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Technology Helps Athletes Get An Edge

Sports technology is making it possible for athletes to further improve their form, from analyzing video to simulating fluid dynamics.

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The great thing about sports is the fact that all athletes compete with each other under fair conditions. Working hard in competition with each other leads to sportsmanship. However, merely relying stoically on hard practice, an athlete could get hurt or may not be able to perform to the fullest capacity at the important main event. In addition to practicing, thoroughly investigating other teams or athletes’ characteristics and performance data can be another important factor in winning.

In sports, the fact hasn’t changed that running hard, strengthening your muscles, and practicing to train your body are the basic requirements for getting stronger.

Traditionally, practicing harder than anybody else was considered the only way to get stronger. Baseball practices have made much of the “thousand ball drill,” in which a fielder is forced to field one thousand balls every day. It has also been said that increasing the number of practice swings to 1,000 or even 2,000 a day will improve players’ ability to hit the ball. If a player could not do that many, he was considered lacking in willpower.

Of course, while a player’s skill level is still low, the amount of practice may lead to results. However, once the player has mastered most of the skills and has built a body appropriate to an athlete, knowledge for further improving performance increases in importance. Unless athletes think hard about techniques to beat the opponent and the optimal conditions to do so, they will not be able to produce results. For example, sumo wrestlers can repeatedly watch videos of an upcoming opponent in an effort to figure out how to move the match into the style of sumo wrestling they are best at.

Using both your head and data

A video recorder can, in a sense, be considered part of the technology for winning. Watching a video to uncover your opponent’s weak points and determining the way to move the match to the form you are best at will improve your winning rate. A wrestler may practice single-mindedly, but if he doesn’t watch any videos, the opponent in an actual match could focus on his weakest area, not allowing him to wrestle in the way he prefers and costing him the match. In other words, if a useful technology has become available, not using it would be foolish. The days of prioritizing grit, when one had only to practice hard, are long gone.

Thinking about what he needs to do to win, an athlete who adopts available technologies, finds out the most advantageous conditions for winning, and then learns and masters them improves his winning chances. In the past, this technology might have been a notebook or personal computer. An excellent example of this was the data-driven baseball management utilized by Coach Katsuya Nomura.

Athletes might have jotted down the opposing team’s athletes’ habits and characteristics in detail and stored them as a database. If you were a pitcher, you would have kept records of the types of pitch the opposing team’s batters were good or bad at hitting and then thrown pitches that hit their weak spots, increasing your chances of shutting batters out.

Utilizing fluid dynamics

The suitability of the wide variety of available technologies varies depending on the specific sports field. In ski jumping, simulations based on fluid dynamics have long been used. Ski jumping demands that competitors achieve the longest jump possible in a graceful form. When gliding down from the starting point, competitors try to maintain as fast a speed as possible before taking off from the take-off table. Although they can only descend after take-off, they try to extend their jump distance by remaining airborne, riding the buoyancy as long as possible (figure 1).


Fig. 1: Ski jumping form approaches that of an airplane wing. Source: Yamamoto and Tsubokura, “Fluid Dynamics of Ski Jumping,” Journal of the Society of Biomechanisms Japan vol. 42 No. 3, and “Jumping Using the Buoyancy of the Skis and Body—Okurayama Ski Jump Stadium”

The optimal posture conditions for this purpose are, first, a posture that reduces air resistance leading up to the take-off table and then a posture that increases buoyancy after take-off. The air flow ideal for these two postures is determined by solving fluid dynamics equations. This requires solving a three-dimensional equation rather than a simple planar two-dimensional equation. As a result, the present-day style has evolved in which the jumper maintains a crouching posture with both arms extended rearward up to the take-off table and then keeps a V-shaped posture in which the body is tilted forward nearly parallel to the skis.

Visualizing the air resistance

Fluid dynamics can be used to express and visualize how air flows act on the human body. Visualization can be achieved using lines to express air flows or using colors to express thinner and denser air. In speed skating and short-distance bicycle racing, fluid dynamics simulations have come to visually demonstrate that the leading racers are subjected to the strongest wind and expend energy.

In the past, postures with the least air resistance were determined using a wind tunnel experiment, in which a giant fan was used to create wind to check air flows visually. More recently, however, numerical computations using supercomputers and high-performance computing (HPC) are able to visualize air flows. The optimum posture can be determined by varying the posture orientation and computing the posture that receives the least air resistance.



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