Research Project Report Vol. 3

May 08, 2023 TOPICS

Research Project Report Vol. 3
Tackling both world-leading research and human resources development: A research center that supports top athletes’ highest moments with sport science

In the same way that people aim to explore the unexplored areas of space and the deep sea, there are people who aim to go where no one has gone before in the world of sports. At the cutting edge of sports, you will find top athletes who not only compete to win, but who strive to challenge the limits of human ability.

Sport science, which mobilizes cutting-edge research findings to support athletes, is another frontier of knowledge that expands the possibilities of humanity. Professor Tadao Isaka, Vice President of Ritsumeikan University, has embarked on a project to support athletes and develop research personnel across a wide range of disciplines including sports medicine, information science, and engineering.

Cutting-edge sport science that researchers tackle with the same fervor as top athletes

As evidenced by the success of Japanese athletes at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Japan's sport science is among the best in the world, according to Professor Isaka. This is because, in addition to individual coaches and researchers, Japan is home to high-level research centers like the High Performance Sports Center (HPSC) and the Japan Institute of Sports Sciences (JISS) that devote themselves to performing research and supporting athletes. The aim of this project, which was selected for the Advanced Sports Medicine and Science Research Promotion Project, is to establish a research center to support high performance athletes by conducting world-class research in collaboration with the HPSC.

"Looking at the recent Olympic and Paralympic Games and World Championships, top level athletes from every country compete against each other in very close contests, and it is becoming increasingly difficult for athletes and their coaches to prevail through their own efforts alone. To ensure that an athlete can perform at the highest level in a competition, it is necessary to optimize every element that affects them—including but not limited to diet, rest, and training—on a daily basis.

To support top athletes who put their lives on the line to compete, we as researchers must also put our lives on the line. The discipline of sports science supports athletes based on cutting-edge research findings every step of the way, from scientific validation and the use of technology to the study of communication methods.”

Of course, the goal of sport science is not only limited to improving athletes' performance. Another important role of the discipline is to contribute to improving the life performance of the general public at large by building a track record of cutting-edge research outcomes. In terms of this project, another significant aspect is its focus on the development of researchers. So, why is it necessary to develop human resources? Professor Isaka explains.

“It is very important for us to work on outstanding research in academia while we have funding for this project and to actually utilize our findings to support athletes. However, this alone will not lead to a long-lasting effort. In order to develop the field of sport science itself, we need accumulate research outcomes while also cultivating researchers. Excellent people are attracted to places where they can conduct interesting research and where they can play an active role. The goal of this project is to create a core hub for research talent at Ritsumeikan.”

Using science and technology to provide total support to athletes from their daily lives to competitions

With this center, Ritsumeikan will create a framework for the constant development of sport science by combining cutting-edge research with the cultivation of researchers in an effort to produce three outputs: provide support to athletes, provide support for the life performance of the general public, and cultivate research talent. This describes the project in a nutshell.

Next, we asked Professor Isaka to tell us about the three groundbreaking research topics that the project team is working on in collaboration with the HPSC.

"The first research topic is conditioning support for athletes. Among the various factors that influence the condition of athletes, we would like to focus on circadian rhythms, especially sleep, and the female estrous cycle, so that athletes themselves can understand their own biological rhythms.

Specifically, we envision using wearable devices to collect biometric data, which we can then analyze and feed back to the athletes. Collecting so-called ‘individual big data’ on factors like the kind of training and the of kind of sleep conditions that enable good performance, we can provide a set of guidelines that athletes can use to determine how to improve their condition in preparation for a competition. In addition to normal conditions, we will also be able to monitor conditions when athletes travel overseas and are dealing with time differences or to high altitudes, and this will allow us to craft a proper set of guidelines for support.

That being said, we must exercise due caution when we actually utilize this data to support athletes. At all costs, researchers must avoid imposing their own findings on athletes." Particular care must be taken in how feedback is provided, taking into account what effect communicating the results could have on the players, based on their individual personalities, their training regimens, and other factors. According to Professor Isaka, researchers must always coordinate with the coaches who know the athletes better in order to provide them with optimal feedback.

"The second research topic deals with visualizing and predicting the effects of training. For example, it can take up to two to three weeks before athletes can see the effects of strength training. Athletes who are preparing for a competition cannot afford to waste their time with ineffective training methods, so they want to know if what they are doing is truly effective. What’s more, while we can measure the effectiveness of training with strength tests and other methods, the tests themselves can put a strain on athletes’ bodies.

