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Professor who is really on the ball

From measuring the spin of a golf ball, Steve Haake has progressed to asking: ”How can we make the world a better place?” 

Over the last 25 years, Steve has visited dozens of sporting cities around the world while developing the science of sports engineering as part of Sheffield Hallam University’s Centre for Sport and Exercise Science

“When I started in 1990 we didn’t talk about obesity and type 2 diabetes and cancer. But we now know that physical activity can reduce the risk of death and the risk of chronic diseases and alleviate the symptoms of some of them. It really is the miracle cure. So how can we give people the opportunity to look after their own health?”

Steve and colleagues helped lead the growth of sports engineering as the Outdoor City became established as an international hotbed of sports science, but the science is now changing from the study of materials and objects for Olympians, to using the data and technology in a phone or sports watch to benefit much larger populations.

His work as founding director of Sheffield’s Advanced Wellbeing Research Centre is now more about helping the general public than elite sportspeople.

“As we get older as a population, we’re getting to where we just can’t sustain things as they are. At some point people are going to have to take control of their own health,” he says.

Steve has just published a popular science book ‘Advantage Play: Technologies That Changed Sporting History’ - “Just in time for Christmas,” he plugged.

Using his own personal anecdotes and experience from athletics, football, bobsleigh, paralympics, tennis and many more, it shows how sportspeople look for an advantage in the technology of their time, which may lead to rule changes (in cycling time trialling, for example) and more scientific breakthroughs until the sport eventually begins to settle down.

One new technology which has yet to find its way into sport is the e-bike. “It’s going to be a game changer for active travel,” Steve says.

Steve is now working with City Region mayor Dan Jarvis on his active travel strategy. “The situation now is not sustainable, because our cities were not built for the number of cars going into them, and currently we’re ruining our cities and our health. We need to turn it round so that travelling on foot or by bike becomes easier than sitting in a car for an hour a day travelling at five miles an hour.”

As the idea of a city centre congestion charge gains traction, Steve says: “I run to work, and part of my journey takes me past rows of queuing traffic, so I find myself wanting to say ‘Do you realise if you just walk in instead, you get better mental health scores, you’re activated for the day, you’ll have less risk of death and heart disease?’ Just the smoke inhalation in a car is greater inside the car than outside.”

Steve drives too, and he says the change for many people over coming years is going to be tough. He says infrastructure for walking and cycling needs to improve, and believes the ‘us and them’ attitude between car drivers, cyclists, runners and walkers has to change so we all just see ourselves as fellow travellers.

“But active travel has got to be part of the solution. I think in 25 years time, many of our children and grandchildren will be living in cities and saying ‘I can’t believe we used to let smoky buses and cars and taxis drive through the city centre.’”

He reflects on how his work has changed over the last generation. “It feels great. We’re trying to build a healthier and happier planet.”