Using Technology Tools In the Practice Pool by Michael Medina-Brodsky (2006)


My name is Michael Medina-Brodsky. I am the Director of Engineering for Colorado Time Systems. I have an absolute zero background in swimming. So, if you see me trying to imitate a stroke or do something really silly and you say, “Man, that guy doesn’t know what he is doing…” When it comes to the water and swimming and good times and all that kind of good stuff, I am not the “go-to guy,” but contrary to what you saw up here I do know a little bit of something about technology and that is what we are here to talk about today.

I am going to start with a little bit of history as I bring myself into a familiar mode with what you deal with on a daily basis. I wanted to learn a little bit about some of the history of the sport and how technology has evolved and driven the sport from its early days. Some of the slides I have here are just information that is available to everyone, of course.

This graph is just a simple plot of the Olympic Gold Medal winning times starting in 1896 and going up to 2004. I wanted to get a reference of what is a good time and what is a bad time. This is only in the 100 meters. Where did it all start? Where was the baseline? And as you can see from the left hand side of the graph the baseline time was an 82.2. I don’t know if you can read that in the back, but those were some of the origins of competitive swimming and doing it on a world-wide basis so you know, using the Olympics as my guide I said, “Where do we start?” The second time you see there – which is a 68.7 is actually an estimated time. That Olympics was held in St. Louis. It was the only Olympics to be held in yards instead of meters so the time is the interpolated time if it were actually a 100 meter race. But, you can see the huge jump in time and how much faster they got in such a short period of time. Look at this area of the curve. We were doing an incredible job back then. You know? How did we coach so well? Well, I think that there is a combination of things that happened:

As the sport was new and people were just becoming familiar with it, the strokes were becoming refined and things of that nature. You saw just a huge increase in gains as you had coaches getting into it and saying, “How do we make people faster?” And so, it was very simple, rudimentary tools that were able to achieve this. Some of the books that we were doing our research in found technology that you see still being pioneered today. The same tools and ideas we use now got their roots in the origins back in the early 1900’s/late 1800’s. Hand paddles were first introduced. I saw references to some resistance training using some ropes and belts and all sorts of other devices to try and increase strength. You know, cut down the times. As I mentioned earlier, St. Louis was swum in yards. That significant jump there was a reduction of 16% in the time and as you will see as we go over the eras, you will see that at no other time did we make a leap that way. You know, it is pretty easy to see from the graph that that is what happened.

In 1936, with the Berlin Olympics, the time went down to 57.6. If you compare that to the original time, that is a 30% reduction in time. Now that is huge and that is the biggest single leap that you will see on the curve. So, from the initial start to the Berlin Olympics was the greatest jump in history. You know, there are a lot of people that like to take a lot of credit for that, but I think if you look at it strictly from an analytical point of view, there were a lot of things that were just being weeded out. You know, it is like any other form of racing. People are becoming familiar with the rules, becoming familiar with the strokes, becoming familiar with what it really takes to succeed in the sport. So again, using the similar type of tools that they did in the early days, they were just starting to refine their application of them.

1940’s. Kickboards were actually developed from the early surf swimmers. A lot of the people had accounts of what surfers were doing way back in the day when they were just going out having fun on these big old long boards. You had people observing that. You had these surfers going out and all they were doing was sitting there and working on stroke. Their feet were up on the boards or if they had to get through a big wave they would slide off, kick and go through the waves. A good surfer always would kick to get through the wave. In 1945, the first technology started. Mechanical stop watches were borrowed from track of course, but they were very simple, very rudimentary mechanical devices. They didn’t hold up well in the pool environment, but they were a nice easy way to start doing the training. “What am I practicing at,” you know. “Where am I at?” They gave us a gauge to start training against, rather than just a count or something like, simply, “That was better than the last time.” 1945 also saw the advent of the above-water filming. The film industry was getting big. If you look at some of the all-time great swimmers, they went into Hollywood. That tie directly correlated into training, using film and the analysis of being able to slow it down, analyze the stroke. In 1950 they rigged up devices to film the underwater stroke. That is where you started to see the development of stroke analysis. Also, using tools like putting markers or pins at various points of the arm and body as they would travel through the water you could see and slow down the film and watch the curve of the arm. Mathematicians at that point got involved and said, “What is the critical analysis? What are we looking for? How much is that correlating to the actual speed?” and so they were able to start plotting that against time and curves and saying most efficiency is when the curve looks like X and Y versus X. So that is how they started doing some of the training with the early film analysis.