Therefore, we would like to develop a system that can detect biomarkers from athletes' blood and saliva, and in turn, allow us to visualize and predict the effects of training. Initially, blood tests, which are considered the most informative, will be necessary, but we plan to develop less invasive detection markers and methods, preferably using saliva or urine, and eventually using something like an ultrasound that will not put any strain on the athlete’s body.”

The body adapts and changes at different rates for different tissues, such as muscle, bone, and tendon. For top athletes, researchers need to plan for competitions several years in advance, working backward to determine when and what kind of training is needed, and then creating a complex series of simultaneous equations. If the effectiveness of training can be predicted with objective indicators, this will not only allow for more efficient training, it will also reduce the psychological burden on the athletes.

“The last topic is the development of technologies that enable real-time match analysis. By using multiple devices called omnidirectional cameras, which can capture a very wide field of view with high precision, it is possible to closely monitor just the movements of one player in a soccer match, for example. By combining this with information processing technologies such as marker-less motion analysis and facial expression analysis, we aim to analyze not only the performance of players during games, but also their condition and psychological state in real time. All of this technology is available, so now all we need to do is figure out how to make it work together.”

The project truly harnesses all of Ritsumeikan’s resources with the participation of a diverse group of researchers from the College of Sport and Health Science, the College of Science and Technology, the College of Information Science and Technology, and the College of Life Sciences. In this way, science and technology will likely continue to contribute to athletes in an ever-increasing number of situations.

Professor Isaka enthusiastically discusses the project
Professor Isaka enthusiastically discusses the project

Cultivating cutting-edge sport science researchers and feeding research outcomes back into society

What efforts will the project undertake towards its other goal, that is, the cultivation of young researchers? Professor Isaka explains.

“Under this project, we have defined the core researchers who support high-performance athletes as High Performance Core Scientists, and we will establish an integrated training program in cooperation with the HPSC that spans from getting young people interested in sport science to cultivating them into practical researchers.

We want to deepen undergraduate students’ interest in providing support to top athletes by providing them with opportunities to listen to lectures given by HPSC researchers, and we are also considering providing support to students who are researching thesis topics related to athlete support. In addition, the Active Life Co-creation Consortium was launched last year, and open lectures and workshops for the general public are scheduled to start in the upcoming academic year. We hope these initiatives will serve as an opportunity for students to study sport science in a more practical way, either from the undergraduate level or by attracting students from other universities and from the workforce to pursue a master's degree at Ritsumeikan. In the doctoral program, we will send students to HPSC and JISS to conduct joint research and eventually get them fully involved in athlete support either as researchers at Ritsumeikan or researchers at HPSC or JISS.

Of course, there are other non-research career paths our students can pursue. We believe that deploying the findings of sport science in a wide range of fields, including at private-sector companies and local sports medicine and science centers, will allow for research to be fed back to and practically applied in society.”

Beyond the dual focus of research and human resources development, Professor Isaka's vision is to firmly entrench the discipline of sport science in society by way of this project.

“People need to realize that sport science does not only apply to the highest levels of performances like the Olympic and Paralympic Games, it can also be harnessed to improve the quality of life of the general public and, ultimately, the wellbeing of the world. This takes time, so we must keep pursuing research and developing human resources in a cycle. In addition, it is also crucial that the cutting-edge research that is being done in this field in Japan gains recognition from around the world. Because, like sports, research is a global pursuit!”

It is important for students to pursue what excites them and expand upon that in the form of research

Finally, we asked Professor Isaka to share his thoughts on Ritsumeikan University's vision of becoming a "next-generation research university.”

“A university has two major roles: human resources development and research. With our vision of becoming a next-generation research university, Ritsumeikan has decided to engage in human resources development with research as a key component. The most important thing is to conduct research on topics that you can stay interested in. Every student should pursue what excites them and delve further into their research because this will allow them to grow into someone who can generate innovation. To this end, I hope our students take advantage of every available resource, including faculty, staff, the university's research environment, and off-campus networks. The faculty and staff must support students who are inspired to explore. The same applies to the faculty. I think it is important for faculty pursue those things that truly interest them even beyond their own research fields and topics to keep conducting research that could potentially be useful 50 or 100 years down the road.

Personally, I keep doing research to explore why top athletes are able to perform so magnificently. I also like sports because it can bring out the potential of all people, not just athletes. It is now common knowledge that, with proper training, we can build muscle at any age. It is very enjoyable for anyone when they become able to do something they couldn't do before. I hope that students who are going to start conducting research at the university will not view research in a narrow sense, but rather see it as a way to deepen their learning by connecting to whatever interests them, be it sports, culture, art, or lifestyle. I think that is what it means to be a next-generation research university.”

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