Next-generation testing at a lab in Canberra is being used to spot both potential talent and athletes at a higher risk of injury
Five years ago, the Australian moguls team did some testing in Jindabyne, near the ski fields in alpine New South Wales. Sports science is an advanced discipline and elite athletes are often being poked and prodded, or put through their paces on treadmills hooked up to elaborate machines. But this testing was different. The scientists were not measuring physical output, nor requiring athletes to push themselves to the limit. Instead, they were seeking to ascertain less tangible characteristics: spatial orientation and movement control, including proprioception – the so-called “sixth-sense”.
It was new technology and, in the sporting context, largely unproven. Jakara Anthony was one of the athletes to participate in the testing. At the time still a teenager, Anthony was a recent addition to the national mogul squad. She had not yet won any major competitions, but on that day, Anthony scored off the chart.
“It was really interesting data, with each athlete ranked according to the testing – and Jakara topped the list,” says Peter Topalovic, long-time Winter Olympics coach and manager of the winter sports program at the NSW Institute of Sport. Gordon Waddington, the Australian Institute of Sport Professor of Sports Medicine at the University of Canberra who undertook the testing, recalls that Anthony was “very, very good. Substantially better than the broad group she was tested with at the time.”
The following year, Anthony finished fourth at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. Earlier this year, she won the moguls category in Beijing – Australia’s first gold medal at the Winter Games for over a decade. The promise she had shown on that testing day had come to fruition.
The irony was the data had not initially been put to use. The 2018 Olympics blurred into the next world championships (where Anthony finished second) and then the disruption of Covid-19 hit. It was not until the team returned from Beijing that Topalovic, “Toppa” to his athletes, finally had a chance to revisit the testing results. “It gave us an opportunity to reflect back on some of that data, and it was like ‘wow’!” he says. “Really, really interesting stuff.”
Topalovic is eager to make the most of these innovations in sport science. He sees potential to both spot Australia’s next gold medal winners and identify athletes at a higher risk of injury. “I basically used the national mogul team athletes as guinea pigs,” he says. “It’s an area that I want to continue to follow up and continue to see research, because I think there’s value.”
Having predicted the success of Australia’s Winter Olympic star, what’s next for this sports science breakthrough?
The origins of this sporting innovation date back almost three decades. It was in 1993 when Waddington, a researcher, decided to undertake his doctoral studies on how humans perceive ankle movement. For a century, there had been two recognised tests for ankle movement; for his PhD, Waddington invented a third, the “ankle movement extent discrimination apparatus”. He then put it to work studying individuals who had experienced ankle injuries.
This work suggested that individuals with less-refined perception of ankle movement (in effect, worse proprioception) had higher risk of ankle injury. That was an important finding. But it was the next step, in the early 2000s, that would prove a breakthrough for the sporting field. “We thought – if this was the case with injury, does that also influence your broad ability to perform as an athlete – given the platform that we do just about every sport requires you to be controlled on your feet?” says Waddington.
The academic and his colleagues took cross-sectional groups of athletes and segregated them by performance in competitions, coach-rankings and so on. “Sure enough the same thing came up – the best performers were those that had the best scores [on the testing],” he adds. The testing being deployed today is the culmination of that research and more that followed over the past 20 years. “It’s the link between blue sky thinking and applied research,” Waddington says.
But proprioception – our awareness of the positioning of our body – is only one part of the multifaceted human sensory system. Other systems include the visual (what we see) and the vestibular (the balance and spatial orientation created by the eyes and inner ear). Together, these systems (plus others) influence movement control. It was a happy coincidence, then, that Waddington met two other researchers, Dr Elizabeth McGrath and Dr Braden McGrath. “Gordon was focused on the proprioception, while the research Brad and I were doing was in the visual and the vestibular,” says Elizabeth McGrath. “We thought this would be really cool if we put it all together.”
Two years ago, the work was commercialised through a start-up, Prism Neuro. The group are already working closely with many of the Olympic sports that rotate through the AIS in Canberra. The start-up is based at a small office hidden away at the back of the institute’s leafy campus; they get concessional rent in return for working with AIS athletes (“it’s a two-way street,” Waddington says. “It gives us information on what works and what doesn’t.”)
The trio decided to commercialise their research in order to supercharge it. Sport is only one frontier – they also see potential application for military purposes (the McGraths both previously worked at the Naval Aerospace Medical Research Laboratory in the United States), for astronauts (Waddington regularly travels to Houston to work with Nasa, the American space agency) and in aged care. With such potential, external funding was needed to kick-start the venture.
