The science behind Team Singapore

Stefanus Ian
Yahoo Newsroom
Joash Ng (left) and Benoit Ammann of the data analytics team showcasing SSI’s latest tools to help athletes analyse their performance data.

(Photos by Kok Yufeng and Andre He)

The dust may have settled on the 2015 SEA Games and the ASEAN Para Games, but there has been no rest for the team of sports scientists at the Singapore Sports Institute (SSI).

With the Olympics just months away, the buzz of activities at the SSI has been relentless as they gear up to support Singapore’s Rio-bound athletes with a slew of tools and infrastructure, designed to help them achieve optimal performance.

These run the gamut — from the much-vaunted Altitude House, where athletes can simulate living in high altitude conditions, to labs where scientists can study physiology, biomechanics and nutrition.

Even with all the cutting-edge technology housed within its 3,000 sq m premises at the Sports Hub, SSI’s head Robert Gambardella is gazing into the future. His science fiction-inspired vision is one where coaches and athletes can access and visualise key performance data right at their fingertips.

And it is already starting to take shape.

A mock-up data visualisation of swimmer Quah Zheng Wen using fictitious data. When the integrated platform is up and running, athletes and coaches can access such data visualisation from an online portal.

Integrated Platform

An online platform is currently being developed, where all the data collected by SSI can be consolidated into a centralised database.

From nutrition, training performance indicators, to sleeping patterns, no stone is left unturned in SSI’s efforts to give Singapore’s athletes a leg up over their competition.

“In the analytics space, I think we have really taken an aggressive approach,” said Gambardella, 61.

“Once we get our platform up and running, I think it will be something that other countries will then look at,” he added.

Slated to launch before the Olympics in August, Benoit Ammann, the deputy director of the High Performance Sports Analytics and Technology, said the new platform can give coaches an insight into more precise data.

For a sport like swimming, race analysis could yield data such as stroke rate, the distance covered per stroke, velocity over certain distances and much more. Through the visualisation of these performance indicators, coaches can make specific changes to training regimes and compare how athletes are performing compared to their peers.

The four-man analytics team at SSI also use video analytic tools to complement the data they compile.

During the recently concluded SEA Games, SSI was able to tap into the broadcasters’ feed and collect video footage of the competition. Video clips of an athlete’s performance can then be dissected frame-by-frame and from multiple angles.

A frame-by-frame breakdown of a hockey player’s shot can help to spot any specific posture that the athlete can improve on.

Although the video analytics technology being used is similar to what Ammann had worked with when he was collaborating with Team Great Britain during the London 2012 Olympics, there are currently no off-the-shelf solutions for an integrated platform.

“We have to build it (ourselves),” said the 39-year-old. “Everything will be integrated in terms of data visualisation, data collection and the video part as well."

“This will be a world-class level of technology that hasn’t been implemented yet and everyone in our network is saying that we are leading the way,” he added.

Hot and high training

Apart from analytics, the SSI is also making continuous strides in its sports science infrastructure. By the end of February, the SSI will offer Singapore’s top athletes the option of training in an environmental chamber, where temperature, humidity, wind speed and oxygen levels can be controlled.

Frankie Tan, a senior sport physiologist who heads the Sports Science department, said the environmental exercise chamber allows athletes to train in high temperatures and in hypoxic conditions.

The environmental exercise chamber can simulate high wind speeds, which have an effect on a cyclist's performance.

Training in high temperatures — ranging from 38 to 40 deg C — helps athletes to do more through increased and faster blood circulation, Tan said. It can also aid in their recovery by triggering muscles to protect themselves during high-intensity training.

Hypoxic training, which refers to training in low oxygen levels, allows athletes to carry more oxygen in the blood by increasing the amount of red blood cells. This enables them to push their bodies further than if they were to train at sea level.

“At sea-level, the oxygen content is about 20.9, close to 21, per cent. This chamber will allow us to bring the oxygen content to as low as 11 per cent,” said Tan, 45.

Traditionally, athletes have to travel overseas to be able to train in such conditions. But once the new chamber is up and running, and with the Altitude House right next to it, SSI may very well become a one stop shop for any athlete's needs.

Senior sport physiologist Frankie Tan explaining the different capabilities of the Environment Exercise Chamber.

360-degree support

Marathoner Soh Rui Yong said the SSI takes a holistic approach to supporting an athlete.

“From a doctor, to the physio to the masseuse and sports dietician, the resources are all there to tap on,” the SEA Games marathon gold medallist told Yahoo Singapore.

“Basically everything an athlete needs, you can find at SSI and I think they are really doing their best to support our athletes in a very 360-degree kind of way,” added the 24-year-old.

The environmental chamber was not ready in time for Soh to train there so he stayed at the Altitude House for more than a month to acclimatise and prepare for a training stint in Kenya from 7 February to 23 March.

Suffering from tissue inflammation injury on his left foot, Soh was also able to tap on SSI’s anti-gravity treadmill to aid in his recovery.

“SSI’s facilities are on par with the US Olympic training centres,” said Soh, who has trained in the University of Oregon in the United States. “We already have some of the best equipment out there.”

“I am sure the US is still more advanced in some ways, but in terms of our facilities, there are not many places in the world that can match up to what SSI has,” he added.

Grooming athletes and scientists

But SSI is not only a place to help athletes perform better as it is also grooming the next generation of sports scientists. Head Sport Biomechanist Marcus Lee takes undergraduates from the Nanyang Technological University’s Sport Science programme under his wing, mentoring them for at least a year and assisting them with their final-year projects.

At the biomechanics lab, the 33-year-old sports scientist uses cutting-edge video analysis and even motion capture technology -- the same ones used in movies like "The Lord of The Rings" -- to analyse an athlete’s posture and technique. The lab is able to record an athlete’s movements in three dimensions and analyse them.  WTA tennis player Caroline Wozniacki recently came into the lab during her stop in Singapore to try out the video analysis technology.

The undergraduates who go through their internship with Lee stay with the SSI for up till their final year projects, culminating in a project that will be published in a peer-reviewed publication journal.

‘I will only take them in if they carry on their FYPs with us then we have a year we can give them a robust experience, teach them research skills, good presentation skills so that they can get one general publication (in a scientific journal),” said Lee.

“It contributes to the science, contributes to our training programmes for the sport, and by the time they leave we hope that they carry on in this (sports science) path.”