The Science of Jumping and Rotating

Figure skating is an amazingly graceful sport when performed well by Olympic athletes. Skaters whirl and spin across the ice, effortlessly perform triple and quadruple jumps, and all the while are skating elegantly as if they are floating on the ice. As you watch these athletes skate during the Olympic Games, take a moment to think about the skills they are performing during their programs. The gold medalist for the men's singles competition will undoubtedly complete at least one quadruple jump during his performance. This means that he will take off from the ice, traveling at speeds approaching 20 mph, complete four revolutions in the air, and land lithely on one leg as he prepares for the next element.

The skaters who medal in the Olympics will have jumps which leave the audience breathless. The jumps will appear to hang in the air, rotation speeds will make the skater a spinning blur, yet the take-offs and landings will be smooth and elegant. The jumps must be performed with an ease acquired only through years of hard work.

Now, try a jump yourself. You don't need to put on skates, just stand up, jump in the air and do a 360. Try to perform this jump gracefully. Take-off and land on one foot, maintaining an elegant body posture. Admittedly skaters do have an advantage. They are on skates and can thus generate a lot of speed on the ice to help their jumping. However, can you imagine the speeds they must be rotating and the heights they must attain to complete four revolutions in the air? Being a science teacher, you know that these skaters can not defy gravity or laws of physics. How do they manage to perform such amazing athletic skills, when most people can barely jump high enough to complete a 360 without falling on the ground?

This section of the Physics and Biomechanics module is going to show you how figure skaters are able to complete these remarkable skills. While you are learning how they perform these skills, you will also be learning great examples and techniques of how you can use figure skating to explain and demonstrate the laws of physics to your students in class. We have chosen two of the more impressive figure skating elements, jumps and spins, to demonstrate the concepts of projectile motion and conservation of angular momentum.

Projectile Motion

  1. Introduction

  2. Getting started

  3. Horizontal displacement

  4. Vertical displacement

  5. Parabolic shape

  6. Take-off velocity

  7. Vertical velocity

  8. Horizontal velocity

  9. Vectors

  10. Calculations
    Help page #1

  11. Vertical displacement
    Help page #2

  12. Horizontal displacement

  13. Ground reaction forces

  14. Review

  15. Think

Conservation of Angular Momentum

  1. Introduction

  2. Getting started

  3. Generating angular momentum

  4. Conservation of angular momentum

  5. Review

  6. Think

Other issues

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Winter Olympics Course Outline Comments Questions
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© April, 1998, Montana State University-Bozeman