Biomechanics: refers to the science that applies the principles of mechanics to the study of living organisms. Biomechanists study kinematics (description of motion) and kinetics (forces associated with such motion) to determine the effects of such motion on both, the external environment and on the body itself.
It can have a wide range of applications, including rehabilitation, day to day functionality optimization, workplace ergonomics, or injury prevention and sports sports performance. In this article we will take a closer look at who biomechanists are as professionals, and how they can help the sports community.
I am going to start by saying that sports biomechanists are NOT therapists, trainers or coaches! We often get confused by professionals in these careers. Although biomechanics is an important component of their success as professionals, they take a practical approach to biomechanics in what’s concerned with their own expertise, whereas we are specialists in the subject.
We usually start by viewing human motion with a broader lens, and then we zoom into moments of interest to analyze various biomechanical factors such as: joint angles, velocities, muscular activations, sequences, and many other parameters to determine the effectiveness and risks of movement strategies.
We are here to assist therapists, coaches, trainers, patients, engineers, product designers, or anyone who would be interested in measuring movement for whatever reason.
Biomechanists usually have an MSc or PhD in the field, so we all have varying experiences in terms of application. For example, some of us may be focused on optimizing sports performance, whereas others may have analyzed different rehabilitative therapies, figured out a way to screen for diseases that may have characteristic movement patterns, used computer and biomechanical models to find the stresses inside a joint associated with different postures (that was me), or determined the most effective and safe way to perform work activities (that was me again)!
As you can see, even within biomechanists, the skills and levels of expertise among us can vary greatly just because we come from different experiences. At the end of the day, however, we all study movement in one way or another.
In the world of sports, coaches often work alongside other professionals such as strength and conditioning coaches, physiotherapists and in some cases even psychologists to help optimize their team performance. It is the perfect example of teamwork!
However, when it comes to injury prevention efforts, team members often have different perspectives. The team physiotherapist, for example, may have a different point of view about an injury in comparison to that of the sports coach. These differences in perspectives about injuries can make it difficult for everyone to be on the same page when it comes to finding solutions. Biomechanists can help in providing tangible data to aid bringing the coaches and support staff together.
A therapist for example, comes into action mainly when an athlete shows signs of pain or injury. She/he must understand the biomechanics of the injury and the regional anatomy of the affected area to proceed with an effective rehabilitation protocol. Most often the role of the therapist is concerned with treating athletes who are already injured and returning them to play rather than preventing injury per se. A good therapist may be able to give advice on technique, but her/his job is not to analyze movement strategies nor to identify risk.
Similarly, a good sports coach is usually able to identify strategies that tend to hurt her/his athletes based on experience. However, movement quantification is not a common skill in coaches, so evaluation and tracking are often subjective.
We provide quantifiable movement analyses; we have a unique skill set that allows us to know how to select the movement parameters that matter to the athletes’ goals. We know what, when, and how to measure, what variables to extract from the data, and how to make sense of it. We provide the information each team member needs to shine through their champ-development journey.
A friend of mine (a great volleyball coach) served as a great example when he used biomechanics to help his son. A few days back he said “Liz, my boy (a high jumper) was only jumping 2.18 m and, for some reason, he wasn’t going any higher. I am not a high jumping coach, but I can understand jumping. The way he was jumping was telling me something wasn’t right, so I decided to record him. I wasn’t sure of what I was doing but I told him to try to change his arm movement at take-off. So he did, practiced over 2 weeks and ended up jumping 2.26 m at his next meet!”.
Video & High Jump Images: Courtesy of Volleyball Coach Roberto Vilchez, father of Roberto Vilchez – 2020 NCAA High Jump All-American. Third at the 2019 High Jump Pan American Games.
In a nutshell, we are the scientists who provide the relevant data and helpful interpretations to coaching staff to help them meet their goals. Our recommendations are based on data rather than experience or opinions. When looking for a biomechanist, I recommend that you also look at their “hands-on” experience related to the activities they study. A biomechanist who has experienced the motions and forces related to a certain niche activity will be much more effective in their parameterization journey.
Summary from the RVZ press release: https://bit.ly/3qGXq2V