How new technology is changing sport

Gené Stephan | March 2017

A collaborative Gold Coast effort involving elite athletes, coaches and research scientists, using cutting edge technology, is providing Australian sport with an advantage over the rest of the world.

Bond University has developed a close working relationship with elite programs in swimming, triathlon, sprint canoeing, BMX cycling and Australian Rules Football in a bid to uncover sport’s winning edge.

Sports scientists around the globe have long been consumed with finding the magic ingredient which differentiates good athletes from great athletes while avoiding injury under the strain of competition and training.

Associate Professor Justin Keogh, from Exercise and Sport Science at Bond University, said scientists are constantly looking for ways to improve performance without the risk of injury.

When athletes are injured it is difficult for them to carry the required training load to improve performance.

“Sports science is focussed on the physical components like aerobic fitness, muscle strength and how they relate to performance. All those characteristics are equally important irrespective of whether you play AFL, netball or cricket,” Keogh said.

“We are interested in assisting with skill acquisition and therefore better aiding coaches to prepare their athletes for the highest level of competition. We don’t get involved in tactical decisions – sport science is focussed on strength and conditioning.”

He said one of the greatest challenges was the need for coaches to have immediate data available and to balance that with the scientific necessity of information reliability.

“In high performance sport a minute difference could determine victory or defeat. However, that difference has to be greater than the tolerance for error which means the information we gather has to be absolutely reliable,” Keogh said.

He said there has been an explosion in new technology in recent years which has enabled sports scientists to do their jobs more efficiently using relatively inexpensive applications with the help of Global Positioning Systems (GPS).

Professor Peter Reaburn, the head of Bond’s Exercise and Sports Science program, said the university has a number of exciting projects where technology is being utilised within the research area and in particular high performance sport.

“We have a very close research relationship with the Gold Coast Suns through their sports science coordinator John Bartlett,” Reaburn said.

The relationship involves six post-graduate students working on three projects supervised by Bartlett.

“That industry link with the university is critical in terms of making these PhD projects a success,” he said.

“Each of those PhD projects uses technology – video analysis and GPS tracking technology, worn by the athlete, which is one of the big changes that has taken place during the past two decades.

“Technology used to be big and cumbersome but we have now moved into micro technology.

“Athletes are now able to wear the technology rather than the data being collected and downloaded. Information is being collected instantaneously while the athlete is playing or training for the sports scientist to consider from the sideline.

“That allows coaches and conditioning staff to make real-time decisions and that is what rehabilitation specialists are looking for.”

Reaburn said researchers and post graduate students historically used to drive high performance research using elite athletes to help them reach conclusions in their areas of study.

But in modern times an increasing number of high performance sports have appointed sports science coordinators who act as conduits between universities and elite programs.

“The modern academic and post graduate student would speak to the sports science co-ordinator and coach, to determine how their research ideas could assist the sport,” he said.

“That is always the best option – for the sport to lead academia, that way the sport and sports scientists all benefit.

“We listen to what they want and we provide the academic rigour and the post graduate students to help research questions to be answered.”

Bond has a PhD student working with senior AIS sports physiologist Eric Haakonssen at the BMX high performance centre at Pizzey Park and another with Olympic coach Richard Scarce who heads up the university’s high performance swim program.

The BMX research is looking at how to improve a cyclist’s reaction time on the starting blocks and power off the ramp. The swimming research is investigating the distance covered over the first five metres of the swim and the turn times of the swimmer using new technology.

Masters of sports science students linked with the Queensland Reds rugby team are using modern techniques and technology to advance the rehabilitation of elite players and reforming their strength and conditioning practises.

And in netball Bond’s Masters students are using heart rate monitoring technology in their work with the Bond Jaguars in the Queensland State League.

They are also looking at the intensity of game play versus training drills using heart rate technology.

“We work intimately with the coach and the sports science staff in each sport. That relationship between the academic sport science staff, the coaching staff and the sport’s science staff are key to the success of a project,” Reaburn said.

“That relationship is what will make or break a project.”

Haakonssen said the two BMX projects he has been working on both affected performance.

“The first project looks at reaction time – how quickly the cyclist sees the pulse at the start gate and trying to develop technology that will measure that,” he said.

“We are putting together a program to see if we can train the athlete to react more quickly to that pulse using innovative technology.”

He said the second project, was a collaborative effort involving Keogh and PhD student Josephine Grigg.

“Her thesis is looking at the biomechanics of the early gate start movement – the first two or three pedal cranks and trying to quantify those movements for the coaches to have a good idea of the way an athlete should move to generate the most power and move down the start ramp,” Haakonssen said.

“It involves some of the world’s best athletes and others at development level, trying to identify the physical characteristics that differentiates the world class and world best gate starters from development and top level athletes.

“She is also looking at those athletes to see how variable their movements are at the gate, start to identify where there are differences between winning athletes and other athletes and whether there is a relationship with good gate starters and others.”

Being considered are how quickly the arms move, how quickly the hips move and the range of body movement by using video technology.

Grigg has also written sophisticated software that will allow the researcher to take the information from the video, to report back to the coach, to determine what constitutes a good gate start and come up with information to assist the athletes to better quality performances.

This information has the potential to benefit established, developing and intermediate elite athletes.

“The good thing about this program is that it has implications for the full spectrum of athletes,” Haakonssen said. 

He said critical pieces of information, such as the BMX study, has potential benefit to athletes in other sports.

One of the shifting areas in sport science research has been the imbedding of scientists within specific codes, such as on the Gold Coast, for researchers to have closer relationship with athletes in their training environment.

“The nice thing for me as a sports scientist has been working with national BMX coach Wade Bootes. He has had a long standing relationship with sports scientists and a strong appreciation of how sports science can benefit his work,” Haakonssen said.

“He asks really good questions and has a good understanding of how we can all collaborate to benefit sport.”

Bootes said his role as coach is to challenge researchers to arrive at the best answers.

“We would like to challenge and push the athletes in all areas with innovation and technology to the betterment of every athlete and Australia.”

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