Humans don’t get better, technology does

I promise this blog post won’t be entirely about golf this week. But, I will begin on that topic…sorry. I tweeted out last week about how Augusta National bought more land in 2017 to make the course longer.  This made me think about how technology has not only changed the business of golf, but also the sport.

In 2010, the longest driving average was 315.5 yards, which does not differ much from the present day. Ten years before that, the longest average driving distance was 301.4 yards. And, just five years before that the longest average driving distance stood at 289 yards.  In just fifteen years, the longest average increased by 26.5 yards. Now, this does not say much given that fitness began to emerge into the sport during these years…so with that said, let’s look at one player: Phil Mickelson. For those who aren’t familiar with Phil, he is known as one of the best lefty golfers on tour. What he is not known for, though, is his driving distance (probably due to his very significant dad bod).  In 1995, Phil had an average driving distance of 270.7 yards. Presently, he is averaging 298 yards. Throughout those 23 years, Phil was in no way shape or form fitter or younger to gain 28 yards in distance…are you starting to see my point?

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The 1980s was a turning point for club manufacturers as persimmon clubs were being replaced with metal. Once materials such as graphite, metal, and steel started to make way into the golf industry, club manufacturers started to improve specifics of the club such as the grooves, shapes, and weight. As the materials of golf equipment such as golf clubs and golf balls will continue to improve, the controversial topic of lengthening golf courses will become a key factor in the future of the sport.  Eventually, the technology is going to have to plateau or compromise to the length of courses, since traditional courses such as St. Andrews or Augusta National will come to a point when it cannot get longer.

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Material has been a key driving factor for the improvement of physical objects used in sport. Most people automatically think about balls or sticks, but surprisingly even the material in swimsuits have advanced to better a swimmer’s movement underwater. Innovators at Speedo have been experimenting with different materials to make swimmers go faster. The LZR swimsuit was invented, which “compressed a swimmer’s body into a streamlined tube and trapped air, adding buoyancy and reducing drag.”  This suit created much controversy after the 2008 Olympics where 98% of the medals won within swimming were from swimmers wearing this suit. Following the 2008 Olympics, LZR was banned in 2010 from being used in competition. Since this suit was able to make one go faster underwater, regardless of technique or skill, swimming government bodies saw this as cheating.

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The development of tech-enabled training is also a topic that is rarely mentioned. Yes, people have been getting faster and stronger over time by solely analyzing the numbers and records, but that does not mean humanity has been getting faster and stronger. There are a number of factors that goes into the performance of athletes, one of which is training: “Dr. Michael Joyner, a physician and Mayo Clinic researcher who is one of the world’s top experts on fitness and human performance [says,] ‘What you know for a fact is people began to train progressively harder starting sometime around 1900.’”  The progression of techniques and training aids has helped improve time and efficiency. In swimming, the flip turn, which was implemented in 1956, helped cut time. The present day seems to go beyond just technique, as technology for training has improved drastically. Film is now available in 3-dimensions, which not just analyzes an athlete’s movement, but also keeps track of heart and respiratory rate: “‘We’re able to tell exactly how the athlete is moving in real time…it’s going to really enhance a lot of athletes’ ability to perform.’” Sports biomechanics expert, Cynthia Bir, states that sports will always be evolving, which means the more humans improve their understanding on genetics and biomechanics, athletes will be able to improve their skills and performance.

With little investment in sport (for some countries), some athletes might struggle to keep up with the latest technology and therefore be at a disadvantage compared to those with the best equipment and/or medical care. Technology has created numerous ways that athletes can have an advantage, which could possibly lead to cheating. The need to be the best has led athletes to use technology in ways whether or not it would be considered legal.  So, what do you think, are athletes getting better or is technology?

 

5 comments

  1. Molly Pighini · ·

    Very interesting post, @kkim312. The question of whether or not athletes are actually getting better or if it is the technology is a difficult one. In many ways, as you pointed out, it seems like the technology is really creating the improvements. If Phil Mickelson has not changed anything about his physique in the last 23 years, it seems unlikely he could actually gain 28 yards on his drive, without the implementation of technologically evolved clubs. I do think, however, there are some cases where technology is just enabling athletes to improve their skills through greater insight/analysis. In may sports, the use of video and analytic tools allows athletes and their coaches to analyze habits and tendencies in much greater detail. Over time, they can use these tools to adjust, reassess, and potentially even improve. To me, this is an improvement on the athlete’s part, not the technology. I think athletics is and will continue to face the growing pains of technology implementation/innovation just has every other industry has. Mistakes will be made, and there will be repercussions. Rules and regulations will have to be developed along the way.

  2. HenryChenChen · ·

    Great post! I do agree with the point that technology is getting better and stronger. And in your example of the swimming suit, the technology itself directly affect the performance of the athlete. However, in some case, the technology doesn’t have this direct effect on the performance, consequentially helps the athletes to be better because now there can use technology to train them better, and have access to different new equipments and facilities. For example, Lebron James who considered as one of the most talented basketball players in the NBA history, he is 33 years old but still shows amazing athleticism and never get injured. He spends over $1.5 million per year on his body, by using cryotherapy, hyperbaric chambers, NormaTec leg boots, etc. The equipment he used has advanced technology and is very expensive.
    I think now athletes have the awareness to take care of their body by adopting new technologies. And in the example of Lebron James, seems like technology consequentially makes him better, instead of boosting his performance directly.

  3. JohnWalshFilms · ·

    Very interesting post! I think about this constantly, especially in the sports I played in high school, basketball and baseball. People often like to compare NBA all – star teams ranging from now to generations of the past, and it seems that the athleticism and physical prowess of players today is drastically different from the past – even to the plain observer. In baseball, players hit more home runs than ever, and although wood bats remain the object in players hands, (leaving steroids aside), it seems like the training by professionals is incredibly different.

    To extend a question even further, would Tom Brady be playing at 40 if it were not for our generation’s technological advances and training methods?

  4. Nice post. It would have been better with a clearer focus around the digital side, which you start to get to toward the end.

  5. mikecarillo111 · ·

    I can’t lie, I always click on your posts because I think they are going to relate to golf, but I was still just as happy to read this one! I think this was a really cool post in that you brought up technologies that I had forgot about or didn’t realize. I think the more money that is thrown into athletic enhancing technology will only revolutionize sports more. For example, LeBron James reportedly spends over $1.2 million a year on his body/workouts/analytics. He is currently 33, and played every game this season. It’s wild to see how the digital aspect and analyzing the data can help athletes just get that 1% edge that helps them to win. Also, love Phil.

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