5 ways to use sports during your kids' math lessons

Cassandra Negley
·8-min read

The COVID-19 crisis has forced parents to work from home while attempting to teach their kids something resembling a regular day of schoolwork. And they can’t even kick back with live sports at the end of all of it.

It’s approaching two full months since the sports world stopped and “safe-at-home” orders took root. Days merge into one another, but the work still has to be done. So if you’re missing sports but still need to teach your children something, here are five ways to combine the two tasks and maybe even get outside for some (safe) activities while doing it.

1. Averages

Level: Elementary school

The gist: An average, also known as the mean, is the “central” value in a set of numbers. It reflects the typical value in a set. That’s why we use it in baseball to estimate whether a batter will get a hit. And it in turn helps a manager decide the batting order.

Average = all the numbers added together ÷ how many numbers there are

Make it sports: Sports and averages go together like little else. Way before sports analytics and sabermetrics became buzz words, averages of all sorts were used to analyze players and compare their progress.

Put the kids to work: Start small with an activity like asking the average points a football team scores per three games if they have four field goals and two touchdowns total. Or any combination you want based on age.

Then go bigger, and make them find the stats. Mike Trout played in six games in September. In those contest, his at-bats were: 3, 3, 4, 3, 2, 0. His hits were: 1, 1, 0, 2, 0, 0.

The answer is the average number of hits per at-bat (hits divided by at-bats), which is a percentage when you move the decimal point over two times. (That’s another side lesson in itself.)

Continue the project with any player and any type of splits. And you don’t have to do the math yourself because it’s provided in available statistical breakdowns.

Oakland A's coach Ron Washington, left, high fives a young girl after teaching fielding to a group of Richmond, Calif. youth during a Chevron and Oakland A's youth baseball clinic at the O.co Coliseum on Thursday, July 21, 2016 in Oakland, Calif. Today, Chevron and Oakland Athletics teamed up to host a baseball clinic for Richmond youth to inspire science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) learning through the science of sports as part of Chevron's commitment to equipping youth with the critical skills they will need to succeed in jobs of the future. (Tony Avelar/AP Images for Chevron)
You miss sports. You're now in charge of homeschooling. Mix the two together. (Tony Avelar/AP Images for Chevron)

2. Graphs

Level: Elementary and up

The gist: A graph is a diagram showing the relationship between variables. The most basic is between two variables, with one listed along the horizontal “X” axis and another on the vertical “Y” axis. Line graphs are connect-the-dots types. Bar graphs are those where you color in the boxes. And there are of course pie charts (or circle graphs) to show different opinions, answers or categories that add up to 100 percent.

Make it sports: Graphs are useful to tell a story or show an emerging trend. It can show the salary distributions in the league, such as the difference in max contracts under the old WNBA collective bargaining agreement and the new one. A bar graph is useful to show the number of championships each team in a league has won. And a line graph shows the difference in attendance from one season to another.

Put the kids to work: If you’re a New England Patriots or Pittsburgh Steelers family, show your child how to build a bar graph by using the number of Super Bowl victories compared to everyone else in the league. Use a line graph to show the increase in pitching velocity on a year-over-year basis in MLB. Or the change in average scoring every season in the NBA. You could ask everyone on the Zoom call if they are OK with the Houston Astros stealing signs, have the kids tally the results and then build a circle graph to show it.

You can also check out “What’s Going on in This Graph?” at the New York Times.

3. Probability

Level: Elementary

The gist: Probability is based on fractions, so that would be the place to start. If you’re also baking during quarantine, you could start there by including your child in the process. Once fractions are already part of the repertoire, turn to probability. It’s the chance or likelihood that an event would occur. It’s a number between 0 and 1, where 0 is impossible and 1 is a definite.

Make it sports: Want to emphasize how lucky the New Orleans Pelicans were to win the 2019 NBA draft lottery and the rights to franchise-changing superstar Zion Williamson? That’s probability. It’s used a lot in sports with win probability increasingly showing up in game broadcasts.

