The strive for success in soccer as in many sports has led coaches and players to search for the best possible means of improving performance. Finding that "little bit extra" may be the difference between success and failure. Science and technology are advancing at a very fast rate, affecting all aspects of our lives and sport is no exception to the rule. Performance does depend highly on technologically advanced equipment and this article aims to present various examples of this equipment.
Equipment is vital not just for training but also when testing the performance capacity of players. A good example being the use of laboratory based methods such as treadmills and cycle ergometers. These are used to provide the conditions for simulating exercise for the physiological analysis of performance. The speed of the treadmill can be adjusted to simulate the different running speeds seen in soccer.
The Maximum Oxygen Uptake (VO2 Max - measurement of the body's aerobic capacity) and blood lactate levels of players can be obtained under such conditions to provide useful information on physical performance. Researchers are not only interested in measuring the rate at which lactate is accumulated but also in assessing the importance of anaerobic glycolyisis in the overall supply of energy during match play. Specialised machines such as spirometers and blood lactate analysers provide clear concise graphical output on performance. Other useful devices also exist on the market such as body fat analysers and blood pressure monitors.
Isokinetic machines are often used to test muscle function and strength in soccer players and can be useful in predicting muscle injuries, e.g. muscle imbalance where one leg is stronger than the other and differences between various muscle groups in the same leg, e.g. hamstrings and quadriceps. Soccer players often suffer from hamstring problems and their underlying causes may be determined by using such equipment. These machines may also be useful in building up muscle strength, especially when returning from injury and for accurately monitoring the progress of the injured player.
Force platforms can be used to provide valuable biomechanical information on jumping ability and power output. Electromyography (EMG) is valuable in evaluating co-ordination. The muscle group activity in events such as sprinting can be identified and analysed.
Running speeds of players can be measured using accurate electronic equipment such as photoelectric cells. Stopwatches are often used but increase the risk of error. In addition to recording sprinting speed, kinematic analysis is useful. This involves high-speed cinematography and the computerised reconstruction and simulation, often in 3D of different movements. This is particularly useful as well for breaking down specific techniques such as kicking or throw-ins. Quantitative information is produced on the neuromuscular co-ordination and can be used to compare the progress of a player or to compare players of different levels and ages.
Heart Rate Monitors (HRM) are slowly being accepted as a vital part of training by evaluating the intensity of exercise and setting targets both in training and competition. These are light and do not interfere with play - existing under the form of a chest belt (information transmitter) and a watch (information receiver). They can be used to ensure players are working at or above a target intensity in fitness training. Coaches can also ensure that during non-fitness drills such as tactical or technical drills, players are not working too hard - especially important in light recovery sessions before or after a match. Finally, HRM can also be used to measure the performance of player during games and the information transferred to a computer to provide a detailed graphical and statistical analysis.
Equipment such as the soccer boot has under gone a scientific revolution in recent years. Analysis of the demands placed on the boot show the forces produced from tackles, turns, jumps, sprints.. place a severe strain on it. Boots must be stable, have a good fit, properly hold the rear foot, allow the player to run freely and not interfere with his running style. Certain top players have boots specially designed for their feet. Boots have become more flexible, lighter, responsive and durable. Vast improvements have been made through using better quality material.
The design of soccer balls has also progressed. They are now lighter and more water resistant. This is especially important as many studies have looked at the effect of injuries through heading the ball. Evidence shows that the way a ball is made will affect the possibility of head injury and balls which have absorbed water are more likely to cause injury, especially in younger players. Head protectors which reduce the stress of impacts to the head are now available.
Finally, injuries have and always will be commonplace in soccer. However, players are recovering quicker and more successfully due to advances in rehabilitation equipment and techniques. Machines such as Ultrasound can relieve pain and stimulate the repair of soft tissue injuries by producing heat. Laser therapy decreases pain and inflammation and increases vascularisation (thus provides a better blood supply to the injured area). Injury prevention has also become more successful as knowledge about biomechanical and physiological principles has increased thanks to the equipment described above.
Technology can provide numerous benefits for sport, whether this be in training, competition, injury prevention and rehabilitation. The above article has described various types of equipment currently available to soccer players and coaches. The rapid development of computers and software also provides a powerful means of storing, analysing and visualising the data produced from using this equipment. Technology will continue to advance and provide a means of improving performance which can benefit anyone involved in soccer.
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