Smashing a cricket ball to the boundary is a matter of talent and perfect timing! But if you want to get more technical than that you could translate it into a physics problem in cricket.

Vivek Kamarkar, our next pathbreaker, Sports Physicist, applies the concepts of physics to assist golf players in improving their techniques based on motion capture technologies.

Vivek talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy  from The Interview Portal about a project that he did on the “sweet spot” of a cricket bat that inspired him to apply Physics to address sports related challenges.

For students, with sports becoming more and more competitive, players need all the help they can get from a scientific perspective to perform well! Physics plays a big role in sports.

Vivek, your background? 

I was born in the US and after staying there for 5 years, I moved to India with my parents. I pursued an integrated bachelor and master’s degree in physics from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata, India.

I decided to do a basic degree in Physics as I was very interested and curious about certain physics ideas in high school. I wanted to pursue this further, so I decided to study for the IIT entrance exam as I had heard that cracking this exam is challenging and studying for it would involve a thorough understanding of basic physics. I had great physics teachers at my IIT coaching classes and although the physics problems challenged me, I really enjoyed solving them and decided to pursue a degree in Physics. I secured a rank in the IIT-JEE entrance examinations and got admission at IISER for a Physics degree based on my IIT-JEE rank. I was unaware until very recently about my US citizenship. I came to India when I was 5 years old. I guess I did not go to a university in the US as I was unaware about it when I was 17 years old.

Following that, I pursued another master’s degree in Sports Engineering from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK. I also attended a sports engineering summer school program at TU Delft, Netherlands and now I live and work in Copenhagen, Denmark. I like sports. My specific interests were cricket and long-distance running. I was part of my university athletics team at my university in the UK and while I was in India, I started and lead a running group at IISER Kolkata. I also have an interest in developing my social skills and trying out new things. I was able to pursue these interests at my university in the UK. I decided to pursue a career in sports engineering as I wanted to combine my interests in physics and sports. My parents are computer scientists and supported my career choices.

What did you do for graduation/post graduation? 

I pursued an integrated bachelor and master’s degree in physics from the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research, Kolkata. Following that, I pursued another master’s degree in Sports Engineering from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career? 

The offbeat course I took is still a branch of engineering but it is applied to sports. I decided to choose this degree as I wanted to combine my two interests, sports and physics. I knew that doing this would bring the problems I solved on a daily basis closer to my heart. I also imagined that I might end up playing a bit of cricket or running as part of my course which indeed did happen. I had to literally bat 20 overs against a bowling machine to collect data for my masters project and I was running after a led light pacing system as part of another assignment. The other reason for choosing such an offbeat course was social. I wanted to be surrounded by different, interesting and energetic people. I also wanted to take up a career where your personal time devoted to keeping fit, practicing sports and hobbies would be respected. Sports Engineering is something that fit these criteria.

I was nearing the end of my physics degree and had to seriously think about the road ahead. After four years of my physics degree, I realized that I enjoyed basic physics far more than advanced physics as I was able to relate to it more in an everyday sense. I felt that quite a lot of the higher-level physics that I learnt and the project I was working on was too abstract and unrelatable to the real world. I also felt like I was a social mismatch to the physics community and wanted to have a career with work-life balance. I spent a few days thinking really hard about the future and I thought if I was able to combine basic physics and sports into a career, it would probably make the physics more relatable and then it would mean something to me. I also thought that the idea of playing cricket or running for my job would be the closest I would get to becoming a professional athlete. I also imagined that such a career would involve working with sports people and a variety of interesting people. I had a gut feeling that such a career might involve the right balance of science and sports for someone like me.

I started by applying for an independent study project in sports physics in the final year of my physics degree. After sending out a lot of emails, an optics professor was interested in my idea. I worked on understanding the idea of a sweet spot on a cricket bat in terms of physics, under his guidance.

In cricket, we hear the commentators say: “That was a fine shot, struck from the sweet spot and off the ball goes to the boundary”. Well, a physicist might ask the question based on the commentator’s statement, “when the ball strikes the bat, which point on the bat should the ball collide with so that it bounces from the bat with the highest speed possible? Is this the sweet spot?”. We tried to calculate what speeds the ball bounces off from different points on the bat. We also found some literature describing the sweet spot as a point on the bat where if you strike the ball, you won’t feel any vibrations in the hand. Just the idea of being able to use basic physics to understand what happened and getting my feet into the sports engineering door felt exciting. I felt like there was a whole different world out there. In my final presentation, I walked into the exam hall with my cricket bat and started with a video of Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar hitting a shot and commentator Sunil Gavaskar talking about the sweet spot. That was pretty exciting! We were also able to explain that you give the ball less speeds if you hit the ball at the very top of the bat. We used this idea to explain two famous phenomena from the world of Indian cricket – Sachin Tendulkar’s and Virat Kohli’s world cup dismissals in the finals and semi finals from shots being hit from the top of the bat. Well, our calculations showed that the ball could not have gotten very far, thereby the ball couldn’t travel to the boundary and came down as a catch and they got caught out. That is a simple result. Real world sports engineering is way more complicated than this.

