U of T news
  • Follow U of T News

From Good to Gold: science and technology in high performance sport

Athlete Flavio Pagliero wears an instrumented face mask so Assistant Professor Greg Wells can study his response to extreme conditions (all photos by John Hryniuk Photography)

When Dave Ross first started coaching trampoline athletes in the 1970s, sport and science weren’t nearly as intertwined as they are now. 

“We didn’t have nutritionists, sport psychologists, or biomechanists,” he says of the days before trampoline became an Olympic sport. “There was no support for the team the way there is now.”  

But the “science-minded” Ross – a one-time physics student who manufactures trampolines in addition to coaching Olympians such as gold medalist and University of Toronto student Rosie MacLennan – appreciates just how much sports technology has advanced, particularly in the digital age. 

photo of Rosie MacLennan with young fanTiny body sensors (like those worn by MacLennan at right) can now measure body motion and muscle activity while athletes train.  A “wearable lab” in the form of an instrumented face mask can provide detailed information about heart and lung function in athletes, while they are training. And a cell phone app can now be used to gather real-time data about how stress and emotions affect a team’s performance during a game.

With the countdown underway to the Toronto 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games, all of these technologies and more were showcased May 12, at the Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport. The event was part of the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education’s eighth public symposium – made possible with support from U of T's senior advisor on science and engineering engagement, University Professor Molly Shoichet

More than 650 members of the public seized the opportunity to watch KPE professors demonstrate the latest innovations in sport science with the help of some of Canada’s top athletes. Ross participated in the event alongside MacLennan, who kicked things off with a spectacular trampoline routine for the crowd. 

With the help of wheelchair basketball player Flavio Pagliero, Assistant Professor Greg Wells demonstrated how the body’s systems respond to extreme conditions, including extremely intense physical exertion performed routinely by high performance athletes. Wells outfitted Pagliero with an instrumented face-mask called a spiroergometer. Via Bluetooth, the device collected data about Pagliero’s physiological responses to exercise such as heart rate, oxygen uptake, carbon dioxide output, respiratory exchange ratio, breathing rate, tidal volume, minute volume, and velocity of movement. 

With the data streaming to the huge digital scoreboard above the gym floor, Wells was able to point out the moment Flavio’s muscles were likely contracting hard enough to accumulate lactic acid, and show the audience how Pagliero’s breathing and heart rate quickened when they cheered him on for a free throw – useful information for athletes and their coaches.  

“We now have mobile technology that allows us to look at the human body in a non-invasive way,” Wells said. “It can give us real insights into what’s happening in competition-like situations.”

photo of Rosie MacLennan on trampolineNext up was Professor Tim Welsh who, with help from a GoPro® camera, demonstrated how MacLennan uses sensory cues to plan and control her actions while on the trampoline. As MacLennan flipped some 20 feet in the air, Welsh, whose research focuses on the cognitive and neural mechanisms that people use to achieve their movement goals, described how MacLennan was using visual and vestibular information to make very slight hand and arm movements to ensure a perfect landing and take-off each time.

“To make decisions,” Welsh said, “Rosie only has 0.3 of a second: about the same amount of time a professional baseball player has to decide whether or not to swing his bat. Whereas a baseball player, only needs to be successful 35% of the time to be considered a great hitter, Rosie needs to be right 100 per cent of the time. That’s pretty amazing when you think about it.”

Professor Katherine Tamminen demonstrated how a more ubiquitous form of technology is used in her research: the cell phone. Tamminen provided cell phones to wheelchair basketball players Pagliero, Sarah Black and Dani Bigu. The athletes recorded their emotions during the event, using Experience Sampler, an app created by researchers at U of T. The data was then compared to similar observations that had been recorded during the previous week.

 “We used to do this [sort of research] using pencil and paper survey, or with online surveys completed by athletes at home, in front of a computer,” said Tamminen. “Now, athletes are able to record their experiences, quickly, after games and practices. It makes data collection much easier.”

Tamminen’s work in the Sport and Performance Psychology Lab examines stress, coping, and emotions among high performance athletes. “I’m interested in not only how athletes’ emotions influence their functioning and performance,” she said, “but also, how those messages are communicated among teammates”. 

photo of Rosie MacLennan jumping on force plateFinally, Professor Tyson Beach, a biomechanist with the Faculty, took to the field house floor to show how he uses force and motion measurements to study athletic performance and risk of injury. Beach’s team creates mathematical models of the human body: “these help us understand how the movement system functions mechanically – from the standpoints of performance, durability and longevity.”

After attaching motion-tracking markers to MacLennan, Beach had her perform a series of drop jumps onto a force plate. The deceptively simple-looking metal square on the floor fed information to a computer and provided readings about the amount of power MacLennan could produce in a simple jump (far more, of course, than a non-Olympian would). Beach and his team use their research to develop assessment tools that can be applied by coaches in training environments. 

“This evening’s event truly is unique because it brings together something we are all very familiar with – sport - with a world that’s unknown to many of us sport science and research,” said Master of Ceremonies Tom Harrington of the CBC.

 “To have an opportunity like this one, in which we bring together athletes, coaches and researchers for live demonstrations to explore this impact is amazing.”