Sports’ final frontier can be explored by science too.
Think of where we were technologically one hundred years ago. Cars were just as new as wearables are today, airplanes weren’t flying, and if you showed someone from 1914 a microwave they might think you’re a wizard. It’s easy to pick out the great advancements in technology, but every aspect of our lives has become science-infused, even our sports.
“A hundred years ago, people were showing up before a track race smoking a cigarette,” Mark McClusky tells me in an email, “and no one understood the idea that the body adapts and compensates when it’s pushed in a workout.”
McClusky, journalist and Editor-in-Chief of WIRED.com, has just come out with a new book entitled Faster, Higher, Stronger, in which he outlines how science is helping to create a new generation of super-athletes. It’s a clear and engaging book that covers everything from Moneyball to steroids to genetics. And like many human endeavors, McClusky effectively argues that sports are no longer the guessing game they were a hundred years ago. The future of sports is in the hands of nerds.
Without hacking the body with drugs or technology, perhaps the most apparent area where science is improving performance is in good old-fashioned statistics. “The idea is that analytical thinking can unlock an understanding of sports that we’ve missed for decades, which would provide a significant competitive advantage,” writes McClusky.
Baseball’s implementation of sabermetrics – a systematic analysis of player statistics to inform team decisions – is the classic example of using statistics to gain an advantage, but basketball has had similar success. For example, in 2012, Dr. Kirk Goldsberry collected the spatial coordinates for every shot taken in the NBA from 2006 to 2011 (where a player took the shot from on the court and if it went in) and presented it at a conference in 2012. By 2013, the NBA signed an agreement to install a tracking system — based on technology developed by Israeli scientists for tracking missiles — incorporating Goldsberry’s insights in every area in the league. The data was just too valuable. It even uncovered “The Dwight Effect,” which shows that NBA player Dwight Howard reduces shots just by being on the court. Howard was recently signed to a massive contract with the Houston Rockets.
But technology is definitely a significant driver of sports’ nerdy renaissance.
Golf isn’t just about the swing (although that’s an enormous part of it, as McClusky explains), it’s about the equipment too. “From 1993 to 2003, the average PGA Tour pro gained 27 yards in driving distance, primarily from two technological innovations,” McClusky explained to me. During that time, golf balls got solid cores that sent them further and straighter, and pros got clubs with metal inside instead of wood, creating a spring-like smack in the club faces. “Courses were forced to lengthen themselves to continue to be a challenge and now they’ve run out of room to make the holes any longer.”
Statistics and technology are no doubt the most “sciencey” ways we are getting faster and stronger, but focusing on just those would be ignoring the all-important medical factors we’ve found. Unfortunately, this is where we have to get real about what it takes to be an elite athlete. “We like to think that anyone can do anything,” McClusky says. “But there’s a genetic component that has to be there to be a great athlete.”
There is a baseline physiology that elite athletes have — contributing genetic and environmental factors have sculpted their bodies in such a way that pushing themselves to the limit of human performance is possible. But we’ve gotten much better at determining what those factors are, and are starting to figure out how to harness our genetics, how to work with our body’s blueprint, to get to the finish line faster.
“That next great competitive advantage won’t be about acquiring the data; it will be about understanding it.”
In fact, we’ve gotten so much better at tracking and improving sports performance that there might not be any more giant leaps forward to take. McClusky says now the focus is on “marginal gains” – the tiny advancements at the bleeding edge of performance that make the difference, sometimes milliseconds or millimeters, between first and last. “If you look at the rate of athletic improvement, it’s slowed down in the past 10 years,” McClusky told me. “We’ve done so many of the baseline things we know to improve performance that we’re now fighting for very small improvements…It’s not about finding one thing that helps you be 10% faster — it’s about finding dozens of small things that might make you 0.1% faster.”
There can be pushback against sports’ scientific and technological revolution. Some will argue that it takes away the purity or the “soul” of a sport. For example, “The best driver in the world has no hope of winning in a sub-par [Formula 1] car,” McClusky says. That can make a race feel more like a battle between engineers rather than racers. The same goes for high-tech swimsuits that help swimmers shatter previously held records. But it’s clear, for better or worse, that using science, that having PhDs on your team, is the way forward.
We are starting to approach sport “as an intellectual problem to be solved rather than a collection of traditions to be upheld,” McClusky writes in Faster, Higher, Stronger. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. The universality of sport is driving scientific research that would never have been funded otherwise. Out of this comes technology and insights into genetics and physiology and metabolism and psychology that make the invisible aspects of human performance visible. How long will it take for us to really explore this frontier? We aren’t sure. But it’s increasingly clear that geeks and nerds will be there mapping the boundaries.
“We still have a long way to go — we know the gross outcomes of training, but we don’t really have a deep understanding of all the mechanisms involved. Why do some people respond much better to training than others? What are the best ways to learn new athletic skills? What are the real factors that lead to increased performance? Those are the questions that sport scientists are trying to answer today, and that I examine in the book.”
You can pick up a copy of Faster, Higher, Stronger: How Sports Science Is Creating a New Generation of Superathletes–and What We Can Learn from Them here.
Kyle Hill is the Science Editor of Nerdist Industries. Follow on Twitter @Sci_Phile.