Computer Simulations as a Training Tool

The first crude computer simulations were applications developed using the physically cumbersome and mathematically limited mainframe computers of the late 1960s. The speed of these computers was directed to creating models that predicted athlete performance in sports where biomechanics was a central analytical component, such as sprinting. These number-crunching simulations gave way to the refinements of the 1970s and 1980s, where increasingly complex computer graphics packages were developed to increase the range of activities that could be both simulated and predicted with data linked in an underlying computer program.

The growth of the computer-based video game industry has paralleled the use of computer simulations as a training tool in athletics of all kinds, as both products share common concepts. The first interactive computer baseball game was developed in 1971.

Simulation is a process by which the specific anticipated effects that the athlete will experience in the course of performance are replicated through a computer. The outcome of an event can be predicted by using actual data gathered concerning previous similar events. The simulation may be designed to either mimic the desired competitive or racing environment, or to project what is a desired result for the particular athlete or team. The simulation is constructed on a series of mathematical codes that are used to build the programs that are the basis for the visual and graphic replication of the simulated event.

Although used in some similar circumstances as simulation, a computer model is a more limited sports training tool than simulation. A computer model represents a component of a more comprehensive simulation; as an example, a computer-designed hull for a racing yacht is a model; how the hull performs in various simulated weather, wave action, and currents is the simulation.

Computer simulations are now employed in most sports, either as an instructional tool regarding technique or strategy for an individual athlete or a team or as an aid to equipment design and modification. Prominent examples include:

  • Individual sports simulations, such as those that assist an athlete to achieve greater biomechanical efficiency and optimum body position in sports such as running, diving, skating, cross country skiing, and swimming.
  • High speed sports in which aerodynamics will significantly affect competitive outcomes, such as downhill skiing, bobsledding, and auto racing.
  • Team sports such as rowing and America's Cup yacht racing are examples of how computer simulations of a particular course permit a team to race the event in advance, which permits the development of strategies and assessment of likely performance.

Computer simulations used in sports represent the combined talents of four distinct disciplines: computer science, which governs the development of the appropriate programming for the desired simulation; mechanical engineering, which applies to the physical construction of a simulator and the interrelationship with the applicable software; kinesiology and human performance disciplines; and sport-specific coaching expertise, which supplies the connection between the athlete and the value of the simulated activity.

The processing power, ever-increasing memory capabilities, and the speed of modern computers have taken computer simulation to more realistic levels in its application as a sport training tool. In some instances, the simulator is itself a work of engineering genius, the product of a number of advanced scientific applications. The bobsled simulator is an example. As a sport-inspired offshoot of the simulators used to develop aircraft pilots, the bobsled simulator permits the athletes to be physically positioned precisely as they would be during a bobsled run. It also delivers the sensations of speed (a four-man bobsled will often reach speeds of more than 95 mph [150 km/hour]) and duration, as the races are contested on an icy track that is a minimum of 1 mi (1,500 m) long. The dimensions of the turns and the downward grade of every course on the world can be programmed into the simulator, permitting the athletes to experience the applicable G forces (a measurement of the acceleration forces felt by the body as the vehicle speeds through the turns of the racecourse).

The bobsled simulator illustrates how an athlete may maximize training effect. The bobsledder can make as many "runs" as he or she may choose in a training day; difficult portions of the track may be driven repeatedly, and the simulator provides comprehensive feedback. Further, in a weather-sensitive sport such as the bobsled, the athlete can practice year round, without the expense of travel and equipment transport.

Other simulations have been developed in the traditional track and field events. Simulations are used extensively to permit sprinters to practice starts. In sports such as the pole vault, simulations are used to predict how a certain type of jumping pole will react in concert with the forces generated by a particular athlete. With the javelin and the ham-mer throw, an athlete may use a simulation tool to refine the precise point that will maximize the distance he or she is able to send the object.

SEE ALSO Sport performance; Sport psychology; Sports coaching.