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For Team USA Athletes, Data Analytics Offer New Answers To Training And Injury Prevention Challenges

By Lynn Rutherford | Nov. 12, 2020, 10:26 a.m. (ET)

 Deanna Price competes in the Women's Hammer Throw final day two of 17th IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019 at Khalifa International Stadium on September 28, 2019 in Doha, Qatar. 

 

In February, when temperatures at home in Carbondale, Illinois, regularly dip below 30 degrees, Deanna Price packs her bags and heads to the Elite Athlete Training Center in Chula Vista, California.

A main draw, of course, is the climate: a pleasant 67 degrees or so, offering an optimal training environment all winter long. Another benefit is TrackMan, the high-technology analytical program that helped Price win the country’s first-ever world championships medal in hammer throw — a gold — at last year’s event in Doha, Qatar.

“It’s very, very cool — they do a camera in the back (of the throwing circle) and a camera in the front, and they have the TrackMan (device) right there on the side,” said Price, a 2016 Olympian.

“Every time you throw, it hooks up directly to the computer. Whenever you take a throw, you walk over and see the metrics and then look at your video and it shows your release angle. ... It’s just very, very cool.”

Price is one of scores of athletes who have benefitted from the cutting-edge resources offered by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee’s sports technology team, whose mission is to discover and integrate applied technologies into training regimens and help athletes and coaches better assess and enhance performance.

Much of that technology was explored at the third annual USOPC Athlete 360 Data Summit, held Nov. 2-5. For the last two years, national governing body (NGB) team members and other stakeholders gathered in Colorado Springs, Colorado, for the meeting of service providers, data analysts and other industry professionals; this year, due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, some 250 NGB employees joined the conference online.

“Our content is built for the high-performance staff and people who work with information and data as part of their jobs evaluating athletes, as well as the health professionals working with Olympic and Paralympic athletes on a day in, day out basis,” Scott Riewald, the USOPC senior director of high-performance projects, said.

When laymen hear the term “data,” they may think first to the number of repetitions of a training exercise, or the number of times an athlete like Price might practice a throw. But according to Riewald, the study is deep and multi-faceted.

“There are a large number of layers that you can go into when you start talking about data and ways to support athletes that go far beyond counting the number of times that something might happen,” he said. “It’s about really looking into the fabric, the fiber of what factors contribute to an athlete’s success, and where there are opportunities for another athlete to step up and improve what they are doing.”

Presentations ranged from a panel discussion about technology and data in pro sports, led by representatives from the Los Angeles Dodgers, Philadelphia Flyers and New York Mets, to a presentation by Johnathan Robertson, president and managing director of TG Capital and a USOPC trustee, on how to apply lessons from finance to data analysis in sports. The third day of the conference was devoted to NGB members presenting promising technology utilization in their sports.

Data analytic capabilities vary across the more than 40 NGBs, ranging from those with strong expertise to some who might not yet have dedicated sports technology staff.

“We have a wide range of presentations; some chew down the middle, some maybe come in at the ground level to help those who don’t have the resources, and some are pretty high level to stimulate and challenge,” Riewald said, adding that follow-up conversations with USOPC staff are available and encouraged.

The way data is collected and tracked also varies from sport to sport, ranging from self-entry, where the athlete logs and enters the information into a Google document that is shared with a coach, to applications that do much of that work automatically.

“The dream is to integrate variables more and more, so you can take the burden of recording out of the hands of the athlete and coach, and capture the data automatically with an app that gets shared back to the coach,” Riewald said.

That certainly describes the technology that helps track and field athletes like Price, who began working with TrackMan and a similar program, FlightScope, a few years ago.

“They send us the information, and I try not to look at it too much,” Price said. “My husband, J.C. Lambert, is my coach and the throw coach for SIU (Southern Illinois University), and he is the one who digs in deep. I’m like, ‘I’ll throw the best I can, just tell me what I need to do ’— that type of thing.”

For Price, the keys are gaining the ability to review her throwing speed as well as the release angle of her throws.

“It helped me huge,” she said. “It’s all about how much force can I apply, while sticking the finish and hitting the correct release point. That is what we were really focusing on.”

Beyond performance, a key goal of the USOPC sports technology team is to use data analytics to help prevent injuries. The whole of Day 2 of the conference focused on training work monitoring.

“Our presenters explained the need to capture injury data before we build prevention programs, because you need to understand the severity and frequency of the injury and illness before you start to work out your prevention program,” Dave Taylor, USOPC associate director of integrated health and athlete performance, said.

“We often take the duration of activity and multiply it by the intensity of activity to come up with a training load metric,” he added. “Some groups do this subjectively by just asking athletes; others try to objectively quantify it by technology.”

Lindsay Slater, sports sciences manager for U.S. Figure Skating, delivered a presentation on how her NGB uses accelerometer-based technology to understand jump loads, both to help athletes perfect their jumps and to prevent injuries.

Working with a technology company called 4D Motion, Slater and her colleagues in U.S. Figure Skating’s high-performance group provide Olympic-track athletes with sensors, about the size of a watch face, to clip on to their hips during on-ice practices. Real-time information is gathered by the app and sent to Slater, whose academic home is the University of Illinois Chicago, for analysis.

“This is a way to automate the (data-gathering) process so I know how many jumps athletes are doing, both performance-based and then for those returning after an injury,” Slater said. “We get metrics we can use, whatever (the athlete’s) goals are.”

In recent years, multiple quadruple jumps have dominated men’s figure skating. Two-time world champion Nathan Chen, who has executed five different quads in competition, is rumored to be working on a quad axel, a jump comprising four and a half revolutions. On the women’s side, competitors like Mariah Bell and Bradie Tennell seek to develop triple axels, a jump they may need to compete technically with their Russian and Japanese counterparts.

Slater, who continues to work with 4D Motion to refine the algorithm so it is better tailored to figure skating, envisions a day when she can get a time-stamped estimate of jump height and air time on every jump a skater does in practice, to deliver timely training suggestions.

“For some athletes, it’s getting them to rotate faster, so we can hopefully include triple axels or quads in the future,” Slater said. “For others, they have a different jump technique where they’re not getting a lot of height and they’re clearly relying on really fast jump speeds to accomplish the jump. So, for some athletes, we’re working on power and getting a little more height, so they have less reliance on the peak velocity measure.”

Of course, no matter how effective data analytics may become, science will never supplant a good coach’s role in athlete development. Rather, collecting meaningful data sets can help take the guesswork out of training and lead athletes to more purposeful practices.

“Our feeling is that data should never be the sole thing to drive a decision,” Riewald said. “You have the art of coaching and athlete development, and you have to find the balance between the two. Often, data will provide that validation and augmentation to what a coach already believes. In other instances, it will provide a different perspective and open eyes to new ways to approach training.”

Lynn Rutherford

Lynn Rutherford is a sportswriter based out of New York. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.

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