Helping Paralympians Go for Gold

Sports biomechanics researcher Barry Mason is closely watching the Paralympic Games this week as they unfold in London. Mason, a research associate at the Peter Harrison Centre for Disability Sport (PHC) at Loughborough University in the United Kingdom, is one of a handful of sports scientists working with the Great Britain and Northern Ireland performance analysis team.

“If a coach or an athlete felt they were struggling slightly with an area like their initial acceleration performance, they might think it was due to a certain configuration within their wheelchair.”—Barry Mason

Mason will also be in the rare position to see his own research have an impact on some of the games. Over the past few years, Mason has been studying how to optimize the on-court mobility of rugby, basketball, and tennis athletes through better wheelchair configuration. “It’s great to see all of the guys that you’ve worked with and on the odd occasion managed to help … competing on such a big stage,” Mason says.

For the love of sport

Mason’s passion for sport is what first attracted him to science. “When I was younger, I always wanted to be a professional footballer,” Mason says. “Unfortunately though, … I was always very good at a wide range of sports instead of being exceptional at one,” adds Mason, who also enjoyed playing tennis, golf, badminton, and cricket. After studying A-level physical education at upper school, Mason decided that “science was the way … to find out in a bit more detail about what was going on in the sports.”

Mason earned a Bachelor of Science degree—with honors—in sport and exercise science in 2004 from the University of Chichester in the United Kingdom. For his undergraduate dissertation, he studied how the ground reaction forces differ during foot-up and foot-back tennis serves. Mason was drawn to how the laws of mechanics helped him understand how the body works in sports, so he specialized in biomechanics during a 1-year master’s degree program. For his master’s research, he studied fast bowling technique with elite junior-level cricket players.

What finally beckoned Mason into the field of disability sport was an ad for a 4-year Ph.D. program at Loughborough University. Funded by the United Kingdom’s High Performance Sports Agency—UK Sport—and the British Paralympic Association, the Ph.D. involved part-time research and part-time consulting work with elite wheelchair athletes. “That was quite a nice blend between the theoretical side and the practical side,” Mason says.

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His desire “to apply his research to an applied sports science setting” rather than eventually becoming just a lecturer is what earned Mason the position, Vicky Tolfrey, his Ph.D. supervisor and PHC’s director, writes in an e-mail to Science Careers.

The research side

Elite athletes are used to tinkering with the configuration of their wheelchairs in order to boost their sports performance, but they often do so using trial and error. In his Ph.D. research, Mason used an ergonomics approach to design wheelchair configuration for optimal on-court mobility during games. He tested, for example, how different sizes of the main wheels affect the physiological demand and biomechanics of wheelchair propulsion. As wheelchair basketball, rugby, and tennis athletes pushed on a stationary treadmill, Mason measured their oxygen uptake and heart rate. He also recorded high-speed video footage to determine three-dimensional joint kinematics in their upper body such as shoulder flexion and elbow extension. Finally, he generated power output and mechanical efficiency data using force-sensing handrims on their chairs.

But it wasn’t all in the lab. “We would then take that … into a sports hall and see how the different wheel sizes and other different configurations affected their on-court performance,” Mason says. Using a velocometer attached to their wheelchairs, Mason looked at the influence of wheelchair design on athletes’ on-court mobility, focusing on parameters such as peak sprinting speed, initial acceleration, and wheelchair maneuverability.

Mason’s research questions were largely driven by the needs of the coaches and athletes to whom he offered advice based on his findings. On occasion he also performed one-off, individual case studies. “If a coach or an athlete felt they were struggling slightly with an area like their initial acceleration performance, they might think it was due to a certain configuration within their wheelchair, so they may put forward that athlete to be tested,” Mason says.

“He has become knowledgeable and well liked in the field of paralympic sport,” Tolfrey writes. “He listens to the problems and scientifically addresses a research study that has performance impact.”

In the middle of the action

For the consulting half of his Ph.D., Mason also supported the wheelchair squads he worked with during training camps and competitive games, taking on a variety of roles, such as working as a wheelchair mechanic and collecting and analyzing video footage of the athletes’ performance. This brought Mason to the front row of national wheelchair basketball competitions, international rugby tournaments, and even to the Paralympics.

Mason attended the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing, collecting video footage for the British Paralympic Association of young athletes who had been identified as potential medalists at the next games in London. “It was really, really good to be part of the national squads, traveling over to a different country to try and help your athletes perform,” he says. It is in a similar capacity that Mason is now attending the London Paralympics, this time to collect footage for a range of sports that have requested this support.

Rewards and Challenges

Though it came with its share of glamour and excitement, his Ph.D. program’s tie-ins to the sports world also made it more challenging. Mason felt pulled at times between his academic and consulting duties, and not only in terms of managing the workload. In a Ph.D., “everything has to be done in a very controlled manner … so that the research is reliable and valid, and a coach isn’t always interested in that, they just want a quick fix and a quick answer.”

He also had to work within several research constraints. One was that wheelchair configuration in competitive sports needs to comply with a set of design specifications set by national and international bodies. Another was the limited access to full-time, professional athletes. “It’s all just shaped around trying to get good data from them but trying not to impinge on their time too much and not to impinge on their exertion levels too much,” Mason says.

Since obtaining his Ph.D. and taking his current research associate position, in February 2011, Mason has been looking to expand his research into a new area. These days, GPS technology is often used to monitor the mobility demands of certain sports, but this is not possible with indoor, wheelchair sports. In collaboration with UK Sport and McLaren Applied Technologies, “We’ve actually developed an indoor tracking system that’s capable of monitoring the athletes’ workloads, such as the distances they’ve covered, the speeds they’ve reached,” Mason says. The new tracking system could allow coaches to tailor more specific training programs to each individual athlete, he adds. In wheelchair basketball, for example, athletes get classified on a point system: 1 point for the most severely impaired individuals and up to 4.5 points for the most physically able individuals. “We don’t know what a 1-point player’s doing compared to, say, a 4.5-player, and as a result they’re getting the same kind of training programs, but one might not necessarily be optimal for both.”

One source of satisfaction in disability sports is that the athletes and the coaches tend to be more appreciative of your input as a scientist, Mason says. “I worked with … able-bodied sports and they’re not always that interested particularly in what you could add to them. Whereas [with] the disability sports, … when I started working with them, they didn’t get a great deal of scientific support, so they were very, very keen and grateful.”

Only a small proportion of the athletes he works with take his advice to heart: “There’s more that they need to consider than just the results of our test,” he says. When playing basketball, for example, they also have to consider how wheelchair configuration affects dribbling the ball and shooting, as well, not just mobility, he adds. And even for those who follow his recommendations, the changes are likely to have a small impact on court. But “at the elite level, just a small impact can actually be quite a big difference in terms of performance,” Mason says. Especially in competitive games like the Paralympics.

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