Athletes Rely on Gold Medal Science

Likewise, syncing up a high-speed video to kayakers' paddles led to athletes' discovering that the two top competitors in their sport had similar strokes, recalled one of those paddlers, three-time Olympic kayaker Scott Shipley. Competitors could also examine the force of their strokes in relation to time, illustrating on a graph that the best kayakers excelled for the same reason.

"We both went from zero to full force much, much faster than anyone else that was racing," said Shipley, now an engineer who designed and opened the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte in 2006.

Shipley said that in a sport in which one stroke can make the difference between first place and being knocked out of contention, it helps paddlers enormously to understand the scientific and mathematical dynamics of the water.

"They're looking at how the boat's momentum moves in relation to the whitewater," he said. "It's all kind of vector science."

Shipley has put that science to use at the U.S. National Whitewater Center, creating a course with optimum training conditions for the Olympic paddlers by eliminating the variability of flow, building more efficient eddies and creating an environment where water velocities are faster.

"We're able to take the amount of whitewater that might be in a half a mile or a mile stretch and pack it into a thousand feet," he said.

Sports Medicine, Nutrition and Psychology

According to several experts, athletes are also more aware than ever of how their bodies perform, whether by keeping tabs on their heart rates, refining their nutrition regimes, planning out training cycles to peak at the perfect time or monitoring recovery times.

"We know more about the human body, we know more about how to train -- when to put a stress on the training sessions, when to pull it back and let them recover," Ingram said. "The great coaches know exactly how much stress and pressure to apply."

Given the pressures of performing one's best on race day, mental analysis is part of that assessment, thanks to the rise of sports psychology.

Robert Troutwine, a psychologist in Liberty, Mo., who consults for NFL, NBA and MLB teams to help evaluate whether particular athletes are good hires, uses tools called psychometrics to examine competitors' personalities and behavior traits. He said that since the incorporation of psychology into sports in the early 80s, the practice has proved its staying power by way of good draft picks, playoff titles and championship rings.

Troutwine said the correlation between physical and mental performance cannot be overlooked.

"If you really self-sacrifice and show up to training camp in top shape, that's got to have an impact on your confidence," he said. "If an athlete's been injured, you know that's a physical thing, but there's also that creeping doubt."

"We prefer to work with athletes, even executives, on an ongoing basis, because it helps them prepare for and develop habits of excellence," Crawford said. "So they're really strong and mentally tough when they need to be."

Crawford joins doctors, nutritionists, athletes and trainers May 31 in New York City to discuss the science of sports at the World Science Festival.

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