The project was exciting, and I thought the next step would be to do master’s degree in the field. After some creative google searching, I found the MSc Sports Engineering degree offered by Sheffield Hallam University, UK. I sought help from Edwise education consultancy in Pune, India for the application process and applied to the course. I got the acceptance letter and the next challenge was funding my studies. I tried to convince my mother and then my father for funding, as scholarships were unlikely and rare for this course. After some convincing, my parents were willing to help me out financially. I went on to successfully finish the masters. 

Tell us about your career path

The next challenge was to get a job. I started with a technology internship at GoSports Foundation, Bangalore, India. I got this internship through a LinkedIn advertisement. 

Following that, I did a one-month project for the USA cycling team where I got the chance to work with an Olympic gold medalist Jamie staff. The gold medalist reached out to me on LinkedIn and offered me the project. 

Jamie Staff was interested in accurately measuring the revolution speed of cycle wheels in BMX cycling as cyclists go up to extremely high speeds of about 2000 rpm and it is really hard to measure such high speeds precisely. He also wanted to capture a lot of speed related data. My project primarily involved understanding and identifying possible solutions. As it turned out, there were some products on the market involving IMU (Inertial measurement unit) sensors. These sensors are light and can be attached to athletes without disturbing them. They measure how an object is oriented in space and how it accelerates. This information can be used to derive a lot of numbers using some physics and math.

After that, I did a three-month long data science internship with an American start-up called Torq Labs. I worked on these two projects remotely from India. I got this internship by getting in touch with the CEO of Torq Labs via email and I found out about this company on sportstechie.com. This unique website was mentioned to me by an alumnus on a skype call.

Data Science is a grey area. In context of sports, it can overlap a fair bit with algorithm development. In most cases, data in sports is captured by using sensors or cameras. These sensors or camera systems might have their own software. The first step is to extract data from such software. This is usually in the form of some excel sheet where the information in most cases is not organized in the way you would like it. The first big task is to read the data, clean the data and structure it so that is ready to be used in a certain programming language. This might sound like a small task but in most cases it is not. It involves a fair bit of understanding of the structure of the available data. In terms of programming, one needs a basic understanding of object oriented programming, data types, mathematics and data science related libraries. The most commonly used language is Python and the packages needed are numpy, scipy, pandas etc. Even structuring and saving your data with the right nomenclature can become an overwhelming task at times. The next steps would either be building algorithms to calculate various useful numbers like speeds of the ball or data analysis by looking at certain trends or plotting certain metrics.

In the meantime, my application process for my current job at TrackMan was taking place. By the end of my data science internship, I had gotten an offer letter for a job with TrackMan Denmark as a software developer in the CORE Research and development team. Again, I got this job through networking on LinkedIn. I established a connection with a sports physics professor. Following that, I stumbled across the profile of the CTO of TrackMan on LinkedIn. The professor was a mutual connection between us. I used this to connect and start a dialogue with the CTO. I asked for an internship and this led to him offering me the email of the director. I applied for an internship to the director and decided to connect with as many people from TrackMan as I could. After doing so, one of the guys messaged me asking if I was interested in working for TrackMan. After establishing a dialogue with him, he scheduled an interview with the director. After three rounds of interviews spread out over three months, I was offered the job with a visa and flight ticket to Denmark.

How did you get your first break?

My first break was a technology internship at GoSports Foundation, Bangalore, India. I saw the advertisement for the post on LinkedIn and applied to the person who had posted the advertisement. The person who had posted the advertisement was the alumni of the MSc Sports Engineering two batches prior to me. To be honest, I do not really consider that as my first break. I believe that my current job was truly my first break. I got my current job through networking on LinkedIn and persistence.

What were the challenges? How did you address them?

  • Challenge 1: Sports Engineering is a rather niche and unique industry and there are no campus placements. Other than a few career counselling sessions we had at university, there was no real advice on how to find a job in this industry and where to start. Initially, I was confused but then I decided to tackle this challenge by making a decent LinkedIn profile and attempted to connect with all the MSc Sports Engineering alumni. I also googled sports physics and sports engineering and tried to connect with people based on the outcomes of these google searches. I also looked at academic journals for sports engineering and attempted to connect with authors of research articles that excited me
  • Challenge 2: I felt trapped due to circumstances. The sports engineering positions that I stumbled upon were mostly in the UK or the EU and being a non-UK or non-EU citizen called for a lot of rejections as companies cannot authorize work visas so easily. I was also jumping from internship to internship and I felt that I was not where I wanted to be. I did have a physical support system in terms of the right people around me who could point me in the right direction. I overcame this challenge by persistence and support. I took advice from friends and experienced people in different countries through skype calls and I kept trying to network and apply for positions irrespective of circumstances.
  • Challenge 3: Confusion about which job position to apply to. Since sports engineering is niche, applying for a sports engineering job is not the same thing as applying for a data analyst or app developer position. This created a lot of confusion. I overcame this challenge by really thinking about my strengths and interests. I tried to create my own job descriptions based on that and I started to change my google searches according to that. I later realized that many of these positions were disguised as video analyst, data analyst or R&D engineer roles.

