Malcom Jones, a doctoral student at USC’s Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy, focused on a computer screen as pictures of balls from different sports flashed across it. His fingers flicked back and forth on the display. The balls disappeared, replaced by a score — prompting a self-deprecating laugh from Jones.

“I have great hand-eye coordination, but I have no depth perception,” he said.

This game is part of a program that is part of the emergence of sports science. Measurement is revolutionizing the way people train, heal and compete. At a time when wearable computers can track seemingly everything in the world of health — from blood pressure to sleep quality — these technologies have now hit athletics.

“The data game is about minimizing risk,” Leslie Saxon, MD, cardiologist and executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing, told attendees at an MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. When the USC women’s soccer coach couldn’t figure out why a team with a legacy of national championships wasn’t winning, data from sensors alerted him that players were running six miles the day before a game, Saxon said. The revelation spurred more rest before competitions, leading to more wins and fewer injuries.

Today, scientists like Jones use data and technology to help athletes of all levels. To advance the movement, USC’s Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy recently launched a Master of Science in biokinesiology program with a sports science emphasis.

“Everyone is after the holy grail of predicting performance, injury and health,” said Susan Sigward, PhD, associate professor of clinical physical therapy. “Advances in technology allow us to collect a lot of data and give us a greater capacity to store and share it. Sports science practitioners are now on the forefront of figuring out which data are relevant and what they mean for performance or recovery.”


Building an athlete’s data profile

When athletes push too hard during practice, they may be more susceptible to fatigue and injury. When they don’t train hard enough, they might not be ready for the demands of the game, resulting in poor performance or injury.

Preventing overtraining can be challenging because there are many factors to consider, according to E. Todd Schroeder, PhD, associate professor of clinical physical therapy. Diet, sleep, hormones, performances and training intensity all play a part in an athlete’s health and well-being. Having more data on those variables helps both coaches and athletes recognize when they need to ease up or push a little harder.

“A simplistic example is using heart rate,” Schroeder said. “If you monitor the athlete’s heart rate response during practice each day, you can measure how much time he or she spends above 80% intensity. If he or she reaches their predetermined threshold, they would back off the training time or intensity.”

As more sports professionals see the value of data analysis, sports scientists are more in demand. In USC’s rigorous sports science program, students learn about data science but also cover biomechanics and physiology. That makes them attractive to sports teams and tech companies working on exercise apps and other consumer health products.

“I will cautiously say USC is the first to teach this kind of applied sports science,” Sigward said. “We’re teaching our biokinesiology students how to translate and use this tech.”

Students put their knowledge into action through hands-on work at places like the USC Epstein Family Center for Sports Medicine at Keck Medicine of USC. Many have landed internships with professional sports teams such as USA Volleyball, the Los Angeles Kings, the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Portland Timbers.


A practical collaboration leads to advanced results

Located in Downtown Los Angeles, Jumpman LA’s Flight Lab features high-speed cameras, a motion-capture system, impact-sensing force plates, metabolic testing equipment and other gadgets dedicated to unlocking sports performance. Its rooftop basketball court is an ideal place to test out data trackers and tools like timing gates that clock reaction time, speed and agility.

The Flight Lab launched this partnership with USC that lets biokinesiology students and local athletes take a deeper dive into the science behind performance.

“We have our labs at USC, but we were looking for something outside the university to get the public more involved,” Schroeder said. “It was serendipity.”

Partnering with the Flight Lab means USC researchers and students can work with the latest technology. That includes a prototype virtual reality treadmill that is one of the first of its kind in the world. It also means the USC biokinesiology experts and students test new equipment and give feedback on their usefulness to athletes, coaches and trainers.

“It’s big challenge, figuring out how to give the right answer without underselling or overselling something,” Sigward says. “Studies are expensive, and we’ve been lucky to start leveraging our relationships to get this equipment and find those answers.”

— Eric Lindberg

Interested in learning more? Visit the USC Division of Biokinesiology and Physical Therapy online for information on the master’s in kinesiology with a sports science emphasis.

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