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Skeleton is an extreme Winter Olympic sport where drivers navigate a frozen track travelling head-first on a carbon-fibre sled, using only minor adjustments of their upper torso and toes to steer. These runs typically last for 50-70 seconds with drivers achieving velocities of up to 130 km/h and experiencing anywhere between 5g-8g during turns. Everything about the sport is individualised to maximise the velocity at which the athlete-sled system can travel down the track. It’s one of the most exhilarating sports in the world and one of the most fascinating with respect to finding champions. Since it’s re-introduction as an Olympic discipline in 2002 five countries have emerged as dominant in the sport, accounting for 90% of the total medal tally. Of particular interest is the performance of Team GB. How does a country with no snow and no ice-track have so much success? How have they grown and sustained such excellence in a sport that does not lend itself to the geography and topography of the nation?
One of the most important roles that we as sports scientists and elite sport support specialists fulfil, is that of identifying and developing athletic potential. The sport of skeleton has benefited greatly from the finding and fostering of talent from other sports. In fact many Olympic level athletes have migrated from other sporting domains through national talent identification pathways, transitioning from novice to elite competitors in as little as 14 months .
This poses the question: how is this possible? Well the sport of skeleton is quite deterministic, meaning; we can largely predict what will result in high-level performance. In the case of skeleton, that includes: a fast push-start, lightning fast reactions, and someone who handles pressure excellently. As such, national bodies of sport have invested in talent identification that generally align to the performance cycles of Olympiads or World Games. The aim is to search for athletes who already possess several of the key determinants of performance, and then build a world-class performer from this advantaged position.
The British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association in partnership with UK Sport ran such a campaign in 2014 called “Power 2 Podium”. As a biomechanist I was a member of the sport science team who delivered the testing sessions across the UK. Our aim: identify 5-10 male and female athletes with the potential to enter into either a four or eight year cycle of Olympic and World level competition. There was no official criteria for athletes to enter the campaign and we had over 500 individuals from a variety of sporting backgrounds participate in the testing days. This sometimes meant testing over 150 people in a single day. Due to restrictions in testing equipment availability and facility space we were limited to delivering testing at a few elite sporting institutions across the UK. What follows is a brief overview of what we tested and why.
The main component for a successful skeleton athlete is an exceptionally fast push-start. The push-start is where the athlete sprints in a semi-upright position and then positions themselves prone on the sled at the start of the race. This has a high correlation with maximal velocity achieved and subsequent performance and placing. Colyer and colleagues  identified the key physical determinants of elite skeleton start performance as:
So for the talent identification programme, essentially, you need to find someone who is fast, powerful and agile. These key determinants were included in a wider comprehensive testing battery in 2014 which included:
Psychological Testing: Used to ensure the right mindset and approach to training, along with problem solving, team-work, and self-discipline skills among others.
Sport Specific Memory Assessments: To test athletes innate ability for task-specific recall, they were provided with point of view videos of the track and were quizzed on their recall of particular turns and sections after one viewing.
Anthropometric Assessment: An athlete’s physical dimensions and weight distribution is a key factor in the sport of skeleton. From two main perspectives, the ‘right shape’ optimises both aerodynamics (minimise air resistance) and weight distribution on the sled. When we consider the body and sled as a single system, the balancing of these two bodies is crucial to success.
Sprint Ability: As velocity is probably the most crucial factor for sprint start success, a 40m sprint test with intermittent markers at 5m, 10m and 20m was used to assess performance. This was assessed using an infrared timing gates system and athletes were required to start in a three-point stance which mirrors the conditions of the skeleton one-handed start.
Strength-Power Characteristics: As with any sprint activity, sustaining maximal power at as high a running cadence as possible is another key factor for the skeleton start. This was assessed using a 10 Second Wingate Test (cycle ergometer) using maximum wattage, the decline in wattage, and average rpm as key criteria.
Lower-limb Power: Maximal power is a predictor of sprint ability. When we consider the added challenge in the sport of skeleton i.e. pushing the sled during the sprint, being as powerful as possible is paramount to performance. Using integrated force platforms the countermovement jump test (jump height) was used to assess lower limb power.
These types of national talent identification campaigns can yield great success but require a great deal of effort. Although we had access to some of the best emerging sport scientists in the UK, there were several issues experienced with delivering such a large testing battery to so many athletes in varying locations.
All of the above tests required access to a range of cumbersome and expensive technologies including: timing gates, cycle ergometers, force platforms, and goniometers among others. Each of these systems requires various levels of user-expertise and the resultant data was in different formats. As such, we were required to manually input the results into an online document that synchronised data at timed intervals throughout the day. Performance coaches and selectors had access to this information via UK Sport tablets. This was an inefficient process and given the task demands of athlete testing, data was usually updated retrospectively to the online sharing document at the end of the testing day.
This would have been easily overcome by deploying the Output Capture and Hub systems as a ubiquitous solution to these issues. The key physical performance testing components could have been delivered using several of the Output Capture testing modules (below) and the results would have been updated automatically in Output Hub via the leader-boards with the potential for bespoke report generation for the top performers. Ultimately, this unified approach would have been easier and more affordable to implement replacing the more expensive, specialist, time-intensive, and cumbersome alternatives aforementioned.
Traditionally, lack of access to facility and testing equipment has meant that this process of talent identification has been exclusive to large sporting organisations such as NGOs or professional sports teams. From the “Power to Podium” programme to the NFL combine, performance testing batteries have become synonymous with best practice for athlete selection across a multitude of sports. For the first time, every practitioner in every sport has the ability to use a ubiquitous research-grade system for objective talent identification and performance assessment.
Output provides many of the most translational assessments for athletic potential assessment. What’s important is to remember the key steps in the process:
Consult the evidence: Understand what determines optimal performance in your sport, use an evidence based-approach and your own experience to make decisions.
Misplaced Diamonds: Consider what other types of athlete may already possess several of these key factors.
Cast a wide net: If you can, recruit generally and then hone in on your target group. Making the right choices at step one can mean the difference between Olympic Gold or non-competitor.
Trust the data and your gut: Deliver objective assessments in a valid and reliable manner that best reflect the performance demands of your sport, but also apply your expertise as a practitioner. It’s a balanced decision making process.
Find and Develop: Identifying the potential is only Step 1. Afterwards is where the real work begins for both athlete and coach.
In the future, the streamlining and ubiquitous nature of sensor-based athlete assessment with integrated back-end systems, coupled with advanced machine learning algorithms may facilitate successful talent identification models that have never been possible before!
Research Scientist, Aodhan Hickey discusses the use of the oUtput technology and how it could have aided his past talent-ID work with TeamGB.
Photo Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:2020-01-19_1st_run_Women%27s_Skeleton_(2020_Winter_Youth_Olympics)_by_Sandro_Halank–083.jpg