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Road to Rio 2016: The team behind Team GB | Embracing Technology | ConnectedCoaches

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Road to Rio: The team behind Team GB

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Team GB BMX riders Liam Phillips and Kyle Evans pose for the cameras. The English Institute of Sport has helped the British BMX team's bid for glory in Rio through the use of technology originally developed in unmanned aircraft

We step inside the English Institute of Sport to see how the latest innovations in technology are providing coaches with valuable information that can be used to shape their training methods and coaching strategy and improve athletic performance. 

  • EIS brands itself as the team behind the team. 
  • It exemplifies the marginal gains philosophy that underpins Team GB’s coaching strategy
  • Its experts are divided into two performance-focused strands: technical development and performance solutions.
  • Within the technical strand lies the Research and Innovation (R&I) department, which develops bespoke equipment and drives advancements in technology and kit.
  • The R&I department houses the Project & Performance Engineering team, which seeks out technology performance gains for medal prospects.

If coaches are the unsung heroes and heroines of sport, then the English Institute of Sport (EIS) flies even further under the radar – quietly going about its task of maximising the medal chances of our Olympians and Paralympians, far away from the eyes of the watching world. 

It may exist in the background, but it is very much at the forefront when it comes to helping coaches get a performance edge out of their athletes through science, sports medicine and technology. 

Like coaches, the EIS’s 350 employees will not receive a ticker tape parade on Team GB’s return from Rio, and yet they too commit much of their lives to the same end goal of striking gold on the international stage. 

Privately then, if not publicly, they should toast their contribution and take their share of the plaudits if Team GB hit their target of 66 Olympic medals and 121 Paralympic medals. 

In The London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, EIS worked with 86% of the medallists. 

Established in 2002, and with a network of nine high performance centres across England, it brands itself as the team behind the team. 

Its experts are divided into two performance-focused strands: technical development and performance solutions. 

Former England international netballer Naomi Stenhouse is Head of Project and Performance Engineering at EIS, working within the Research and Innovation (R&I) team (the technical development strand), and she provides a fascinating insight into the role technology will play in this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic Games. 

Every coach, at every level, wants to see performance gain from their athletes, and while the grass-roots game may not have access to the same cutting edge technology that elite coaches benefit from, the work of EIS underlines the importance of technology in modern-day sport and sports coaching, and exemplifies and endorses the marginal gains philosophy that underpins Team GB’s coaching strategy. 

Investing in innovation 

The Performance Engineering team’s modus operandi is quite clear: to seek out technology performance gains for athletes targeting medals in Rio and beyond. 

Naomi works closely with other R&I departments – as well as coaches, governing bodies, universities and engineering companies – to achieve this goal. 

Providing a breakdown of the R&I operational structure, Naomi stresses that there is regular overlap between departments.

  • Performance Science: ‘The programme is responsible for everything from nutritional supplements to optimising warm-up strategies for athletes,’ says Naomi.
  • Athlete Health: ‘Getting to the start line fit and healthy is key to success. It’s probably our number one barrier to success. All this is done in partnership and in conjunction with the governing bodies and the Olympic teams themselves.’
  • Coaching Science: ‘We look at how coaches can communicate with athletes and assess the impact of that coaching intervention – maximising the effect they can have on performance gain for our athletes. We help them with decision making under pressure, for example. We need the coaches to perform well too in order to support the athletes.’
  • Technical Performance Tools: ‘How we capture data, primarily in a training environment, what we do to analyse that data and how we feed it back. It could be using GPS, heart rate or video footage. How to make it a useful tool for coaches.’

With regard to coaches’ input, their advice is paramount in the methodical process of optimising training programmes, maximising competition performance, improving athlete health and well-being and identifying talent within the various programmes and pathways. 

Where the R&I workforce is concerned, this involves developing bespoke equipment to suit elite athletes’ needs, and driving advancements in technology and kit that will help athletes make the tiny performance gains that can make all the difference between winning gold and finishing outside the medals. 

The appliance of science will only get you so far though. The design and development of new technology allows EIS experts to furnish coaches with extensive data, but it is up to the coaches themselves to interpret and assimilate that data to determine race tactics, training plans and competition strategy. 

As Naomi admits: ‘All the projects we do are the icing on the cake. 

‘So we could design the best bike ever, but put me on it, and we still won’t win a medal.’ 

The idea is that, to medal, you need the best of everything, and design is only one area. 

‘It’s important we have the best athletes, with the best training process, the best coaches, the best sports science and sports medicine support, and a good pathway of athletes coming through before we then consider doing a technology or engineering project. 

‘We’re talking the icing on the cake, marginal gains, the thing that might make a difference between being out of or in the medal zone, or the bronze and the gold.’ 

Top secret 

The EIS only has limited resources, and with 47 Olympic and Paralympic sports in total, it must prioritise its projects. 

At this point, I would normally cram in umpteen examples to illustrate the sterling work being done by EIS. However, many of its projects are closely guarded secrets. 

It would be shooting itself in the foot if it advertised its latest innovations, giving other Olympic associations the opportunity to pinch its ideas – or, as Naomi succinctly puts it: ‘A short cut to neutralising our performance gain’. 

She did expand on a few recent ventures, involving the Great Britain wheelchair basketball and BMX teams. 

EIS worked in partnership with global defence company BAE Systems to optimise the performance of BMX riders. 

‘BAE used a technology originally developed in unmanned aircraft to provide coaches with more data about when the athletes are in the air as opposed to just on the ground,’ says Naomi.   

Timing loops were buried at points in the track, which showed that riders spend 40% of their time in the air during races. Optical sensors were also used to feed back the riders’ speed profile to a laptop. 

Coaches then worked with an analyst to interpret the myriad data provided and see if it was necessary to modify the riders’ training plan. Perhaps there were times in a race or over a certain size bump when it would be quicker to ride over them than to take off and glide through the air. 

Optimising the equipment for a particular athlete or sport – or modelling, as it is known – is another area where EIS has a major influence. 

‘Customising and a bespoke approach is a good way to get performance gain,’ says Naomi. 

‘How do you quantify if you are making a difference? By measurable gain in the field. Regarding equipment, it can break down into aerodynamic or hydrodynamic gain (for example weight loss), or the benefit that is provided in a performance context.’ 

In the case of wheelchair basketball, EIS redesigned the shells of the seats, rather than the whole chair, to fit each athlete’s frame. 

‘This improved the athletes’ skill on the court,’ says Naomi. ‘The more at one they feel in the chair, then the easier it is for them to manoeuvre around the court.’ 

Other examples include designing cutting edge ice skates for Team GB athletes and helping the GB bobsleigh team prepare for the Sochi Winter Olympic Games by using BAE Systems’ wind tunnel technology. 

A combined effort 

The R&I team has a network of experts throughout the UK and pulls together a different team for each project. 

‘If there’s a bit of research needs doing, and we are not too sure what the answer is, we tend to work with universities, calling on their depth of knowledge in a certain area and their associated academic support network. 

‘We work with engineering consultancy companies, with one-man bands and specialists who have a unique set of skills and who want to work with us. 

‘And we might look to different sports, like Formula 1, to see how their developments can be applied to other sports. We may even look outside the sports sector completely to see what other technology is available that might be applied that could give a real performance benefit.’ 

Teamwork, then, is as fundamental to the success of EIS as it is to any sports squad. 

By working as a unit, it is possible to achieve things that may otherwise be out of your grasp – an idea familiar to every sports coach.  

Coaches will also do well to grasp the importance of technology as a performance tool. Embrace it, or risk being left on the starting blocks.

How do you use technology in your coaching to achieve performnace gain? Please leave a comment below.

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