|Bill Sands (left) uses EMG to examine|
artistic gymnast Jason Gatson’s (a
silver medalist in Athens) left–right
lower extremity symmetry following
knee surgery. Photos courtesy of Bill
If you are an athlete or sports enthusiast, you know that every second counts. To find that 1–2% improvement that can make the difference between 1st and 5th place, sport biomechanists use science to investigate sports techniques and equipment, seeking ways to improve athlete performance and reduce injury risk. In essence, they want athletes to train smarter, not harder. At the U.S. Olympic Training Center (OTC), Bill Sands is the Head of Sport Biomechanics and Engineering, which is responsible for the service and research needs of 45 sports. Helping Olympic athletes defeat their opponents and achieve their dreams is a high-pressure job, but Sands steps up to the plate with his lifelong passion for science and sport.
Describe a sport biomechanist’s job.
We help sports in two basic ways; both involve science. The first is service, which consists of analyzing coach and athlete needs, implementing relevant tests to determine athlete status, interpreting this information, and reporting back to coaches and athletes. This service allows athletes to modify training and enhance performance; however, cutting-edge investigations are needed to really push a sport forward. Therefore, the second element to our job is applied research and innovation, which involves conducting experiments on various aspects of training such as technique, conditioning, and technology.
|Sands uses EMG to record|
measurements of Gatson’s muscle
Finding ways to improve performance requires applying the principles of kinematics (movement) and kinetics (forces). We use a diverse array of technologies—e.g., video motion software, sensing and timing equipment, and electromyography (EMG)—to record subtle measurements and analyze performance. In addition to our research, coaches and athletes often tend to jump on “new,” untested methods or technologies, which range from good luck charms to ineffective nutritional supplements. Using science, an impartial and effective means of assessing methods and claims, we have to determine if the new approaches actually work.
How did you choose this field?
Growing up as a gymnast, I tried my hardest to be an Olympian, looking to science to understand and improve my own performance. As an undergraduate, I took most of the typical math and science courses—biology, physiology, and chemistry—but focused on subjects that would lead to applied sport science. Also, my college gymnastics coach was very devoted to science and applied biomechanical principles in our training. In many ways, gymnastics is an excellent “laboratory” for the study of physics.
Hoping to help fulfill someone else’s Olympic dreams, I turned to coaching after college, constantly seeking new ways to apply science through exercise physiology and biomechanics. Before computer technology was a common instrument used in assessing athlete performance, for instance, I taught myself computer programming and developed a two-dimensional kinematic analysis system. I also explored the use of artificial intelligence techniques in monitoring athlete training.
After coaching gymnastics for several years, I went on to graduate school. Sport biomechanics was not offered as a concentration at the school I attended, so I obtained a degree in exercise physiology while focusing my research on mechanically oriented experiments on athletes. My positions after graduate school included Director of Research and Development for USA Gymnastics and Senior Sports Physiologist for the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC).
What background is needed?
Individuals interested in applied sport science should concentrate first on a basic science education; however, a sports background is also extremely useful. My major asset in working with athletes and coaches is the fact that I have been an athlete and high-level coach myself.
Moreover, a sports background allows me to understand the no-nonsense outlook of coaches and athletes, who are unwilling to be guinea pigs when the possibility of a payoff seems remote. A good deal of “sales” and interpretation of data are needed to persuade coaches and athletes that your investigations are worth their time. Without some very sound reasoning, it is difficult to convince a celebrity athlete that participation in an investigation is going to increase their chances of winning a medal. Most high-level athletes believe that if it’s not busted, don’t fix it. When athletes are at the top of their game, essentially they are “not busted.”
- B.S., University of Wisconsin,
- M.S. and Ph.D., University of Utah
On the web:
- Sport physiologist, sport
psychologist, personal trainer,
coach, nutritionist, physical
therapist, cardiac rehabilitation
therapist, sport physician
Advice for students?
Even in high school, students can begin studying sports science (with the help of a coach or teacher). Athletes should keep training logs on everything they do from laps and weights to sleep quality and nutrition. These logs provide abundant data that can be analyzed in countless ways. Students can also record track-and-field races and analyze the performances by tracing the athlete frame-by-frame from video using overhead projector acetate sheets or simple video-editing programs. With a heart rate monitor, students can study metabolic responses to all aspects of training. Students should record injuries and study potential mechanisms—self-report data (e.g., feelings, sleep patterns) are very handy for studying and preventing overtraining and injuries.
Students can also attend conferences on sport and exercise science or take classes from a local university with an athletic, sport, or exercise science program. I should draw a distinction between exercise science and sport science. When looking into higher education, students should be sure to determine the emphasis of the particular program. While many university programs prepare exercise scientists, sport science programs are relatively uncommon. Exercise scientists are fond of using athletes to demonstrate something in biology and mechanics, but the direct study of athletes for the sake of enhancing their performance has become quite rare.
Once undergraduate school is completed, the USOC offers internships for students, allowing them to live at an OTC and work closely with many sports. The positions are competitive, but they offer aspiring sport scientists the opportunity to work alongside Olympic athletes and established scientists.