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The Physics of Doing an Ollie on a Skateboard, or, the Science of Why I Can’t Skate

Skateboarding is hard.

When I was about 10, I broke my first skateboard by riding it into a ditch. A decade later, in college, I broke another skateboard within an hour of owning it (surely a record) in a short-lived attempt at doing an ollie. (Surprisingly, the store accepted a return on that board even though it was in two pieces.) Then I was gifted a really nice, high-quality skateboard. The first thing I did with it was ride it down a big hill, a valiant but ill-fated adventure which ended with me jumping off the skateboard, rolling down the grass, and arriving scraped up, deflated, and rather disoriented near the entrance to my college cafeteria. (In my defense, the wheels and ball-bearings on that skateboard had been pre-lubricated to minimize friction, and why would anyone do that, that’s just crazy.)

So believe me when I tell you that I am incredibly envious of skaters who can pull off tricks like this.

Now, I might not be able to skate to save my life, but I can do a little physics. So here’s a thought – maybe I can use physics to learn how to do an ollie. Here’s the plan. I’m going to open up the above video of skateboarder Adam Shomsky doing an ollie, filmed in glorious 1000 frames-per-second slow motion, and analyze it in the open source physics video analysis tool Tracker.

The first thing I did was track the motion of the front and back wheels (Tracker has a very convenient autotracker feature that can do this for you.)

ollie tracking optimized

One useful physics trick here is to track the center of mass of the skateboard, i.e. the average of the positions of the front and back wheels. Here is that curve overlapped in green.

ollie tracking with CM optimized

Now, if you were to do the same tracking exercise for a soccer ball that’s been kicked, you’d get a neat arc-like shape called a parabola. This is the characteristic shape you get when the only force influencing an object’s motion is gravity.*

But the green curve in the above gif — the motion of the center of mass of the skateboard — is nowhere close to being a parabola. It’s lumpy and weird. This means that gravity isn’t the only force affecting the skateboard. Unlike a soccer ball in mid-flight, a skateboard mid-ollie is being actively steered.

This is exactly what makes doing an ollie so hard. It’s not enough to get the skateboard up into the air – you also have to steer it while it’s in the air. Continue reading

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