How to Make a Better Athlete

(Photo: sawyerlaw)

Olympic athletes have become increasingly reliant on scientists as advisers. A Wired article by Mark McClusky explores the efforts of sports scientists to improve athletic performance as gains have become harder to achieve. The Australian Institute of Sport is leading the charge; its success is best-demonstrated by an example from the skeleton, a sledding event that was recently reintroduced as an Olympic event:

They determined that one significant predictor of success had nothing to do with the sled itself or even the skill of the pilot. The faster a competitor pushed the sled through the 30-meter start zone before jumping on it, the better they performed. So researchers set up a national testing campaign, looking for women with backgrounds in competitive sports who excelled at the 30-meter sprint. They also evaluated candidates to see how well they responded to feedback and coaching. Eventually, they picked a group of 10 athletes—including track sprinters, a water skier, and several surf lifesavers, an Australian sport that requires sprinting through sand.

The athletes were given access to the best coaching, equipment, and sports science. Every training and competitive run was analyzed and dissected as coaches looked for places to improve start and steering techniques. Specialized strength and conditioning programs targeted the needs of the sport, especially explosive power and sprint speed.

The program was a success: An Australian racer qualified for the Olympics just 18 months after she first saw a sled. Amazingly, she had completed only 220 runs before qualifying. (A typical US skeleton racer makes upwards of 2,000 runs before appearing in the Olympics.)

(HT: Marginal Revolution)

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  1. Mike B says:

    If a sport that is arguably about sliding down an ice chute relies so much on the initial running start perhaps the timing point should be modified to take that out of the equation and focus on the parts that belong in the winter Olympics.

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    • kilroy says:

      I could be wrong, (link is blocked at work) but the way I read it, it’s not that the winning margin is all from the initial run, but that a faster initial run leads to faster sledding time. So if sledder A runs the 30 meter sprint a second faster than sledder B, then the winning margin wont just be that one second. Sledder A’s will slide faster the rest of the race becasue of the quicker start time.

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    • drewski says:

      It’s not about the speed the slider goes through the start zone, it’s the amount of energy they put into the sled. More energy = faster speed = faster sliding = quicker time.

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      • Mike B says:

        Whatever the reason if the sled started from a stop on a downslope with no running start then the final time would only reflect one the driver handled the sled on the ice.

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  2. Mike says:

    Didn’t I see the same story in Cool Runnings?

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  3. James says:

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    • kilroy says:

      It’s purely opinion, but for me the fun has always been the challenge. Both from your opponent and trying to improve yourself. So it’s less fun in a happy, joyful way, than in a satisfying way.

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      • James says:

        Can’t see it myself. From the description it’s not all that much different from taking the old American Flyer sled out to the neighbors’ hill, which was fun to do when I was a kid (and still is!), but larded with rules and requirements for special-purpose tracks & equipment, so that it becomes something only done in jingoistic pursuit of Olympic* medals.

        *Is that a copyright violation?

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  4. A.Davies says:

    It’s not killing the fun, because for every lifesaver who takes up some dumb northern event, there’s a sun-deprived northerner who’s forced out of skeleton and into surf lifesaving.

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  5. Erik Jensen says:

    Gains should be easy in obscure sports such as skeleton. I live in an area where winter Olympic sports are common and I don’t know a single skeleton athlete. Next thing you know, there will be an Albanian revolution in the “sport” of curling. Show me the scientist who is improving downhill skiing with a person doing 220 runs and I’ll be impressed.

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  6. James Briggs says:

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  7. Mike says:

    I don’t think Skeleton is the best example to demonstrate an increasing reliance on science in sports.

    So few people have access to this sport that it shouldn’t be surprising that these few people aren’t nearly as athletic as the typical Olympic athlete. Add some real athletes into the mix and its not that mind-shattering that results might improve.

    I have a thought for the US track and field team. Abolish football and make all those 300-400lb linemen throw the shot put. And lets see how Kevin Durant would do in the high jump.

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    • Joshua says:

      Or, make the 300-400lb linemen high jump and make Kevin Durant throw the shot put.

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      • Mike says:

        I’d expect the linemen would start looking a lot slimmer and Kevin Durant to have more visible muscles.

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