Put the kids to work: Start younger kids with a coin toss game, such as the one that starts football games. If you flip it, what’s the probability it turns up heads and your team gets the ball? How about over a 16-game schedule? Record the outcomes.

Turn to overall probability for your team winning the championship. Now obviously, if you’re a New York Knicks fan the chance is slim to none based on recent history, players, ownership choices, etc. But purely from a numbers standpoint, the Knicks have a 1/30 chance of winning.

If there are 10 swimmers at the Tokyo Olympics racing for a medal, what’s the probability a swimmer will win gold? What about winning a medal at all? The options are endless.

Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout hits a RBI-single against the Boston Red Sox during the second inning of a baseball game in Anaheim, Calif., Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
The Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout is hitting the ball at an acute angle. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)

4. Angles

Level: Elementary and up

The gist: An angle is the space between two intersecting lines. Also the space between surfaces at or close to a point where they meet. An angle is usually measured in degrees.

Make it sports: The launch angle in baseball and softball is the most fun way to learn about angles and their importance in everyday life. That’s the vertical angle at which the ball leaves the player’s bat after being hit. It helps determines where the ball will land in the field of play. Of course, there are angles all over the place in sports, from how a stadium is built, to the best views in the place and how to pursue the ball carrier in football.

Put the kids to work: For the younger kids, teach the different types of angles: acute, right, obtuse, straight, reflex and full rotation. They can think of it in terms of hitting a baseball, and if it’s in the field of play, a home run, a pop-up to the catcher or behind the backstop. Rewatch baseball clips and go over the launch angle category each hit must be in for the result.

The guideline, via MLB: A ground ball is less than 10 degrees, a line drive is between 10 and 25 degrees, a fly ball is between 25 and 50 degrees, and a pop-up is greater than 50 degrees. Draw it on a piece of paper, then take them out to hit balls.

The Khan Academy and the San Francisco 49ers Museum Education Program teamed up to explain geometry in football. After reading through it, watch some old footage of your favorite games and have your child explain the angles involved and why it’s important. What angle is Troy Polamalu flying at the running back? Approximately what angle should a kicker use for at 15-yard field goal? What about at 55?

5. Graph Theory

Level: College (Impress their teachers, while also letting the kids color!)

The gist: Graphs are used to model situations and networks as a type of connect-the-dots game. Graph theory is simply the study of lines and points. It is a sub-field of mathematics that studies the relationship between edges and vertices. But that’s too deep for this teaching lesson.

Make it sports: Graph theory helps schedule tournaments, from a basic six-team Little League round robin to even NFL scheduling with its litany of scenarios. But, again, we won’t go that deep. The basics allow us a way to visualize problems and their solutions.

Put the kids to work: There are four teams playing in a youth league round-robin tournament. So everyone plays each other once.

Easier: To see how many games there will be in total, label the teams (A, B, C, D will do) and write them on a piece of paper. Writing them as four corners of a box is the easiest for kids. These are the vertices.

Now, draw a line from each letter to every other letter, making sure there’s only one line between each set of letters. The number of lines, or edges, is the number of games that will need to be played in the tournament.

There’s also a mathematic way to do it. The number of edges of a complete graph with “n” vertices (in this case four) is n(n-1)/2. In this case, it’s 4(4-1)/2 = 6.

More difficult: Let’s plan the schedule of this tournament. Write out the teams again. Now when you draw the lines, use different colors to connect the teams. Make sure that the team doesn’t have two lines of the same color from it.

To do this: Start with green and draw a line from A to B. The only other line that can be drawn without one coming from A is a line from C to D. Next up use a different color, say yellow, and start at A to C. The only other line is B to D. Use a third color and draw the remaining lines that can be drawn: B to C, A to D. Now the combinations of the same colors (AB, CD; AC, BD; AD, BC) are the ones that play at one time so that a team isn’t double-booked.

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