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The Mathematics of Sports

by David Engle | Mar 10, 2020 | 4 min read

Spring is on the horizon, and for many it’s an exciting time of year. The temperatures are rising, the sun is shining, the flowers are blooming, and sports are getting really exciting. Sports? Yes, sports. Spring is an amazing time of year for sports…March Madness is in full swing, baseball and softball seasons are starting, basketball and hockey playoffs are fast approaching. So…what do sports have to do with school? A lot, actually.

Sports is all about math these days. More and more professional teams are adopting an analytics-based approach when it comes to game-planning. In fact, several teams have established their own analytics departments whose daily responsibilities include studying data, tendencies, and even science in order to gain any kind of competitive advantage. But, even in its simplest form, math has always applied to sports since it’s the basis of all statistics. And if your child struggles with math or simply can’t stand it (much like me as a student), using sports to teach the subject can bring a lot of fun, energy, and enthusiasm to the classroom. Let’s look at two of the more popular (and currently in-season) sports individually.

If you haven’t read the book Moneyball or seen the excellent movie starring Brad Pitt, it tells the story of how the 2002 Oakland Athletics, constrained by one of the smallest budgets in Major League Baseball, adopted a new approach to the game. Rather than trying to stock their roster with players who hit lots of home runs or accumulated lots of stolen bases or even hit for a high average, Oakland’s innovative general manager, Billy Beane, opted to rely on low-cost players who reached base often (via hit or walk) and had high slugging percentages (total bases divided by at-bats). This budget-friendly approach resulted in Oakland setting an MLB record with 20 straight victories, an American League West division title, and a playoff berth. Beane’s pioneering approach to sabermetrics (the name for the data-driven analysis) paved the way for many other MLB teams, including the 2004 Boston Red Sox, who won the World Series using the “Moneyball” approach. Most teams today have adopted analytics and sabermetrics when it comes to evaluating players.

So, how does all this math work, and how can you use it with your homeschooling? While some of the sabermetrics are far too advanced for most minds (including mine), there are plenty of baseball statistics you can work into everyday homeschooling. From basic addition (if Mike Trout has 68 RBIs through July and he gets another 27 in August, how many will he have by September 1?) to division (calculate Max Scherzer’s ERA if he’s allowed 68 earned runs in 160 innings pitched) to multiplication (if the Yankees win 18 games per month for each month of the season, how many wins will they have at the end of the season?), math is all around baseball.

Even geometry has worked its way into the everyday baseball vernacular thanks to launch angle, which represents the vertical angle at which the ball leaves a bat after it’s been hit. The higher the launch angle, the higher in the air the ball will go. There are so many different types of statistics involved with baseball, which means there are just as many fun ways to teach math. Check out MLB’s awesome Statcast site, which offers definitions of all the stats and metrics. Or break out some old baseball cards (or buy some new ones) and come up with some math questions based on the statistics on the back. You can even make a lesson out of watching a baseball game (on TV or in person) by keeping score and creating a quiz based on the box score.

Whether you’re a college basketball fan or prefer the NBA, basketball offers plenty of math lessons. With March Madness happening right now, set up some fun activities revolving around college hoops. Predicting NCAA Tournament brackets is always fun this time of year–what are the chances of a #16 seed winning a game? How close can you come to picking all the winners? This is a great way to teach laws of probability. Check out this incredible article from Smithsonian Magazine about the odds of having the perfect bracket. Use some of the info here to create your own bracket and see if yours’ stacks up with the experts in probability.

Of course, this type of math is better suited to older students. But basketball offers plenty of math challenges for younger kids as well. For example, if LeBron James makes 8 two-point field goals, 11 free throws, and 4 three-pointers, how many points will he have? If Ben Simmons collects 12 assists and has 2 turnovers, what is his assist-to-turnover ratio? If James Harden takes 853 three-point shots and makes 361 of them, what is his three-point percentage?

The NBA also has a great stats website, with all types of metrics and numbers you can use to form an engaging math lesson. And you can do the same thing with basketball as you do with baseball–watch some games, keep score, and have some educational fun with the stats. Follow your March Madness bracket to see how your predictions are. Check out a local NBA, college, or high school game and experience the excitement in person.

Sports offer so much more than just entertainment. There really is quite a bit to be learned from studying and watching games, following player and team statistics, and using math to figure it all out. I always struggled with math, but my love for sports really helped me master basic math when I was a kid–not so much algebra or trigonometry, but I can tell you right away that if a batter gets six hits in 16 at-bats, he’s hitting .375 (division, fractions, percentages…all math!), and I can apply those fractions to anything.

How else can you apply sports to learning? Share in the comments below!



David Engle
Hello, and thanks for reading! I’m David Engle--dad, husband, sports fan, and writer/editor. As a father for the last 18 years (father of two for the last 14), I consider myself to be pretty well-versed in all things related to education, childhood, and parenting, and I'm thankful for the opportunity to share some insights and knowledge with fellow parents. I have been a professional writer and editor for a quarter of a century (it pains me to admit that) and have been writing in the educational space for a number of those years. I reside in southern New Jersey with my wife, two kids, two dogs, and three cats. Never a dull moment.
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