IT Business.ca: Mitacs researcher using tech to improve Canada’s canoe and kayak teams
[The below transcript has been edited for clarity and flow]
ITBusiness.ca: Can you explain some of the technology that you’ve been working on recently for Canoe Kayak Canada?
Josh Goreham: Yeah sure. My research with Canoe Kayak Canada is really looking to better understand sports techniques and athletes’ techniques, and we measure those in a couple different ways. First would be looking at how the athlete actually moves, and we’ve starting to use motion capture devices for that. Traditionally, we’d use high speed cameras but now we’re moving to use a wearable sensor called Notch, which uses small inertial measurement units to basically track a full body if you have enough of these Notch devices attached. Once we put the sensors on the athletes while they paddled, we were able to get real time information. The best part about these sensors is that they talk to each other so we can get real time feedback like athlete limb angles, joint angles, etc.
I’m also using another kind of inertial sensor that’s very basic but it has an accelerometer, a gyroscope [which measures orientation and angular velocity], and GPS, and we put those on the boat to better understand its movements. They’re similar technology, but we need to look at the boat sensors a bit further. It’s technology that’s been used at Canoe Kayak before but we’re looking to take it to the next step.
ITB: You mentioned that Canoe Kayak Canada uses tech already, so can you tell me about it and what that next step looks like?
JG: In the past, Canoe Kayak has looked at things like boat velocity and stroke rate, or how a boat accelerates. We can use an algorithm, pick up when there was a stroke, and then we can understand how many strokes they took per minute. This is all crucial data for a coach or an athlete preparing for a race because it gives them information for things like pacing strategies. The very cool part about this is as tech has developed, the International Canoe Federation, so the governing body of the sport, has actually put sensors on every boat over the past few years. And this information [velocity and stroke rate] is publicly available.
But I want to look at more than just pacing or velocity, so I’m using my research to understand more about the boat’s movement in the water and how an athlete works with the boat. Using a gyroscope, for example, we can look at how a boat’s pitch, yawn, or roll might affect an athlete’s raw performance. Or what about surface area? The more surface area on a boat, the more drag there is, so how can we minimize that? Obviously we do need some boat motion in order to move it, so what is the minimal amount of boat motion we can use to reduce drag but also have a good race time?
ITB: That’s quite a wide scope.
JG: Exactly. We’re trying to find new ways of using data just like any other sport or athlete would. One of the cool new things in our research is real time information. A lot of the stuff we used to do was all post-process, as in we put a sensor on the boat, the athlete goes and does their workout, and then we download the data, analyze it, and within two or three hours, get the reports back to the coach and the athlete. Our new research is working on making real time updates easier because it’s possible, but it’s a little complicated right now. We’re playing with the idea of giving the coach in the boat a tablet so the athlete’s sensor data can be sent directly through radio or Bluetooth to their tablet so they have everything they need immediately and there’s no post processing.
ITB: Your research is funded by the Canadian nonprofit group Mitacs, as well as by Own the Podium, which is Canada’s organization that works to deliver more Olympic medals. Are you seeing them looking into more technology to help Canadian athletes?
JG: I don’t think it’s out of the question, that’s for sure. I think Canada is right up there with other nations. Own the Podium is definitely doing a great job of bringing all of the best sport scientists within Canada together to think of new things and ways that we can use technology to better understand sports. And it’s really important to note that everything in sports, sports technology, and sports science really needs to be driven by the coach. If it helps a coach answer a question or helps their team’s performance, no one will tell them they can’t go further with this research. If it’s helping coaches and their athletes, everyone is all for it.
ITB: I know you’re obviously not done yet but have you heard any early feedback or have you seen any early performance improvements already?
JG:I’ve worked with the team for a few years now and while I’ve heard from other sports that some coaches don’t buy into the tech – like some coaches are old school or traditional or they don’t believe in tech or sport science – I think in Canoe Kayak, 90 per cent of coaches are really all for this. Athletes are all for this. They want to know any new information that can help them improve and that’s really the goal. The tech answers some of our questions but also opens up new questions about sports and athlete performances. So yes, the research isn’t finished yet but it’s been very helpful so far and I’m pleased with the feedback from coaches and athletes.
ITB: That touches on my next question – when the Olympics were going on in February, a New York Times article came out that said humans have essentially reached their peak physicality and that most records going forward will be broken due to technological advances instead of physical prowess. As a sports scientist, you work with the athletes and the tech, so to what extent do you agree or disagree with that article?
JG: That’s a great question. I remember reading that article and honestly, I don’t know. World records are continuously being broken, but as far as it being just due to technology, I don’t want to fully comment on that because I think anything’s possible. We see new things happening in sports every year, or new great athletes popping up all the time. I think tech will definitely help and drive a lot of record-breaking going forward, but there will still be records broken just due to physical prowess.
ITB: Do you think there’s too much tech in sports?
JG: There is technology out there that, in my opinion, doesn’t necessarily work the way maybe it’s supposed to, or ways that coaches or athletes may think it does. I think a big process of sports technology right now needs to be the validation process. We really need to validate technology to make sure the consumer, one knows what they’re using, two is getting data that actually makes sense and is actually true. Cause we can really mislead coaches and athletes in that sense and we really don’t wanna do that. If you’re gonna keep technology here I get you need to sell the product and what not but you do need to validate this equipment in order to make sure that we know exactly what we’re getting when we use it.
ITB: Thanks for your time, Josh.
JG: My pleasure, thanks for having me on the show.