In 1955, you saw some of the early materials: pull buoys, early drag pants. What were the early drag pants? Anyone? Anyone? Pantyhose? Other references around were cotton gym pants. Anything to provide resistance to try and slow down the swimmer, weight down the swimmer, and help develop strength. Like I said, some of even the early times, trying to create resistance on the swimmer to help increase training and training efficiency. During this period of time from 40-45, the time decrease was approximately 3.3%, dramatic against that initial 16%, but as you will see the progression after that initial 16% is almost linear. It fluctuates up and down, but I think on the average it is about 3% a year. It is starting to level out. It has leveled out in certain areas. If we go back and reference the curve a little bit, you will see it kind of dip, flatten out a little bit, and then climb a little bit. But if you look at the overall average, it is almost linear after that first 16%. In 1962 we saw the advent of the analog pace clock. It is still a very popular item today. As a matter of fact I still get inquiries from time to time.

In 1956, touch pads, early touch pads, fluid filled touch pads were developed. Some of the early pioneers that developed this technology obviously created an area where we started to cut out the human factor when we started to analyze the swimmer. Now that we have machines and devices measuring the swimmer, we are getting a more accurate time. You know, that is the other thing; not only was the swimmer and the swimming developing, but along with that so was the technology in how we measure the swimmers and their performance. So quite honestly, if you look back over the eras and what was available and how accurate the time was, they were relative to each other. The winner was the winner based on the technology available at that time. Today’s day and age, with the microprocessors and the equipment that does the actual timing, you will see that we are probably 10-20% more accurate than they ever could have thought of being back then.

In 1967 another generation of hand paddles was developed. As we looked through the archives we saw different shapes, different sizes, different materials, and all sorts of evolutionary things. It really kind of shocked me as I looked back and I said you know, “There has got to be these huge leaps and bounds.” But the tools that we used back then and the tools that we use now are very similar in their conceptual design. With the advent of plastics and all of the other materials available to us, you will see the evolution of design: the shapes and the forms. Plastics have brought a lot of the tools a long way. ’68 saw the introduction of a digital stopwatch. In 1970 video tape analysis began. Again, the tools got better. Every step along the way we have seen an evolution of the tools themselves.

The application of the tools becomes more critical when you start getting these types of measuring devices. Yes Sir? (Was it videotape or a motion picture?) This is actually video. The motion picture tape, like I said, was earlier, in the 40’s. You saw, like I said, the Hollywood Johnny Weissmuller. Those guys actually brought their film technology into the pool and started doing the stroke analysis and things like that way back when. ’70 was when we started using videotape. We started having some of the higher speed videotaping and things of that nature. It was still very expensive at that period of time, but that is when we first started using it versus the film.

The overall time decrease in this area, from 1968 to 1970, was higher than the average of 5.4%. So is this attributed to the tools or is this attributed to the coaching or is it attributed to the athletes? I think you saw a lot of things come together during this era. Nutrition changed. You have a lot of tools that were developed during this period of time. All of these factors kind of culminate into the decrease in the overall times. In 1971 we saw the advent of paddles with shock cords. One of the things that I find interesting (I also have a mechanical engineering background and I have done a fair amount of work with a couple of fitness companies and some rehab equipment) is that a lot of the things that I see when I walk around the trade show booth: the thera-band, the plyometric balls, the balance balls, all of those things are things that transition throughout all of the industries. They focus a lot on the fast twitch muscles, endurance, balance, all the same concepts you see in all sorts of coaching and in all sorts of sports fields.

In ’72, underwater pacing lights were used. You know, this was a concept that was developed way back then and as late as yesterday we have had people approaching development companies saying, “We need this tool.” I believe the University of Buffalo actually has the patent on the underwater pacing lights, but again it is a tool that can be used. It is people developing technology to try and help on the coaching side; help the swimmers understand. It is technology that really helps make a difference in the bottom line. It shows in the decrease in time that it takes to swim a particular event. In 1972, the electronic start tone was developed. No more guns. I don’t know if this was part of an anti-gun campaign or what it was. I was given, about a month ago when we were doing some research, one of the early transducers that would take the information from the blanks that were shot out of the gun and tied into the timing system. It has kind of been an interesting learning process as I went down the evolutionary travels with all of this equipment. It was a great education for me and it helps me apply a lot of my knowledge to what you are trying to do.

