Analysis: How did Joseph Schooling get to where he is today?

Dr Martin Grunert at PSB Academy shares his insights on sports and science in an exclusive interview.


How can we work on improving sports performance in individuals? Dr Martin Grünert, Head of School of Life and Physical Sciences at the PSB Academy, shares with us his insights on sports and science in this exclusive story for RUN Singapore online.

The impact of sports on both the lives of individuals and the global economy cannot be understated. In Singapore, Joseph Schooling’s gold medal win at the Rio Olympics not only ignited every eight-year old’s dream to become a renowned athlete but also sparked a zealous national dialogue on various social and political issues, such the accessibility of sporting opportunities and funding for local sportsmen.

Amidst the slew of conversations, an interesting topic that emerged revolved around the instrumentality that sports science played in Schooling’s big win.

Science as a Driver of Sports


As we explore the future of professional sports, it is increasingly prevalent that the realm of competition has moved beyond just physical activity to now incorporate the areas of science and technology skills.

Along with the overlapping of fields also came an increase in the number of overall objectives from the moment training for a game begins until well after the sportsman departs from the sporting arena. Fundamentally, the very objective of harnessing the tools and wisdom of science is to extend the professional career and life span of athletes, as well as customising instruction and training to allow them to compete in an increasingly competitive global arena.

To achieve this, coaches and experts not only want to increase sports performance, but also seek to raise levels of physical fitness and well-being, reduce the risk of injury, speed up recovery, and bring communities together through this shared celebration of the human body and its capabilities.

These intents are examined through the study of sports science which delves into more disciplines than what is common to most.

The study of physiology, for instance, examines the changes and growth within the body of a sportsperson in response to training. The study of biomechanics permits coaches and athletes to analyse the human body as a physical machine in order to achieve peak performance. This is paired with instruction in coaching and psychology to emphasise and remind sportsmen of the role that the mind plays in one’s performance.

Given the fierce, split-second competition frequently seen in professional sport, a sustainable mental wellbeing strategy could well be the defining factor between finishing at the front of the pack and not finishing at all.

We consider how the amalgamation of these areas served as the foundation of Schooling’s record-breaking butterfly race and guide students in understanding the very principles utilised by this athlete in achieving his success.

Tailoring the Sport to the Individual


From the 1980s until the early 2000s, the competitive swimming community looked for athletes with the same physical qualities as the top swimmers of the day. An example of a defining characteristic of these world champions is large hands and feet.

How then did Schooling, a young adult with noticeably shorter limbs and a good 9cm shorter than decorated Olympian, Michael Phelps, take home the gold medal?

The magic lay in the understanding of fluid dynamics and biomechanics, which are specific areas of instruction for sports science students. These areas of study describe to how the body can move efficiently and reduce resistance in water, thereby allowing the athlete to expend energy more efficiently during a race.

During the Olympics in Rio, Schooling worked with Ryan Hodierne, a sports biomechanist at the Sports Science Centre at Singapore Sports Institute.

Hodierne painstakingly went through hours of race footage, comparing Schooling’s performance to his competitors. He broke down each race, looking at start performances, reaction times off the block, swim speed, the approach to a turn, and the final swim to the finish.

Through this biomechanics-mediated understanding of physics and keen observations in Schooling’s swimming patterns, Hodierne and his team were able to construct sensible training targets and address the underlying hindrances to attaining Schooling’s goal.

The Athlete’s Mentality


We often read about athletes overcoming physical disabilities such as Jim MacLaren who broke records in the Ironman triathlons, and Marla Runyan who ran in the 1500 meters of the 2000 Olympics while being legally blind.

Above and beyond working doubly hard to keep their physical bodies fit for competitive sport, a common denominator that places these athletes in the league of legends is that of mental toughness - something strongly underpinned by the study of human psychology.

In the world of sports, mental performance training is just as important as physical training, and there are procedures that help athletes control their minds efficiently and consistently as they execute sport-related goals. This not only involves developing skills such as concentration and stress control, but also includes efforts to influence personal characteristics such as self-esteem and sportsmanship.

In the case of Schooling, his coach and team of scientists made it a point to take the mental strain off the 100m champion.

Sonya Porter, technical director at Singapore Swimming Association, said, “It was about him even at that point understanding that these guys were now chasing him. He was no longer chasing them. Their numbers didn’t even match up to his in any context, from anything they had even done in the past. That became a turning point that, all right, now I do my own race.”

As such, it could be said that the constant assessment and regulation of Schooling’s psychological health played a critical role in boosting his overall performance within the competitive sports environment. Indeed, understanding human psychology and its capacity to “make or break” an athlete’s individual performance makes it mandatory at all levels of competitive sport.

As much as sport is not distinguished between different backgrounds or socioeconomic statuses, the accessibility of sports science should not be perceived as a luxury reserved for only the best of athletes.

Apart from the availability of Sports Science diplomas and degrees, aspects of the disciplines can also be easily incorporated into the physical education curriculum of primary and secondary schools, as well as into the personal training ambitions of amateur and casual sports enthusiasts alike.

It is important to recognise that sport will continue to evolve at a corresponding rate to the advancement of science and technology. The education of individuals in the core principles of sports and exercise science is a critical cornerstone in any nation’s quest to not only breed a fertile community to gives rise to greatness but to build a fit, able and healthy society that contributes to the well-being of the populace.

As such, the sporting industry in Singapore needs to embrace the power of sports science if we desire to continue achieving athletic feats that place us on the world map, with education playing a most crucial role in providing the necessary tools to achieve this goal.


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