The modern athlete's edge -- a computer as coach

It's 1984. World-renowned marathoner Alberto Salazar is training for the Olympics. He's in his running clothes, ready to go. But first, he makes one more stop -- at an in-house computer to pick up his program for the day.

It lists the specific exercises to do; if he's using machines, which ones to use and how to use them; what kind of shape he's in; how he did in his last workout, and what to expect for the rest of the week.

Using computers to improve an athlete's performance may seem like futuristic fantasy to some. In reality, the Soviets have been using them extensively for more than 10 years. In the United States, sports experts say computers have been widely used only in the last two or three years.

''Americans have long had the false impression that the Soviets won in the Olympics because they were professional, that the athletes never did anything else in their lives but play their game,'' says Michael Yessis, editor of the monthly journal Soviet Sports Review.

''The truth is, the Soviet system of training athletes is simply very organized -- and computers are an indispensable part of this organization. They use computers to analyze technique, make mathematical models of athletes, create a model type from which to choose future athletes, analyze physiological data during performance, determine the qualities required in a certain sport, process worldwide information about a specific sport, and to predict future successes.''

Experts agree that although the US may be technologically superior to the Soviets, research here tends to remain more theoretical while the Soviets are pragmatic -- applying their research more directly to their athletes. Dr. Yessis notes that although the US is catching up to the Soviets in each of these areas, it isn't learning about what the Soviets have already done.

Researchers acknowledge Dr. Gideon Ariel of the Coto Research Center in El Toro, Calif., as one of the pioneers in the sports computer field. He and his partner, tennis pro Vic Braden (who taught an instructional series on public television last year) work with what's known as a digitizer.

They project a film of the athlete in action onto a screen with an electronic grid. Tracing with an electronic pen, they transfer the film image to a computer , which creates a ''skeleton,'' or a digital figure.

They can then use this to study the placement and alignment of the athlete's body.

Says Mr. Braden, ''Pros think they know what they're doing when they play. Yet, after analyzing over 200 top pros in a wide variety of sports, we found that not a single one was doing in reality what they thought and said they were doing.''

When retired US Olympic discus champion Al Oerter went to the Coto Center, for example, he discovered that the angle of his throwing arm relative to his body was wrong and that he was taking his feet off the ground at precisely the moment he needed the most contact. With the help of the digitizer, he was able to correct both and increased his throwing distance to 221 feet -- nine feet farther than he threw at the peak of his career.

The Olympic Research Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., uses the film system for competition and another type of digitizer for research and teaching, which places light-emitting diodes directly on the athlete's body as he or she performs. Photoelectric cameras create a digital image from the lights while the athlete moves.

Coto is negotiating with Millsport, a subsidiary of the New York advertising firm, Doyle, Dane, Bernbach for a cable television series this fall tentatively entitled ''Future Sports.'' It will show how computers are used, with special emphasis on the Olympic sports. Coaches also will teach, as Braden did with his tennis series.

Researchers agree many coaches and athletes resist computers because they think talent can't be created simply by improving technique.

But Robert Ward, conditioning coach for the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League, disagrees. ''As a teaching and administrative aid, the computer is invaluable,'' he says.

The Cowboys are well-known for their willingness to experiment with new approaches, and many observers think it is a key to their success. The team has used computers to record and analyze opponents' playing tendencies since the mid-1970s.

Last year the Cowboys field-tested a computerized conditioning program (similar to Salazar's imaginary program) with Scientific Conditioning Inc. of Silver Spring, Md.

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