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USATF Sports Science leads the way to the podium


By Emily Giambalvo, USATF Communications

Release velocity, flight trajectory, force plates — it sounds like physics class. But this is track and field practice.

Science and athletics, two notably different realms, intersect in USATF’s high performance department and propel Team USA’s athletes toward their full potential.

Since 2010, USATF associate director of sports science and medicine Robert Chapman, Ph.D., and his staff have traveled across the nation to work with USATF athletes and use technology to pinpoint areas for improvement. The effect of these small changes can remain prevalent when athletes compete on the world stage.

“If you look at differences between gold and silver or between fourth place and a medal, on average you're talking about a fraction of a percent difference in performance,” said Chapman, who is also an associate professor of kinesiology at Indiana University.

Members of Chapman’s staff hold Sport Performance Workshops with USATF’s top athletes that dive into the fields of sports science, sports medicine, nutrition and sports psychology. Biomechanists analyze an athlete’s technique and provide guidance for possible adjustments.

The team visits top athletes, many of whom are sprinters and hurdlers, about four times a year for these sessions. USATF also hosts a throws workshop at the Tucson Elite Classic and a distance workshop at the Payton Jordan Invitational.

Some athletes embrace sports science immediately. Others need to be convinced.

It boils down to a cost-benefit analysis, Chapman said. The athletes must realize that opting to attend the science-driven training opportunities can yield results that outweigh being away from home for a couple days.

“Once they do it once, they're hooked,” Chapman said. “The hardest part is getting them to get on the airplane and do the first one.”

And they’re captivated for good reason. 2012 Olympic athletes who participated in a Sport Performance Workshop improved their 2011 season-best mark 2.3 times more than the athletes eligible for the workshops who did not attend.

While assisting sprinters and hurdlers, Chapman’s team films the athletes. The video is played back in slow motion with a stick figure overlaying the athlete. The stick figure shows the optimal technique, which is tailored to gender, event, body segment lengths and pace.

This gives athletes a visual representation what they are doing compared to what they should be doing.

“This model is based on if you take hundreds and hundreds of sprinters and put their form in,” Chapman said. “It looks at the people who are fastest, what components do they have? The people who are slowest, what components they have? It runs it through the iterations and comes up with this model.”

Starting blocks are embedded with force plates that analyze the horizontal and vertical force applied when an athlete begins a race. For the throws, USATF’s sports science programs use Doppler radar to track the object’s flight, including the launch angle and velocity, curvature and a precise travel distance.

If this technology is in use during record-breaking throws, Chapman’s staff can pinpoint why the performance was so successful. Perhaps the athlete’s release height was slightly higher or the release velocity was a bit faster. Thanks to sports science, athletes can better understand which technical elements lead to success.

With the Olympic Games approaching, some of the focus on innovative uses of sports science shifts toward simply working to keep athletes healthy.

“At this point, trying to dissect Christian Taylor's long jump form is not as important as making sure Christian Taylor's tibia has not got a stress reaction,” Chapman said.

At all times during the quadrennium, USATF tier athletes or those who are eligible for Elite Athlete Health Insurance can receive medical services from St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis, as well as their hotel and flight, for a flat fee of $100 per visit. The USOC also has facilities in various locations where athletes can receive similar resources.

From helping athletes recover from injuries to using technology to provide guidance, USATF’s programs push its athletes closer to their goals.

In addition to USATF’s 28 medals at the 2012 Olympic Games, Team USA also had nine fourth-place finishes. Chapman’s staff continues to search for ways the athletes can land on the podium.

When asked if USATF’s sports science initiatives would impact the medal count when the world’s eyes turn toward sports this summer, Chapman’s response was simple.

“Absolutely,” he said.

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