College, Catherine Berghuis played four years of Division I ice hockey and was Captain of the team in her senior year. She recalls having a tough time in her first two years of engineering school as she adapted to the rigors of engineering school combined with D1 sports. The key for her was adjusting her study habits and also focusing her down time on road trips to studying. She recalls that “I definitely had fun as well, but you have to sacrifice some freedoms to graduate with a degree in engineering.”
Applying Engineering to Sports and Vice-Versa
I believe that it’s important to approach engineering from a holistic mindset and not in a vacuum. Early in my career, I was working on an energy project and I had the opportunity to get involved with the construction oversight as well. This was a very important phase in my development as an engineer since it really gave me an appreciation regarding the practical application of my designs. I further built on this holistic approach by talking to maintenance technicians who were charged with keeping the designed equipment running in optimal condition.
Having the construction and future maintenance in mind when you design the equipment initially allows you to produce a better design by taking the perspective of others into account. I have found that every experience you have regardless of its connection to engineering can give you an enhanced perspective that, in turn, makes you a better engineer.
Therefore, I was interested to know how their engineering experience applied to their sports and vice versa.
Playing hockey, Berghuis found that her experience in sports helped her develop of mentality of putting her head down and working as hard as possible. This strong work ethic has helped her in the engineering world as well as she faced challenges in her studies and in the recent years in industry since graduation.
By playing four years of a team sport, Berghuis noted that she gained an added focus on teamwork. In his book The Five Dysfunction of a Team, Patrick Lencioni notes that teamwork is one of the main drivers behind achievement (or lack thereof) of a company. So it should come as no surprise that individuals who have played team sports have a trait that can be an asset to any engineering team.
As a track & field thrower, Mozia found a direct application of engineering principles to his athletic pursuits. As a thrower, the goal is to find the best way to apply maximum amount of force and transfer that force to the object being thrown. By understanding the principles such as torque, a thrower can “visualize what he needs to do in order to apply the maximum amount of force.”
Additionally, he found that the concept of incremental achievement through trial and error was useful in his athletic achievements as well as in his engineering study. Once one reaches the Olympic throwing level, hour upon hour can be invested on minor tweaks to eke out a few more inches on each throw. However, those extra inches can be the difference between a gold medal and missing out on the medal platform completely. By applying this methodical mindset to engineering, Mozia is able to focus on efficiency improvements that others might miss.
Technology in Sports
During Eliud Kipchoge’s pursuit for a sub-two hour marathon this past October, one of the topics that caught my eye was a discussion of his sneakers. Kipchoge wore Nike’s Vaporfly sneakers which have been credited with increasing some runners’ speed by up to 4%. Similar to arguments against special aerodynamic swimsuits in the Olympics several years back, this brings up the general topic of whether these advances in technology are really fair. Should the records broken with them count? What place should technological advancements play in sports?
Berghuis noted that the technology advancements in the hockey world are primarily focused on equipment quality improvement and reducing failures. She believes that reduction of these distractions is a positive for the sport and that these advancements “puts more emphasis on the athlete”.
Mozia loves to see this technological advancement and sees it as a “little reminder that the human race has progressed to new heights.” Looking back to the 1950s, he noted, none of the athletes would have had the advantage of nutritional research that has happened in the decades since. Similarly, he notes that in 50 year from now we might be looking at a new material that makes the Vaporfly look just like a regular sneaker.
Making Sports Part of your Engineer Career
As they have moved into their engineering careers, both Mozia and Berghuis have chosen more traditional engineering roles that are not directly applicable to their sports passions. However, what about the engineers that love sports and want to be involved in sports as part of their career? For this, we need to look no further than . . .
- Material or mechanical engineers that work on sports items such as protection equipment, bicycles, general sports gear etc.
- Civil/structural engineers who work on the stadiums
- Computer scientists who are developing virtual reality training methods or systems to analyze performance
- Automotive engineers that work on F-1 or NASCAR vehicles
What is quite obvious is that if you have a passion for sports, there is definitely a path to combine your passions as you move into your career. When it comes to feeling fulfilled in one’s career, it is truly a gift to be able to land in a position you love. If your passion is sports and you want to pursue that passion in the engineering world, there is no need to let it fall to the side once you graduate.
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