’75 saw a lot of advent of materials. Polyester became very popular as we all know, but it also became one of the materials that helped advance a lot of the suits and technology as far as what you were able to do with a drag suit, how you were able to apply the resistance, and where were you getting the most benefit from the pockets and things of that nature. Then in 1976 programmable pace clocks were originated. Again, another thing that allowed us to start to measure on a more fine-eyed basis how our swimmer was performing. The overall time decrease during this era went down a little bit, but still a little bit above the average which is 4.2%. In 1985 the RJP was originally developed which measures start reaction times both on the start and on the relay exchanges. ‘85 also saw the advent of sprint belts. In 2000 we saw tools such as Dart-fish being developed and in 2003 another innovative tool called Super Sport Systems was developed. The overall decrease in time from 85-2003 is much closer to the average of 3.6%.

All of these slides only paint a small part of the picture. As I mentioned before, one of the things that I saw time and time again is that the tools haven’t changed. The tools have evolved, but they are called the same thing that they were back in the 1890’s. The advent of materials and the application has changed how we use these tools.

One of the things that I wanted to kind of touch back on as I look back over some of these items and I want to give a little bit more detail on is the pace clock. The analog pace clock was, in my opinion, one of the first easy to use training tools that was made available. You simply put your swimmer on it and said, “This is how I want you to swim. I want you to swim on the top. I want you to swim on the bottom. I want you to swim on the quarters.” That simple little device was nothing more than an analog watch on the wall. It allowed you to measure performance of each swimmer against a known entity. As that technology evolved, as we get into the new devices, you look at today’s programmable pace clocks. What you can do with them? I mean, I look at myself and I feel that I am a relatively intelligent person. But if I had to try and swim in the water and start breaking down an increment from the 10 second mark to the 7 second mark or the 3 second mark, all of a sudden trying to do math in my head on this round clock becomes much more difficult. So one of the things that you see as you start working with the digital type pace clocks is you are no longer locked into the set that is on the 60 or on the quarter or anything like that and I am sure you guys are all using these techniques. You know, sometimes the tools are a little bit more expensive than the club would like them to be, but you are able to now look and measure in a smaller finite number.

Like I said, the average improvement is 3%. My question and challenge to the coaches out there is, are we going to continue to increase on that 3% rate, or are we going to level off again? Is this driven by our coaching methods or is it driven by the tools available to you? Throughout history we have been able to take those tools, refine them and make them better. How does that happen? It’s very simple. The coaches find a unique way to apply the knowledge that they have and with the help of intellectuals, develop a new method of application of those materials. The digital pace clocks you see today also allow you to train more than just the aspect of the time it takes to get from here to there. You start tying these technologies together. You tied a relay judging platform with the digital pace clock and now you have started integrating a couple of different types of tools. You have got start reaction. You have got relay takeoff times. All of these items are places where you are going to be able to shave off time. Using these tools, you are going to (by decreasing your start reaction time or your relay exchange time) decrease your overall swim time provided you are keeping everything else constant and your swimmer is able to get cleanly off that block with that quick start reaction time. These are the methods and tools that you are going to use to help increase the performance of your athletes.

So, you start putting these tools together. You have your RJP, you have your digital pace clock and now you have touch pads in the pool so you are getting the full spectrum of analysis on that device. You couple those tools with a couple of the other tools that you see available now: heart rate monitors and things of that nature so that you know that at a certain performance or at a certain time that they are swimming, what their exertion level is. Heart rate used to be a very popular indicator of how they are doing. Now it is a nice indicator, but what sort of power are they getting out of it? What sort of efficiency are they getting out of that measured heart rate? Those are all things that you start tying together and as we add some of the tools down the road, things like Dart-Fish, we can analyze exactly the stroke to look at efficiency, look at how they are getting through the water.

You see tools such as Super Sport Systems that start bringing all this data together. This is definitely the age of information and data collection. You have got all these tools now. You have got the digital clocks. You have got the touch pads. You have got the RJP’s. You have got heart rate sensors. You have got tools that let you measure power. How do you bring it all together? You start looking at all of this data that you have and how do you make that work for you? Systems such as Super Sport Systems allow you to start bringing all of that information together. In my opinion the most efficient way to get to a destination is a straight line, but if you cannot see that destination from where you are at, you need a map. You have got all this data. You need the map. You use the analysis that is available and you say, “Okay, I need to plot a course. How do I plot that course? If my swimmer can produce this much power for this duration, that is going to get him to X. That is still short of my destination. How do I make him faster?”

