There was an interesting discussion at the recent “Composites in Sport” conference regarding the role of high-performance materials, and especially composites, in sporting equipment. In many sports, such as tennis, hockey and baseball, there has been a gradual evolution in the materials employed for sporting equipment from wood, through aluminium, to the carbon fibre composites that are often currently used. The use of composites has led to sporting equipment becoming lighter, stiffer and better optimised, allowing greater accelerations to be imparted to the target ball/puck/shuttlecock/etc. Whilst this provides a competitive advantage to early adopters, once the “new” material becomes the commonplace standard, the net benefit to a given sport is sometimes less clear.
As projectiles within sports are propelled at ever higher speeds, there may be wider ramifications. In hockey for example, goalkeepers’ protective equipment has required ongoing development in order to keep pace with the evolution of high-performance sticks. A further concern is that increased ball speeds can be to the detriment of the spectator experience, as faster games are generally more difficult for an audience to follow. Sporting equipment also has to be comfortable and safe for athletes to use over an extended period of time - it is not simply a case of making equipment ever lighter or stiffer if that only leads to more injuries.
There was a general consensus amongst the conference delegates that sports’ governing bodies and administrators need to work closely with equipment manufacturers to ensure that high-performance sporting equipment doesn’t ultimately detract from the game for either athletes or spectators.