Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

ScienceJuly 30, 2021

The cutting-edge tech helping NZ athletes shave seconds from their times

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

When our Olympic athletes train for their events, it’s no longer enough to have a coach standing on the sidelines keeping an eye on what’s going on. These days, performance monitoring tech is now a staple in every top New Zealand athlete’s training regime. Mirjam Guesgen reports.

With the powerful pull of the oars, a boat slices through the water. Rhythmically, the oars cut the water’s surface, disappear for a moment under the waves, and heave the boat forward.

On another boat, a coach watches the numbers come in: heart rate of the athlete, how many pulls of the oars they’re making each minute, the force the athlete puts through the oars and how fast the boat is moving. Later that data is uploaded to a computer to track the athlete’s performance gains over time.

It used to be that a rowing coach relied on 500 metre split times to get a sense of how their athlete was doing. Now, they have more data than ever to work with.

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re not going to improve,” says Simon Briscoe, head of innovation at High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ). He’s part of a team that develops technology, or “bespoke solutions”, to make our athletes – including those currently competing in the Tokyo Olympics – perform better.

Part of that is building ultra-light or strong gear for athletes to use on competition day, but the majority of the team’s work is around data collection and analysis, and using it to enhance training.

“You’re getting this real picture… that’s enhancing the coaching process so that decisions are made on data as opposed to a feel,” says Stafford Murray, general manager for performance support at HPSNZ.

The Rover, a data-logging and sharing instrument mounted in rowing and canoe boats, is one of Briscoe and Murray’s inventions. It uses GPS tracking of the boat and sensors mounted on the oars to give coaches an insight into how a training session is going in real time.

And it’s highly accurate and repeatable. “It’s not phone-level GPS,” says Briscoe. They can get the position of the boat down to a few centimetres and deliver data around four times every second. Plus a coach knows that if their athlete clocks a half a second difference in their next session, it’s down to something on the water, not something in the device.

The Rover (Photo: High Performance Sport New Zealand/Brent Phibbs/Photosport)

There’s a similar setup for all water and bike events – rowing, canoe sprint, sailing, track cycling, you name it.

It’s a real shift from just a few decades ago, when coaches only had a few technological tools to aid them. The lack of tools meant they could only recall trainings accurately around 30-40% of the time.

The innovation age started with more efficient note taking in the ’70s, followed by watching and analysing videos of a training session on the bus ride home in the ’80s, to now, when sport analytics and sports tech innovation are jobs in and of themselves.

The innovation team dream up and build the tech, then the analyst’s job is to capture the relevant data and translate it into something the coach and athlete can use.

The tech itself is not enough, says Briscoe. If the relationship between coach and athlete isn’t there, it all falls apart. “That triad between the analyst, coach and athlete is really quite special,” he says.

It’s also the analyst’s job to tell the innovation team what goal the coach and athlete are trying to reach. Sometimes, that goal is being a few thousandths of a second faster than the other guy.

Part of that goal-setting comes back to data. Based on previous year’s performances (how fast, high, far someone ran or jumped), HPSNZ will use predictive analysis tools to calculate the record times, distances or scores they expect athletes to achieve at the next Olympics. The more data they can collect, the better.

Rowers Grace Prendergast and Kerri Gowler of Team New Zealand celebrate winning gold during the Women’s Pair Final A at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on July 29, 2021. (Photo: Naomi Baker/Getty Images)

Sports data science is a game in itself: who has the best data for figuring out where the bar will be set next and who has the best tools that will give athletes an edge. Stafford, who’s worked in many different countries, is adamant that New Zealand’s innovation team is the best in the world.

But it’s not always clear exactly what kind of gains an athlete will end up with on competition day. “Quite often we’ll end up doing projects because you know physics says it’ll move the athlete in the right direction, but you don’t know the impact of that,” says Briscoe.

Preparing an athlete with highly individualised coaching, or kitting them out in the best gear for competition day does more than provide physical gains. It sets the athlete up mentally to perform at their best, says Briscoe. “That confidence that that gives them is immeasurable,” he says. “The brain’s pretty powerful.”

The impact of the mental game was hammered home recently, as US gymnastic superstar Simone Biles left the team gymnastics event to take care of her mental health.

And it’s not necessarily how much money a country can spend on tech that makes the difference at the Olympics. Time is the bigger factor, according to Briscoe. “Every country across the world has exactly the same amount of that resource [time] so actually it becomes a competition of how quickly you can learn and develop,” he says.

That means the future of sport innovation lies in better software, rather than sporting hardware (although that will always be part of it too).

Image recognition and artificial intelligence programmes to analyse the wealth of data collected will lessen the amount of time an analyst spends sifting through the information they get. That frees up their time to have conversations with the coach about what they’re going to do with the data.

Most of New Zealand’s medallists in Rio, August 2016 (Photo: Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

The innovation team have already developed an algorithm that will be used by all the big New Zealand sports teams in the lead-up to the Paris games in 2024.

The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics was a “bloody massive opportunity” according to Murray, as it allowed them to focus on how to do training better. Without the results of the Olympics in 2020 to work from, they had to make their predictive analysis better.

They also needed to find ways to motivate athletes to push themselves outside of a competition. “Athletes want to compete. They thrive on competition. So we took existing tech to make the training environment competitive,” Murray explains. In the case of rowing for example, athletes could gamify their training by rowing against a ghost boat programmed to the world’s record pace.

High tech data collection and training solutions are relatively benign when it comes to fairness in competition. Discussions around “tech doping” usually revolve around enhancements to equipment or clothing.

The latest scandal is with Nike’s Vaporfly shoes, which help runners get more forward push with each stride. And remember the infamous, low drag, shark-inspired swimsuits that helped set records in 2008? They’re now banned.

New boundaries for what constitutes an advantage versus what constitutes cheating are constantly being set. “Each sport has its set of rules and that’s where the line is. We play right up to that line,” says Briscoe.

Briscoe and Murray play within the rules while staying conscious of the fact that the rules change quickly. They’ve had to scrap a few projects but say they’ve still learned things along the way that are useful, so it’s not a complete write-off.

In the end it’s a game of marginal gains. Says Briscoe: “Really what we’re trying to do here is tighten the loop in ever-decreasing circles.”

The Spinoff’s science content is made possible thanks to the support of The MacDiarmid Institute for Advanced Materials and Nanotechnology, a national institute devoted to scientific research.

Mad Chapman, Editor
The Spinoff has covered the news that matters in 2021, most recently the delta outbreak. Help us continue this coverage, and so much more, by supporting The Spinoff Members.Madeleine Chapman, EditorJoin Members

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