A printout to put you in top form

Owners of a computer center here say they can make practically anyone a better athlete through the use of newly developed electronic techniques to chart human movement -- and that it doesn't make much difference what sport you're talking about.

What the Coto Research Center does is apply computer science to the attainment of optimal physical performance. It looks like a place where TV's Six-Million-Dollar Man might like to take his vacation.

It was founded by Dr. Gideon Ariel, a former Israeli Olympic discus thrower and owner of Computerized Biomechanical Analysis in Amherst, Mass., and Vic Braden, whose unorthodox views on tennis have made him something of a legend.

"Basically what Ariel has done is take the great raw minds of computers and bring them to bear on movement," Braden explained. "He has for the first time let us see the line and meter of human motion and how it applies to athletes."

"For a long time everyone has believed that coaches could see what their athletes were doing wrong and, what's more, that they were able to correct them, " Vic continued. "But the fact is, the human eye cannot quality movement, and that is why our computer breakthrough is so important."

Ariel, who came to this country 17 years ago and is now a US citizen, has a PhD from the University of Massachusetts in exercise science and postdoctoral degree in computer science. Later, when he began to wonder if engineering mechanics could be applied to human movement, he began to study all the engineering he could get.

"Sometimes when I am trying to explain to people what we are doing, I ask them to compare coaches with bridge engineers," Ariel said. "For example, suppose an engineer finishes his bridge and then says: 'Wait, I want to remove that beam.'"

Naturally everyone wants to know why, and so he replies: "Well, I took a survey from among 100 drivers and 75 said it looks better without the beam."

"Basically that is how most coaches coach -- on what looks best," he said. "But if an engineer really did remove that beam, there would be a lot of cars in the river.

"The important things in athletic performance -- the timing, the relative speeds of dozens of body parts, the changes in center of gravity -- all must be measured, weighed, and compared scientifically to be of any use."

What Ariel is saying is that an accurate critical analysis of athletes in motion cannot be made with the human eye. However, any physical endeavor can be analyzed and then perfected using the center's system to qualify movement.

The analytical process at Coto, which is the only center of its kind, according to Ariel and Braden, is a series of carefully coordinated steps. It begins by filming an action, such as a golf swing or tennis stroke, in slow motion (up to 10,000 frames per second).

After the film is developed, a special digitizer pen traces the body's position, one frame at a time. That data is then fed ito the computer. What appears on the screen is a continuous series of representative stick figures, with the computer analyzing each phase of the aciton.

A printout compares actual performance with a theoretically perfect one, and gives specific recommendations for modifying and improving techniques.

When four-time Olympic discus winner Al Oerter visited Ariel for help, he was 43 years old and a retired from competition. His longest Plympic throw had been 212.6 feet.

"What we did," Ariel said, "was take some high-speed film of Oerter in action and then compare his performance with those of previous years. We expected him to be a lot slower after his layoff, and he was.

"But what surprised us was how inefficiently Al had been throwing. The way he was releasing the discus was causing the throwing force to be misdirected.

"We discovered that the angle of his arm relative to his trunk was all wrong for maximum leverage and that his feet were leaving the ground at a time when he needed maximum contact with the throwing circle. Actually when he came to us, he was only throwing about 180 feet."

But once Oerter began to study his computer image, he immediately saw where he was making mistakes. It only a short time, Al was throwing the discus more than 221 feet, far better than he ever did in his prime.

The center makes no claim that it can turn an ordinary athlete into a superstar -- only that it can help anyone reach his or her maximum potential, whatever it is.

Two years ago a magazine gave Ariel photos of Jack Nicklaus and former President Ford using a driver. Ariel concentrated his analysis on the downswing , after tests showed the backswing wasn't as important.

"With President Ford we found that his legs and hips went pretty much in the same direction," Gideon said. "In fact, he actually has a smoother swing than Nicklaus and faster overall velocity, except that he doesn't snap the club as well.

"Even if the President were to learn how to do this as well as Nicklaus does, he still wouldn't hit the ball as far. But he would hit it as far as he could.

The point is, what works for one athlete probably won't work for another, simply because few people's height, weight, and strength are going to be the same. But the computer, according to Ariel, can show us how to get there faster and probably better.

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