“It’s hard to get funds in Australia in the research space – it’s very competitive,” says Waddington. “So what we can do by commercialising it is to generate more opportunities, more jobs in the space, more research capacity to build new projects. There’s multiple lifetimes of work that can be done.”
When Guardian Australia visited Prism Neuro’s office, it was testing time for seven young athletes from Basketball Australia’s centre of excellence, a residential program based at the AIS. Co-located with the NBA’s Global Academy, the centre has a four-decade history of producing Australia’s best basketballers (Lauren Jackson, Patty Mills and Andrew Bogut all went through the program). But the centre is evidently not afraid of trying new things, either.
One or two at a time, the teenagers climbed the stairs to Prism Neuro’s second-floor testing space. Members of the Sapphires, Australia’s Under-17 women’s basketball team, were about to travel to Hungary for the Fiba junior women’s World Cup (they ultimately finished fifth). But first, they had been asked by their coaches to undertake some slightly unusual testing.
“I never expected testing like this before – it’s interesting and different,” says Summah Hanson, a small forward who had been based at the centre of excellence for six months. “You have the best of everything here [at the AIS]. It helps me get better and hopefully takes me to the next level.”
Prism is presently deploying two primary testing methods, which together measure the function of pathways used by the brain to control movement. The first, using a virtual reality headset, tracks the reactivity of the participant’s eyes to visual stimulation.
“It goes to your brain’s ability to process movement,” says Elizabeth McGrath. “How fast you need to move to catch a ball or kick a ball that’s coming at you.” McGrath began her career studying fighter pilots, where the need is similar. “Some people, if they don’t have good spatial awareness, are not going to be great pilots.”
The testing gives an indication of both the vestibular and visual systems. Cameras in the headset capture eye-movement, which is analysed with the help of artificial intelligence “and a lot of maths”, says McGrath. The testing only takes a few minutes. “It’s amazing how much information you can get about brain function in a three-minute test,” she adds.
The other test sees participants stand bare-foot on a metal plank-like device – an updated version of the tool Waddington developed for his PhD. By rotating the ankle, part of the device dips – the extent of the dip alternating between five levels, from shallow to deep, which change at random. After each rotation the athlete is asked to guess which level has been reached – a test of proprioception in the ankle. This is repeated dozens of times in quick succession.
In a lab at the University of Canberra, five minutes away, Waddington has more machines – although some are markedly less high-tech. Because the testing techniques are so novel, Waddington has had to create some of them himself. “This is all built from Bunnings,” he says. “You have to be an engineer in this game.”
After athletes are tested, they are benchmarked across Prism Neuro’s data-set. For now, the results – how each athletes compared to a wider population of peers – have two primary use cases: talent identification and injury mitigation. Athletes who score well might be stars of the future; those who score poorly might be at higher risk of injury, allowing sporting teams to tailor early interventions or extended recovery.
“What coaches have traditionally done, [they] have been very good at seeing the good movers, and the not so good movers,” says Waddington. “What we can do here is basically put a number on that, put a number on differentiating between who the good movers are and who the not so good movers are.”
This reporter was given the opportunity to be tested using both methods. His below-average scores suggest a career-change to elite skiing does not beckon. “Respectable for a casual athlete,” McGrath subsequently advised, “but no hidden elite talent.”
The work is intriguing and, Waddington says, the sky is the limit. With American sports teams showing keen interest – several have already signed contracts to work with Prism Neuro, although the start-up is tight lipped about these clients – the technology is already being deployed in some of the world’s biggest sports leagues.
Formerly the head of physiotherapy at the University of Canberra, Waddington’s start-up endeavours also point to the increasing focus on linking research and application. “I think that’s an expectation that the universities have now of their professors to actually build more into that innovation and entrepreneurship space,” he says. “It’s a slightly different world from the old days of sitting with your tweed jacket on and your feet up, thinking great ideas. You still have to think great ideas, but we have to make them come out the other end too.”
At a lab in Canberra, the great ideas are bubbling away. And earlier this year, on the slopes of Zhangjiakou near Beijing, Jakara Anthony showed that the ideas are coming out the other end. A gold medallist whose success was foretold by next-generation sports science.
“It’s always nice to see those things,” says Waddington. Ever the researcher, he adds that Anthony’s gold medal was confirmation, not vindication. “I’d seen enough results to not necessarily feel the need to be vindicated.” But as proof of concept, an Olympic gold medal doesn’t hurt.