So, we take a look a little bit beyond some of the physical tools that I see here and we look at some of the analytical tools, and you start looking at the physiology behind what is happening with that athlete. I am not a physiologist. My degree and background is in mechanical engineering, but I know how to apply force. I know how to apply power and what you are looking at as you see your tools is more specific, more detailed approaches to your training. It is a challenge. It is a challenge to all the coaches. Can we make another big leap? Are we at the point where we are only going to see smaller incremental levels of performance as we go to the next Olympics in Beijing? Do we see somebody just completely break out?

One of the things that I have had the opportunity to do is see our technology and today’s available technologies in practice in a country that basically didn’t have any of these things. We look at China as being this large mass of people. They are a very energetic and enthusiastic group of people. They have a lot of swimmers, and one of the things that we were able to see in a very dramatic fashion was the improvement in their swimming. It is very similar to the improvement that we saw at the beginning of the Olympics, that 16%. As a matter of fact, we saw even more dramatic effects of some of the tools as they were applied in training. You will notice as a coach, if you hook up a system (you use an RJP with a digital pace clock and work on starts and relay exchange times), you will see a dramatic decrease in that exchange time. You will see a dramatic increase in the swimmers ability to get off the blocks. We saw changes of over 200% in the swimmers that had never swum with that equipment and the swimmers that had started to train with that, and this was over a matter of about a three month period.

In your pool, with your coaching abilities and what the kids are used to in the United States, I think you will see a very quick return on your investment. I think that you will see, not quite the extremes that we see in other countries, but a change that you will see. Your kids will be amazed by the type of feedback that they get and that is one of the things that you will see with a lot of these tools. Back when the clocks were very slow and very old, you got to find out whether or not you won the race, but you didn’t get the instant feedback of time. As we know, that real smart guy named Pavlov was able to correlate the success with the reward. What you see when your kids start using the tools very simply is that it is amazing how excited they get about swimming and they get very competitive. Not that they are not a competitive group. Anybody that is an athlete is going to be fairly competitive, but you see the lights go on. You see people getting excited about what they are doing and they get very competitive within themselves. So I think you will see (using those types of tools and applying them in your daily practice routines) that it changes the dynamic of not only how you train, but how the swimmers are receiving that training.

It has been an amazing experience to see what is happening in China and the swimmers develop over there. It is phenomenal and as an outside observer, somebody that has never been a swimmer, it is amazing to see that change in their attitude, in their abilities and in the enjoyment of the swimming. One of the things that we do as people who are bringing technology into the sport is that we are always looking for better and brighter and new ideas. A lot of times we get a lot of input on some of the technology and we should see this develop and we should see that develop. It is amazing when people approach me and say, “Can we do this? Can we do that?” To me it is new. To me it is exciting. To me it is…..we love to do that. As I do my research and I look deeper into the history of the sport I see that what we are doing is not developing entirely new technologies, but we are refining the technologies that are available to us.

You will see, I think, with the companies I have shown up here and a lot of the companies that you see here today participating actively in this event in trying to reach out to the coaches, is that we want to see the sport develop and get better as well. We want to see this curve maybe go up a little bit from this average 3 to 3.3%. So I challenge you to invite this technology into your pool. How do you use these devices to increase the performance of your swimmers? Like I said, I sit back from an engineer’s point of view and say, “If you look at it this way, I think you will get an increase.” The physiologists say, “Here are the systems. This is what we are dealing with.” Everything that we thought was concrete twenty years ago is evolving as well. When it comes to understanding the physiology of the human body, understanding what somebody reacts to, the basics are all the same. But the application and the unique understanding of each individual and how we are going to apply these new technologies in the pool is constantly evolving.

One of the things that I personally like in some of the pools that are available is that they make it accessible to everyone. I realize that some of the products out there are very expensive and sometimes they are cumbersome and sometimes they are difficult to use. Again, I challenge the companies that I have even talked about here to try and increase the accessibility to everyone, myself included. I think that one of the things that we like to stress when we talk to coaches, and we have a lot of you coaches out there that have a loyalty to certain types of things and certain types of products, but one of the things that we always see and one of the things that we are always involved with is trying to advance the sport. How do we make it better? And my door is always open to new technology. I hope yours is too. I hope your pool is open to new technology and I would really like to welcome any questions that you may have. Like I said, from the swimming side, my knowledge may be not as strong as some of the others and Mr. Anderson will be able to field a little bit more of those questions. But we will be around. If you have any questions or you have any suggestions, anything that we might be able to help you with and how to integrate this technology in the pool, I would please welcome you to come by the booth. I thank you for your attention this afternoon. If there is anything that I can do to help, please do not hesitate to contact us.

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