The science in sports

The National Sports Institute is pushing our athletes further with innovative and smart technology.

With the 2016 Summer Olympics only three years away, the National Sports Institute (NIS) is taking the training of its athletes up a notch with the use of new hardware and software.

In the past, training took place mostly outdoors but with the advancement of technology, sports scientists and coaches have found new ways to improve our national athletes’ performance even before stepping out into the field.

Tuning and tech

Badminton, archery, cycling and diving have been identified as the main sports Malaysia needs to excel in the next Olympics and the NIS is working on a few technologies to give our sportsmen an edge.

For Malaysia’s most popular sport, badminton, the NIS uses software developed in-house called Bstat which uses cameras to monitor the performance of players.

The development of the software began after the conclusion of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and was completed in time for the London Olympics in 2012.

The man behind Bstat is sports technology research ­engineer Kokum Weeratunga. He says what makes his ­software unique is that unlike other ­analytic ­programs in the market, Bstat was developed solely for ­badminton. This has allowed him to optimise the software to produce faster and more detailed results.

The software takes into account every aspect of the game and can monitor both the player and his or her opponent’s style of play. It can do this from a video recording or even televised games.

“Using the data from Bstat we can identify ‘hot spots’ around the court where the ­player or opponent likes to ­target the shuttlecock. This allows coaches to form strategies before each match,” said Kokum.

During the preparations for the London Olympics, for instance, the team would upload past games of opponents like China’s national shuttler, Lin Dan from as far back as 2008 to study in detail the evolution of his style of play.

Kokum takes personal pride in the fact that the software has aided Malaysian shuttler Datuk Lee Chong Wei in improving his game from the gathered data.

He is currently working on Bstat’s successor which will have a different name and is expected to be ready in time for the Olympics in Rio.

“The next iteration of the ­software will have more cutting edge features that will keep us ahead of the game,” he said.

The cameras also have other uses. Syed Faris, the head of research at NIS, said the institute has ­developed a wireless video transmission ­system to give direct feedback in real-time to coaches during games.

Using multiple cameras mounted at high vantage points, coaches get a bird’s-eye view of the game, giving them a better idea of what is going on to help them make informed tactical decisions on the fly.

The system also works for other games such as football, badminton and hockey.

Monitoring athletes

Training is just one of the many aspects that NIS is focusing on. One of the other areas that gets a lot of attention is the general health of the athletes.

Thanks to advancements in technology it is now possible to track the physical activity of an athlete even when they sleep.

Sean Sturgess demonstrates how athletes train at the NIS gym.
May the force be with you: Sean Sturgess demonstrates how a non-motorised treadmill works. The machine’s higher resistance helps build up speed and endurance.

Sean Sturgess, head of the high performance team at the NIS, said, “We are constantly monitoring athletes from the minute they go to bed and right up to the moment they wake up the next morning.”

“Sleep plays a very important part in the recovery process, as the body will be adapting to the training it goes through during the day.”

And it doesn’t take fancy ­gadgets — Sturgess says just about any smartphone can be paired with a sensor and app to monitor the ­quality of sleep, including any ­movements.

“Coaches would then be able to know when is it a good day to push athletes more or to hold back due to fatigue,” said Sturgess.

Dr Yeo Wee Kian, director of research and innovation at NIS, said the institute even analyses the saliva of athletes.

“It is a very stringent process. Athletes have to wake up early in the morning at 6am and they are not allowed to brush their teeth or rinse their mouth before taking a sample,” he said.

The saliva is then taken to a lab and examined in detail to determine the ­athletes’ testosterone and other ­hormones which helps sports scientists to gauge the speed of recovery.

“It is important to ensure that the athletes are in tip-top ­condition before a game. The tests will show us if they are at risk of falling sick which would allow us to recommend preventive measures,” said Yeo.

The NIS has also developed an app called Activ8 which tracks an athlete’s level of physical activity. Initially it was created for internal use among the NIS staff but the institute realised its potential and repurposed it for its sportsmen.

Every hour the app asks for ­feedback and the athlete has to fill up a questionnaire on what form of activity they are doing at that moment. This helps track the ­physical activity of the player for an entire day.

The information collected is then stored in a database that can be used to customise the training to ­strategically target the strengths and weaknesses of each athlete and ­create the most efficient training plan.

Road to recovery

In sports injury is unavoidable no matter how careful the athlete or trainer is. Getting injured athletes back on their feet in the shortest time can be quite a challenge.

Sports therapist Joerg Teichmann is a big proponent of using modern sports technology to treat players and he showed Bytz some of the machines he uses in his work. This includes a vibration platform which is a machine that looks similar to an exercise vibration machine that you’ll see in most gyms.

On track to recovery: Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) conditioning trainer Rasto Bozik demonstrates how athletes would stand on the machine during rehabilitation.
Shake it up: The vibration platform which Football Association of Malaysia’s conditioning trainer, Rasto Bozik, is on helps reactivate dormant muscles and prevent future injuries.

The vibration platform is used to treat injured athletes such as those who have twisted their ankles and have ­problems balancing.

The technique is called ­stochastic resonance therapy and all the athlete has to do is stand on the machine, which will vibrate at ­varying intensity. The vibrations help stimulate and ­reactivate ­dormant muscles to improve the recovery process.

This technique also helps prevent future injuries as the muscles will be conditioned to better ­withstand ­unexpected ­movements.

“Many ­football clubs in Europe use this machine and they usually get the player to kick a ball while standing on the machine and we are one of the few countries in Asia to have it,” he said.

“We usually advise ­athletes to attend three sessions a week and within 12 to 15 sessions they should see ­significant ­improvement in their recovery.”

The NIS also employs an array of infrared cameras to capture the movements of injured ­athletes. Called a motion analysis system, the set up is somewhat similar to that of a Performance Capture Stage used in videogames to capture actors’ movements.

The gate analysis system used an array of high speed cameras and lets sports therapist analyse an athletes movement in detail.
In the spotlight: The motion analysis system can spot if an athlete’s form is weak, so that it can be corrected and improved.

Up to eight cameras will be arranged around an open space where the athlete, ­outfitted with markers, will perform various moves. A badminton player, for instance, will be asked to smash or perform a drop shot so that the sport scientist can ensure that the movements are fluid.

“This allows us to see which part of the athlete’s form is weak and we can then offer feedback on how they can correct their movement,” said Teichmann.

The system can also be used to enhance the performance of ­sportsmen by making them ­emulate the movements of the world’s best players.

Space age equipment: The BodPod machine is  used to accurately measure an athletes body composition and weight.
Space age: The BodPod is one of the most accurate machines for  measuring body composition and weight.

The tech advantage

Just about every sport utilises technology in some capacity.

Athletes can train however hard they want but to step up their game they still need technology, said Sturgess.

But to make technology work for the players, they have to get the fundamentals right — proper, ­consistent training, the right diet and sufficient hydration are a must.

“Once they get the basics right, that’s when technology gives ­players that little extra to rise above the competition,” he said.

“The difference may be as little as 2% to 3% but sometimes that is all the difference between the winner and loser.”

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