Football is not just a game of emotions but a game of science as well, driven by the laws of physics, whether it is kicked in air or passed on the ground !

Rohith Timothy Katumalla, our next pathbreaker, PhD candidate at Yamagata University, Japan, researches the influence of different surface roughness parameters on footballs and how they affect their flight.

Tim talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about incorporating his passion for sports into a career by pursuing sports engineering and then working as a field/laboratory officer travelling to the stadiums around the world, to test sports surfaces based on standard guidelines.

For students, who says you cannot transform your passion for sports into a career, you first need to believe in yourself that this is possible !

Tim, can you walk us through Your background?

I grew up in Andhra Pradesh & Tamil Nadu, in India. I’m from a family of doctors, so it was slightly divergent for me to have liked maths and technology. I have always loved sports, especially football. I was also an avid footballer, and still try to play whenever I can. As I grew older, I found the distinct requirements and physics of each sport fascinating.

What did you do for graduation/post-graduation?

I pursued my passion for technology at GITAM University, Hyderabad, where I graduated with a degree in Mechanical Engineering focusing on Computational Fluid Dynamics and Theory of Machines. I researched how to incorporate my passion for sports into my career and came across Sheffield Hallam University’s MSc course in Sports Engineering and chose this over Advanced Mechanical Engineering courses in reputed universities in the US.

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

It was driven by my love for technology and sports. I didn’t have a mentor per se, but there were people throughout my life who supported me after I had made hard choices, like my family and current supervisor. When I made the decision to choose Sports Engineering over Mechanical Engineering for my post-graduation, I was choosing a new field with unknown prospects over a relatively straightforward path with a clear end. That was a hard decision, but one I have never regretted. There were and will be opportunities that have to be taken to ensure that you are still working in your field, but when you keep working towards your passion, it will be rewarding. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

During my master’s degree, I enjoyed everything about conducting research; literature review, methodology development, testing and finally, interpreting the results. I did my thesis with British sports manufacturer, Mitre, on the effects of seam volume on the stability of a football. Put simply, I observed how a football is affected by its surface roughness parameters like seams, seam depth, seam length, pimples/dimples etc. That’s when I knew that I wanted to pursue a career in research. But this was challenging due to a lack of funding for international students.

After completing my master’s degree, I was fortunate to get into the sports industry right away. I started working for Labosport, a world-renowned company that specialises in Sports Surface Testing, Consultation and Research. I did some testing of Goal Line Technology in football stadiums. Goal Line technology (GLT) is the use of camera technology to check if the football crossed the goal line, usually used for marginal calls that the assistant referee is unable to make. This information is then relayed, in a split second, to a watch worn by the referee. This ensures that the check is immediate with no interference to the flow of the game. 

I was the technical consultant for Labosport India based out of New Delhi. Most of my work with Labosport involved testing and accrediting sports surfaces, either on-site or in the laboratory. This meant travelling to the stadiums around the country and sometimes abroad, to test the sports surfaces. For example, if we had to test a football field, my focus was on testing and ensuring the field was built to the standard requirements set by FIFA. Since fields are built for different purposes, FIFA has different requirements ranging from international standards, right down to school playgrounds. Testing was done for:

  • surface-ball interaction – ball rebound, ball roll, ball pace and bounce, infill splash
  • surface-player interaction – shock absorption, energy restitution, vertical deformation, friction, head impacts
  • build quality – material levels, planarity, field dimensions, finishing
  • material quality – resistance to UV, resistance to ageing, resistance to abrasion, seam and tensile strength 

After testing, our report would be sent to the international federation for certification, in this case FIFA. This involved a lot of collaboration with international sporting federations (FIFA, FIH, ITF and WR) on testing standards and certification. Some clients would require more than just testing such as reviewing models of new projects. My role included working with sister international branches to develop sporting methods and tests, and attending/conducting seminars and work sessions in China, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Thailand, and Spain. 

How did you get your first break? 

I came across Labosport during my master’s degree, as they collaborated regularly with my university and recruited many past students. I had interviewed with them for positions in the UK and the US, but they had recently started their branch in India and hired me to be their first employee.  

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

The biggest challenges for students, especially for Indians abroad, are the visa regulations and consequently, the job prospects. Networking was a big help, if not immediately, definitely in the long run. It’s important to keep looking for opportunities and take them when you can, even if it means that you’re pursuing your dream passively. 

Where do you work now? Tell us what you do

Throughout my time at Labosport, I tried to find opportunities and funding to conduct research and do my PhD. During one of the seminars that I had given, I had the occasion to meet and discuss research opportunities with Prof. Kazuya Seo of Yamagata University. Our discussions led to the start of my PhD under his supervision earlier this year. My PhD is an extension of my master’s degree thesis, researching the influence of different surface roughness parameters on footballs and how they affect its flight. 

How does your work benefit Sports? Can you tell us more about a Sports Engineers role in Sports?

You can help design sports equipment that are used by the biggest sports stars, or you could explain why an equipment fails to perform the way it should!

If you remember the Jabulani (football manufactured by Adidas) from the 2010 World Cup, it was infamous for its instability through the air. When a ball goes through the air, a thin cushion of air (boundary layer) wraps around the ball. At slow speeds, with laminar flow, the boundary layer moves smoothly over the surface and separates off the sides of the ball at its widest points. This creates more drag, thereby slowing the ball. At faster speeds, the laminar flow turns turbulent, so the air moves turbulently over the ball surface and separates off the sides of the ball further behind the ball. This flow has less drag helping the ball move longer at high speeds. This change in the type of flow over the surface makes the ball wobble in the air. For the Jabulani, this change in the type of flow happened at the speed at which set-pieces are taken, so the ball was very unpredictable during these events. This helped Spain, as they were masters of the short pass, almost always keeping the ball on the ground. 

Another aspect of this was how the ball was designed and manufactured. The traditional football had 32 panels that were hand stitched with seams. Since the 2006 World Cup, footballs have been thermally bonded with fewer panels (14 at 2006, 8 at 2010, 6 at 2014 and 2018) making it smoother. This causes the ball to behave more like a beach ball, since the roughness caused by the seams triggers the flow over the ball to be turbulent. Since the Jabulani, Adidas has managed to overcome this by texturing the surface with pimples. This results in higher skin friction, but it causes the boundary layer to separate further behind, resulting in lower drag and better predictability.

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

The research I did with Mitre for my master’s thesis, was used to design Mitre’s Delta, their 200th anniversary football, which was pretty cool. 

While I was working with Labosport, I tested some stadiums that were used for international tournaments – Hockey World Cup 2019 and U-17 Men’s Football World Cup 2019.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

A few things that really helped me create my dream career were, firstly, getting a degree in the field that I wanted to be involved in. Since most of you are still starting out in your career, this would be the path that is easiest and practical. With a degree in Mechanical Engineering and Sports Engineering, my resume should stand out from thousands of applications that international companies receive. Networking is also crucial, especially during your years of education. It can be with companies at events and seminars, or researchers in-person and online. Some lecturers and professors are always willing to help, even after you’ve graduated. Make use of their experience and network. 

If you are passionate about a field, take whatever opportunities that will allow you to stay in that field. This means you can still network with influential people in the industry and explore other aspects of the field that you were not exposed to. This also gives you the experience that some companies look for and value. 

Future Plans?

My desire is to work in sports research either in academia or in the industry.