Physics of Olympian feats: Slap shot

· 3 min read

Physics of Olympian feats: Slap shot

Gay breaks down the physics on display at the Winter Games
Curt Bright & Mary Jane Bruce | University Communication
Video: Tim Gay explains the physics of a slap shot

For athletes, the Winter Olympics mark the culmination of a grueling four-year pursuit of gold, silver or bronze that demands time commitments and physical sacrifices inconceivable to most.

For viewers, they’re a source of entertainment, national pride, and often-obscure stories thrust into a global spotlight that shines for two weeks.

But for the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Tim Gay and his fellow physicists, the Winter Olympics are a masterclass in classroom physics applied on ice and snow. Though he’s best known for explaining the Newtonian physics at play on the gridiron, Gay recently helped Nebraska Today understand a few of the phenomena behind (and underneath and around) the athletic feats of the 2022 Winter Games.

Snapshot of a slap shot

If a twirling skater ranks among the most iconic sights of the Winter Games, the sound of a hockey player unleashing a slap shot rates among the signature sounds. To the hockey novice, it seems natural to assume that the “slap” originates from the blade of a stick striking the puck. But as any hockey player (or hockey-loving physicist) knows, the thunderous crack — and the secret to firing a shot on goal at more than 100 miles per hour — actually comes just before stick meets puck.

The classic slap shot begins with a player raising his stick to around shoulder height, then sweeping it downward and toward the puck as he shifts his weight from the back skate to the front. That combination of body movement and stick motion produces momentum, much of which transfers to the puck.

“But the shooter also uses a physics trick to get the puck moving even faster,” Gay said.

The trick? Slapping the ice with the blade of his stick about a foot in front of the puck. By doing so, a world-class player can bend the shaft of the stick backward by up to 30 degrees, storing potential energy in much the way an archer does when drawing back a bowstring. As the energy-loaded stick continues sweeping forward, it straightens, releasing that potential energy and transferring it directly to the puck. That gives the puck substantially more speed than a slap-less slap shot ever could.

“That’s how the greats like Terry O’Reilly play the game,” Gay said of the former Boston Bruin, who was also a favorite of Adam Sandler’s Happy Gilmore. “You might call it ‘the puck of the Irish’ — with a little bit of physics thrown in.”

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