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SYFY WIRE Physics

The Science Behind Dodgeball: Why It's Actually Harder to Dodge a Ball Than a Wrench

Harder, but not as scary.

By Cassidy Ward
Justin (Justin Long) gets hit by a dodgeball in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004).

The 2004 sports comedy Dodgeball (streaming now on Peacock) starring Ben Stiller, Vince Vaughn, Christine Taylor, Justin Long, and Resident Alien's Alan Tudyk, introduced the world not only to the sport of competitive dodgeball but also to the misguided wisdom of Patches O’Houlihan (Rip Torn). Patches taught us indispensable wisdom like the five Ds of dodgeball: dodge, duck, dip, dive, and dodge. He taught us that dodgeball is a sport of violence, exclusion, and degradation, which is why it survives mostly in high schools. And he taught us that if you can dodge a wrench, you can dodge a ball.

Now, we wouldn’t normally be so bold as to walk in here and question the expertise of the great Patches O’Houlihan, but we’re not so sure that last bit of advice holds up to scrutiny. Patches is trying to sell us on the idea that it’s harder to dodge a wrench than a ball, and that the skills of dodging one translate to dodging the other. It makes a sort of intuitive sense, but we’re not sure it’s true.

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Dodging a Wrench Might Actually Be Easier Than Dodging a Ball

Unfortunately, we couldn’t get any ethical review boards to sign off on letting us put Patches to the test, so we’re going to have to think through this one. There are ways in which dodging a wrench would be more difficult. Foremost among them is the influence of fear. All the force of the throw is concentrated into an unforgiving mass of metal, flying your way. Even if it isn’t more difficult than dodging a ball, the cost of failure is way higher.

What about speed? A regulation dodgeball is going to have more air resistance than a wrench, so it will travel a bit more slowly. That might make dodging a wrench a little more difficult, but at the distances involved in dodgeball, it’s not likely to make much of a difference. Pro-level ballers throw at an average speed of 57 miles per hour, or 84 feet per second. That’s plenty fast to cross the entire 60-foot distance of an average dodgeball court.

The thing is: Dodging isn’t just about speed, it’s about foresight, and for that you need to know how the thing you’re dodging is going to behave. In its purest form, dodging is the act of being where something else isn’t. It’s pretty tough to avoid something if you don’t know where it’s going to be. While getting hit by a wrench would be painful, its high density makes it cut through the air in a more or less straight line. It might topple topsy turvy as it flies, but it’s not going to veer from its path. Predictable.

An inflated or foam sphere on the other hand, has low mass and high surface area. It’s going to interact with the air around it a lot more than a wrench would, and that’s going to make it harder to track. If we were playing dodgeball in a vacuum, then the wisdom of Patches O’Houlihan might hold true, but in the fluid atmosphere of Earth things are a little more complicated.

White Goodman(Ben Stiller), Fran (Missi Pyle), and Me'Shell Jones (Jamal Duff) stand in their dodgeball uniforms in Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004).

We don’t often think of the atmosphere as a fluid, in fact we don’t often think of the air at all, but just watch a skydiver gently float to the ground dangling from a parachute and you’ll be reminded that the air is made of stuff. When you throw a wrench through the air, it’s so dense that the air can’t really exert much influence, but lighter objects like balls can play with the air, especially when they are spinning.

Whether intentionally or not, a thrower inevitably exerts some spin on a ball when it’s released. That spin obviously acts on the ball, causing it to rotate, but it also acts on the air around the ball. Air moves faster in the direction of spin, creating a difference in air pressure which moves the ball in the same direction. This behavior, known as the Magnus effect, is similar to Bernoulli’s principle, which is key to understanding lift in powered flight. When a spinning ball is thrown, “lift” is generated in the direction of the spin, allowing the thrower to lob curveballs or toss balls that suddenly jump up or down when you least expect it. You might dodge your way right into its path without even knowing it.

Dodging a wrench is definitely scarier, but it’s not necessarily harder. Just because you can dodge a wrench, doesn’t mean you can dodge a ball. Or vice versa.

Then again, you can’t argue with results. Catch the ultimate underdog story in Dodgeball, streaming now on Peacock.