Dr. Dan Durben, Black Hills State University associate professor of physics, and member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic rifle team, discusses the science behind Olympic athletes.
While watching the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, many people may admire the grace and beauty of figure skating, and the fast and seamless maneuvers of alpine skiers; however, few may realize the speed, power, strength and science behind these athletes.
Dr. Dan Durben, Black Hills State University associate professor of physics, and member of the 1988 U.S. Olympic rifle team, recently spoke about the research and science that make Olympic gold medal winners. Aside from competing in Seoul, Durben was also the head coach of the 2000 U.S. Olympic rifle team in Sydney, and coached the U.S. Paralympics in Athens and Beijing. He coached Nancy Johnson who earned USA’s first gold medal in rifle shooting at the 2000 Olympics.
“These days my interest lies in how we take developing shooters and make them into elite athletes faster and more efficiently and how we can use science to make that happen,” Durben said. “Elite athletes have a whole team behind them. One critical area is sports science.”
During his time at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., Durben worked with the biomechanics group of the Olympic Committee’s Sport Performance Division. “We studied the actual physics behind what the athletes were doing and put some numbers behind things to get an understanding of what is happening.”
Most research is spurred by a request from a coach or athlete, Durben said noting that scientists take a much different approach to the sport than coaches and athletes.
Durben’s first study involved determining why male figure skaters could do triple jumps and women could not. Coaches and athletes concluded that figure skaters use their legs; therefore, women must not have the leg strength that men do. They put the female figure skaters on a lower body program, but results did not change.
When the sport science team looked at the problem, they analyzed the physics to see what was going on when the figure skaters jumped. To generate a lot of angular momentum, figure skaters need to have their arms spread wide which in turn increases their moment of inertia. However, the tighter a skater is the faster they can rotate so during a spin they want their arms in. When spinning fast, the arms tend to fly back out, Durben said.
“The women didn’t have the upper body strength of the men to be able to go into a jump but snap those arms in fast enough to get around three times.” This research resulted in coaches putting their female skaters on upper body programs enabling them to complete triple jumps, Durben said.
The BHSU professor was also involved in the early stages of developing gun mounted, laser training devices that track the movement of the rifle during the aiming process. The feedback showed the motion of the athletes prior to and after the shot.
“This allowed the coach to watch what was happening in real time and show the athlete. A lot of athletes didn’t know what they were doing,” Durben said.
Technology like the infrared sensor helps to quantify what is going on when athletes shoot including whether they are pointing off to the side rather than at the target or snapping the trigger, he said. “We now have a much better understanding of what makes someone shoot really well and what to change for someone who is struggling a little bit,” Durben said.
Sport science will continue to have a large impact on Olympic sports. There is currently an effort to collect and analyze data in real time without the athletes knowing anything is going on, Durben said.
Through a Department of Defense grant, Georgia Tech is designing a device that can pick up a heartbeat from three meters away. Technology like this will enable scientists to measure the heart rates and respiration of athletes during major competitions and get a glimpse into what behaviors can be modified, such as breathing techniques, to improve an athlete’s performance, Durben said.
This new technology will also help researchers gather a larger amount of data and therefore produce better results for the athletes and coaches. “Athletes and coaches want results and they want it now. Results equal medals.”