Studying Speed: Olympic-standard software gives ISU students, athletes competitive edge

July 25 2006

Senior Jordan Fife, two-time All-American in the men's 3,000-meter steeplechase, benefits from the biomechanical analysis provided at ISU. Shooting video of his race at the USATF Championships in Indianapolis this June is Professor Al Finch (pictured on the photo's right edge). (Tony Campbell/ISU)

In many races, elite athletes separate themselves from the rest of the pack by mere hundredths of a second. When competing at this level, where athletes already are performing at their peak, any small adjustment can pay large dividends.

Exercise science and coaching majors at Indiana State University are being prepared to help the world's athletes refine their form. Using the same video-analysis software preferred by Olympic coaches and trainers, students in ISU's Biomechanical Sport Performance Center are taught how to zero in on an athlete's movement, pinpointing where improvements can be made.

Training the students on this computer software are nationally known faculty members, recognized as some of the best in their field, who serve as consultants to the software developers and to U.S. Olympic-oriented athletic programs.

ISU Men's Track and Field Head Coach John McNichols and ISU Professor of Exercise Science Al Finch bring to the lanes and the lab the same world-class skills that the industry seeks them out for.

During the summer months, McNichols, broad event chair for the USA Track and Field Men's Hurdles Development Committee since 2000, and Finch, Hurdle Development Committee biomechanist, provide analysis and instruction for the nation's top hurdlers, developing America's Olympic hopefuls, at both the junior (under 20) and senior levels.

"If an athlete who is shown the biomechanics of their race, with the help of the latest technology, can make even a .001-second adjustment in world-class competition, that can determine who stays and who goes home," Finch said.


While working with the Elite Hurdler program at the Olympic trials in 2004, Finch was one of the first biomechanists to use the Dartfish demo software to evaluate athletic performance.

"I was able to give the company feedback on functions that needed to be added and improvements that could be made," Finch said.

Having already worked with Ariel Performance Analysis System, or APAS, since 1992, Finch knew he wanted his students to learn and use this new software, so they would be prepared to provide high-tech analyses for athletes in their future careers where the software has been implemented.

With the help of grants from Dartfish Corp., Lilly Endowment and the university, Finch established the Biomechanical Sport Performance Center at ISU to train students on this visualization software.

Over the past two years, Finch has incorporated the Dartfish as well as Ariel Dynamics software into his classes, and through him, more than 100 ISU students and area coaches have received exposure to and training in this technology for movement-analysis purposes.

Finch also has filmed and analyzed athletes for local community athletic teams and coaches, who don't have the resources to purchase and train on the software which can cost tens of thousands of dollars per download.

After analyzing video from junior hurdler Joey Hodges' race at the USA Track & Field Championships, Coach McNichols was able to provide some pointers for the Warren Central High School athlete. Incidentally, Hodges attends the same high school as ISU alumnus Jeff Martin, South Vigo High School track coach and member of the USATF Hurdle Development Committee, and has broken school track records set by Martin. (Tony Campbell/ISU)
"It was important that we have this type of technology available to our undergraduate and graduate students in exercise science and coaching who are seeking to be accepted for prestigious internships at the U.S. Olympic Training Centers and other high-caliber sports teams," Finch said.

The software in ISU's Biomechanical Sport Performance Center also is used by McNichols and the ISU Athletics Department to provide biomechanical analysis for the improvement of its athletes, such as seniors Jordan Fife, two-time All-American in the men's 3,000-meter steeplechase, and Charlie Sparks, who broke a 30-year discus record at ISU this year.


Most recently, Finch and McNichols worked with high school, college and professional hurdlers at the USA Outdoor Track and Field National Championships which were held in June at IUPUI in Indianapolis.

"The purpose of the Men's Development Committee," McNichols said, "is to assist emerging elite athletes - typically post collegians - with their progress toward being elite athletes, where they make Olympic or World Championship Teams. Collegiate Athletes are taken care of very well through their school programs, but there is very little available for them once they finish their eligibility."

At the national championships, Finch, McNichols and other Hurdle Committee members set up eight cameras from different angles to shoot the first-round and semifinal performances of the men and women competing in the 110-meter and 400-meter hurdles. They then downloaded the digital film to laptop computers in the USATF High Performance Center, set up at a nearby hotel in downtown Indianapolis.

Hurdlers and their coaches arrived after their events for individual sessions with members of the Hurdle Development Committee. With the Dartfish and Ariel Dynamics visualization software, the athletes were shown their race from several angles, their touchdown times between each hurdle, and side-by-side comparisons of them and another athlete or their current race with another race they had run. This allowed them to make any needed adjustments before the finals.


While many of the hurdlers watched themselves through the eyes of visualization software for the first time, Indiana State athletes have the advantage of this analysis tool all during their training on campus. This is one of the reasons that brought Aubrey Herring, ISU alumnus and former NCAA champion, back to ISU.

After graduating, training in other places and competing in the 2000 and 2004 Olympic trials, Herring returned to his alma mater in 2005 to train for the 2008 Olympics, with the help of Coach McNichols and the Biomechanics Lab. While in training, Herring is working on his master?s degree and as an assistant coach with the ISU track team.

Under the direction of McNichols, named 2006 Missouri Valley Conference Outdoor Track and Field Coach of the Year after the Sycamores' first-place finish at the MVC Outdoor Championships, Herring achieved one of the top-ten fastest times in the world this year for his event. He finished seventh in the men's 110-meter hurdles at the USATF National Championships.

"Video analysis is an integral part of Herring's preparation for racing and training," McNichols said. "Herring has a very efficient technique in which he rotates over the hurdle, but this technique also requires extreme precision, rather than a hurdler who tends to sail over the hurdle. Video analysis can show him if he's getting back on the ground fast enough, and if not, why not."

The expertise that Finch and McNichols provide for the USATF Hurdle Development Group is done for love of the sport and their profession, rather than any personal gain.

The per diem of $35 just about covers their bottled water and sunscreen which they consume in copious amounts, Finch says, during 12-hour days in 90-plus degree heat, which seems hotter on the track.

"Like they say in those MasterCard ads," Finch jokes, "the experience of seeing and helping some of the best athletes in the world, and bringing that experience back to my students in the classroom... priceless!"


Photos: Publication-quality, high-resolution photos are available at:
Main Hurdle Race Photo
Coach McNichols gives tips

Al Finch shooting video
Caption: ISU Professor of Exercise Science Al Finch serves as the biomechanist for the USATF Hurdle Development Committee, and trains his students in the same software he uses at national events. (Tony Campbell/ISU)

Jeff Martin shooting video
Caption: ISU alumnus Jeff Martin, South Vigo High School track coach, and Coach John McNichols (right) capture hurdle race video, which they then downloaded at the USA Track & Field High Performance Center and analyzed with the other members of the Hurdle Development Committee. (Tony Campbell/ISU)

Aubrey Herring
Caption: Aubrey Herring, assistant track coach, is training at ISU for the 2008 Olympics, with the help of Coach McNichols and the Biomechanics Lab. (Tony Campbell/ISU)

CONTACT: Alfred Finch, professor of exercise science, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3927 or

WRITER/MEDIA CONTACT: Katie Spanuello, media relations assistant director, Indiana State University, (812) 237-3790 or

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Story Highlights

ISU Professor of Exercise Science Al Finch, and ISU Men's Track and Field Head Coach John McNichols serve on the USATF Hurdle Development Committee. Finch's students and McNichols' athletes benefit from the same Olympic-standard software they use at national events.

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