Athletes are faster and stronger now than they have ever been. Look at baseball or football players, sprinters or swimmers, or just at the whole host of new world records set every four years in the summer Olympics.
That’s because “sports evolve over time,” as Brooke Borel writes in the introduction to a discussion on TED.com of how science and technology are transforming sports.
As the three participants — “The Sports Gene” author David Epstein, former NFL punter Chris Kluwe, and sports biomechanics expert (and lead scientist for ESPN’s “Sport Science” show) Cynthia Bir — explain, these changes aren’t going to stop now. As we learn more about genetics and biomechanics, and as we develop better types of technology, including virtual and augmented reality, athletes will continue to improve their abilities and become capable of feats that were unimaginable decades ago.
As Kluwe says, “every generation, we feel like we’ve reached that pinnacle where we’ve run the fastest 40 time we’re going to run, or we’ve gone the fastest through the downhill we’re ever going to go, or this technology is perfect, or technology can’t get any better. But then we always go past it.“
Of course, there’s one central question here: Is there an absolute maximum limit for what we can do? Will we ever hit a point where training and technology will max out our capabilities?
Bir says in the TED discussion that “there obviously are going to be limits … we’re just built in a certain way and you’re only going to be able to have somebody run a 40-yard dash so fast.”
But when we think about the different ways we can maximise our bodies, brains, and the technology that supports the sport, those limits may still be a long ways away. There’s plenty more that we are learning to control.
We’ve pulled some info from that TED discussion and supplemented it here with some updates. Check out the future of sports.
Coaches have drilled better form into athletes for decades, but new technology is giving them a whole new perspective on what exactly to focus on.
In the past, a coach could film or watch an athlete to spot errors and problems in form. Now, Bir says, newer three-dimensional motion capture technology — like the Xbox Kinect systems, and more advanced similar setups — can do far more. Between three dimensional modelling and biometric feedback on things like heart and respiratory rate, an expert can see far more about what’s happening with an athlete’s body.
“We’re able to tell exactly how the athlete is moving in real time,” says Bir. “Having a system where you can get real-time data, provide it back to that person and say, “You’re pushing off with your right leg more than your left leg,” or “you need to adapt this” … it’s going to really enhance a lot of athletes’ ability to perform.”
Beyond this, Kluwe and Epstein say that occlusion testing, where some part of what people see is blocked out, is helping people hone skills. Kluwe explains that he’s seen NFL receivers train wearing glasses that flash to block light and blind a player momentarily at set intervals, helping them learn to predict where a ball is going to be — even if they can’t watch it the whole way.
In the discussion, Epstein says he also expects to see players training with masks that provide a higher level of oxygen while they work out, as that’s been shown to help an athlete push harder than they normally could.
Personalised biology and genetics
We’re learning more and more right now about how genes interact to code for different traits and behaviours, and that knowledge will transform sports along with everything else.
Epstein, who wrote a book on the topic, explains that “just as we’ve learned the differences in my gene that’s involved in acetaminophen metabolism from yours — I might need three Tylenols while you need one to get the same effect, or maybe no amount works for me — we’re finding genes that make some people more trainable to particular training programs than others.”
Your genes might make you more responsive to certain types of workouts, and a knowledgeable coach (perhaps with the help of a genetic counselor) could come with individualized exercise plans based on that information.
While many of the benefits of this type of information still lie in the future — when we better understand how genes code for various traits — there are already genetic markers that can tell a person how well they will respond to weight training or whether your body is more or less likely to respond to intense exercise. Researchers caution that this shouldn’t be taken as a reason to skip a workout, but could help direct people to workouts they will respond to or reveal reasons it may take them longer to improve a certain capacity.
It’s not just genes either. The muscle fibres in someone’s body are influenced by genes but also by training, environment, and diet. Understanding how all these things interact can help coaches tailor workouts to help an athlete get past a plateau. In other cases, this information may be a reason to move that athlete to a different sport — as Epstein says already happens in national programs in the Netherlands and Denmark. As an example, Epstein explains in his book that there are Danish scientists who work with national soccer academies, and athletes with a high proportion of fast twitch muscles tend to make excellent soccer players. Danish research shows these muscles can be developed with specific training, especially when athletes are young.
Psychological resilience and perseverance are also essential characteristics for athletes. The top performers in any sport need to train their minds just as much as they train their body.
“You can’t just look at it as a pure physiological performance,” says Kluwe. Your brain helps too. Mental strength can help your body keep going when you feel like you’re done and every muscle is burned out.
Psychology and neuroscience may help us learn how to coach someone through the end of an ultramarathon.
Virtual reality, augmented reality, and artificial intelligence
Kluwe says that he expects to see virtual reality and augmented reality start to play a much bigger role in sports within the next ten years.
Basketball has already started to embrace a VR-driven game from a fan’s perspective, coming up with ways for fans to see what’s happening, but it’s the on-the-field stuff that’s going to actually transform the sport.
The University of Michigan is now using VR to help recruit players, giving them a virtual perspective of a “day in the life” on game day in Ann Arbor. As Sports Illustrated explains, other VR programs help players experience moments of gameplay over and over.
Augmented reality systems — which can project information on top of what you already see in the world — could actually be used to provide live information to players on a field. As Kluwe says, football players “could have a projector that displays your next series of plays on your helmet as you’re running back to the huddle.”
In an even more extreme example, he thinks that a system like that could use some sort of intelligent algorithm to predict what opposing players are going to do next. While such an example may seem far-fetched, this sort of system could — in theory, though not yet in practice — read the lineup of opposing players and make a guess as to what their next play would be, informed by a quick search through history of game tape. At that point, your IT department becomes just as essential as your scouting team.
Of course, some of these innovations — particularly technological ones — prompt questions about the fairness of comparison. Modern runners and climbers benefit from shoe technology that’s better suited to their sports. Is it right to compare the speed of someone wearing a potentially drag-reducing swimsuit to someone without one?
As Kluwe says, just as with doping to improve performance, that’s a choice society will have to make. And we’d better not delay: Technology is going to continue to improve performance, no matter what, in ways large and small, whether or not we think it’s fair.
Sports are based on rules, and by setting those rules, we can choose which technologically enabled enhancements are allowed. But whether it’s a piece of technology that helps someone run faster, which could be banned, or more strategic training based on genetics — which would be far harder to regulate — we’re going to keep getting faster and stronger.
If we want to talk about what’s fair or allowed, Kluwe says in that case we just need to ask: “What do you want from your sports?”
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