From the parabolic arc of a winning shot to the air pressure that makes the ball bounce, the game of basketball is math and science in motion.

Science of the Swish

Learn how STEM principles apply to this high energy sport

Chest Pass


Players use the force of their bodies, arms and fingertips to throw a chest pass to another player.

Passing and receiving a basketball both involve force. When a player throws a chest pass, she steps into the pass and pushes her arms out in order to give the ball an outward force. The receiving player has a better chance of holding on to the ball if he lessens the force by bending his arms slightly to increase the time the ball is in motion.

Bounce Pass

Axis of Rotation

Players use a horizontal axis of rotation to throw a bounce pass with backspin, topspin or no spin.

An axis is the center of an object. When you refer to the axis of rotation in a bounce pass, you are referring to the center of the basketball and the spin or rotation of the ball. Topspin helps a bounce pass travel farther, horizontally, while backspin makes the ball easier to catch because the friction of the ball hitting the floor slows the ball down.

Free Throw


Adding backspin to a free throw pushes the ball downward when the ball hits the backboard or the back of the rim.

When a player uses their fingertips to add backspin to a free throw, the ball will follow an arc toward the hoop spinning counterclockwise. When the ball hits the back of the rim or the backboard, the velocity of the ball changes as the spin of the ball is reversed. A ball with backspin is more likely to rebound into the net due to the change in velocity, angle and spin direction.

Jump Shot

Parabolic Arc

When a player takes a jump shot, the ball travels on a parabolic arc toward the basket.

The angle or arc a ball takes in route to the basket is determined by the force and angle applied by a player’s fingertips upon release. The greater the parabolic arc, the better the chance that the ball will go in the net, so players try to release the ball at the top of a jump shot to increase the height of the arc.

Bank Shot

Energy Transfer

Energy transfer from a backboard helps make a bank shot go in the net.

The spin on a ball traveling through the air is not as important as the spin on a basketball when it hits the backboard. When a ball makes contact with a backboard, the spin reverses and helps transfer the energy from the basketball, to the backboard, to the basket. This is why a ball with backspin has a greater chance of deflecting off the backboard and passing through the hoop.

Dribbling a Ball

Potential and Kinetic Energy

When players dribble a basketball, they are converting potential energy into kinetic energy.

When a player holds a basketball in her hands, the ball contains potential energy, energy that is stored and waiting to be used. When the player drops the ball on the floor, potential energy is converted to kinetic energy, or the energy of motion. As an object speeds up, energy is converted from potential to kinetic energy. When the ball bounces and returns to the player’s hands, kinetic energy turns back into potential energy.

Bounce of a Ball

Air Pressure

A basketball is filled with air molecules. Those air molecules collide with the inside of the ball creating a force called air pressure.

If you add air to a ball, you are also adding more air molecules. Adding air molecules will increase the number of collisions between the molecules and the inside of the ball. The result is increased air pressure. The greater the air pressure, the less the ball will deform when it hits the floor and the higher it will bounce.

Ball Handling

Kinesthetic Memory

When a basketball player repeatedly practices the ball handling skills needed to dribble the ball down the court, his body will develop kinesthetic memory or muscle memory revolving around that movement.

The human body has nerve endings that talk to the brain about repeated movements and the location of the body. When a ball player practices dribbling the ball over and over, the body and the brain remember that movement. Players with a good kinesthetic memory of dribbling become great ball handlers who are free to think about their next move on the court instead of thinking about dribbling the ball.



Vectors help a player create effective offensive and defensive strategies by helping her determine the best angles or paths to use to pass, cut and shoot.

A vector allows a basketball player to determine the position of one player in relation to another on a basketball court. Understanding vectors helps a player plan the best course or direction to use to score a basket or to prevent another player from scoring against you.

For Parents & Educators

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