Where do you work now? 

I work at TrackMan, a Danish sports technology company as a software developer in the CORE Research and Development team.

I work on developing algorithms in python (programming language) using mathematics for motion tracking in golf. The data for these algorithms is generated in a sports lab. I also set up the systems in the lab for data collection. We get professional golf players to hit shots and this generates the data.

The idea of motion capture technology is to perform measurements of some kind on objects moving in sports like balls, tennis rackets, cricket bats, golf clubs, etc without disturbing the game. One example from cricket is a radar gun. This measures ball speed in cricket. What we do in golf is similar. We have our TrackMan unit which consists of radars. This unit sends out radar waves. When radar waves hit moving objects, they bounce off with frequencies different from their original frequencies. This change in frequency is connected to a physics idea called “Doppler effect”. We measure the incoming frequency of the radar and we know the original frequency. Using the doppler effect ideas, we calculate the motion of the object like golf balls and golf clubs. The data is collected by the radar unit. You can connect to the radar from a phone or a laptop. Once you connect to it, the app in case of the phone or the software in case of the laptop will display numbers like ball speed, club speed, launch angle, distance travelled by ball, etc. The software/app is programmed to calculate all useful numbers.

The skills required are problem solving, attention to detail, social skills, mathematics/physics, programming. These skills can always be improved further, and senior members of the company help new members out to improve these skills. A very important trait is a desire to take initiative and an interest in sports. I acquired the skills through my interest. At different times in my life, I felt motivated to get better at different skills and pursued that. Attention to detail comes from just being interested in something and the desire to do well at the task as well as curiosity. I believe that I had the opportunity to develop my social skills in England through my university experience. As for mathematics/physics, it started with curiosity, some great teachers and then I had gradual increments in my skill when I was interested in certain courses or problems at university. I had a few applied programming courses at university, and I am learning much more programming than I ever learned before now at my job with the help of my nice colleagues.

What’s a typical day like? 

I normally wake up around 8am and head to the office. My work varies between doing development work at the office desk or carrying out motion tracking experiments in the sports lab. When I work in the sports lab, it is a very hands-on and high pace experience which involves setting up a lot of different motion capture technologies in sports and recording golf shots hit by professional players. The development work has a different vibe. I have a cozy desk with a cup of coffee and a docking station. This connects my laptop to two huge screens, and I use 3 screens for working. I set up my screens, so I have my programming interface, motion tracking software, excels sheets all set up very nicely. I have about three meetings per week to track progress and decide priorities. We also have a lunch buffet which is very time efficient, and our company offers free golf lessons and a trail running group. I leave work depending on my sports training which could vary between 4pm and 7pm. I typically do long-distance run or some other hobby or event in the evening.

What is it you love about this job? 

This job allows me to combine my two interests: sports and basic physics in a unique way. Apart from the unique problems I solve, my colleagues and boss are extremely supportive and give me the space to work independently and at the same time encourage me to take initiative. I can learn new things constantly on the job. The system is flexible and efficient and allows for great work life balance. I get enough time in the day to my own sports training and hobbies. The working in the sports lab offers me the opportunity to keep fit and active just through my work. I also have the option of cycling for 20 kms to work in the summer along the coast of Copenhagen and through the forests which is a damn cool way to get to work for someone who embraces sports and fitness.

How does your work benefit the society? 

At TrackMan, our motto is “unleash your potential”. We strive to use technology to help golf players improve their game and literally unleash their potential. It is a great tool for golf coaches to use as well. We also have a presence in Baseball, American football and Cricket. By introducing technology in sports, players can better understand their game which makes it more fun. This encourages more people to go out and play sport which leads to better mental health and a happier and healthier society. 

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

There was this one occasion where I got the opportunity to lecture a second-year university physics class using examples from sports. The lecturer was my advisor on a project I was doing on sports physics. Some students in the second year who were my friends approached me saying that they were struggling to grasp the lecture content. I had faced these issues for a long time being a part of the education system and after hearing this and knowing that the lecturer was my sports physics project advisor, I decided to do something about it. I discussed the possibility of me giving the lectures using examples from sports and I also committed to preparing electronic lecture notes which would complement the lectures. This was a unique opportunity to combine sports, physics and teaching for a cause that was related to improving the education system. I had 48 hours to prepare all the content. It was during this time that I had also challenged myself to run 100 kilometers in 10 consecutive days. I managed to stay up for 24 hours, prepare and deliver the lectures and manage my running. It was a challenging, unique and rewarding experience. It was not a very long project but a memorable one due to its uniqueness and circumstances.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

Every person is different and although it is advisable to listen to other experienced people and draw inspiration from their journeys, it is important to apply key ideas that resonate with you and combine that with your own way of doing things. Do not blindly follow others and always think for yourself. Try to live up to your own expectations and achieve your own goals rather than trying to please others. Be persistent and patient. Set realistic and small goals. Remember that your attitude, social skills and knowing yourself matters far more than grades or what the system expects of you in most cases.

Future Plans?

I wish to continue working at my role in TrackMan and continue to gain more experience about the different tools and techniques used in the sports technology industry.