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Science in the title chase

The Contenders: Sportsfit, BBCSports Council video (plus notes), Pounds 58.75 + Pounds 2.50 pp. Produced by BBC Videos for Education and Training, 80 Wood Lane, London W12 0TT, and The Sports Council, 16 Upper Woburn Place, London WC1H 0QP.

Mike Sleap reviews a video pack on how athletes are boosting performance. Did you know that pole vaulters practise underwater and gymnasts train with their feet in a bucket? These are two of the tricks given to sport by sports science and shown in a new BBCSports Council video called The Contenders. Taken from the highly-acclaimed BBC series of the same name, the pack consists of five 30-minute programmes showing how sports science is contributing to the development of sport. Also included is a set of fitness assessment notes for teachers and coaches.

The first programme, The Human Machine, sets out to illustrate the need for specificity in sports training. While roughly adhering to this principle, it cleverly shows a number of innovative training ideas contrived by sports scientists. For example, we are shown Marvin Campbell, Britain's 1993 Gymnastics Champion, practising pommel horse technique while his feet are suspended in a bucket rotating around the pommel horse. Mike Edwards is seen training underwater for the pole vault because, in the water, he can refine his action and avoid injury from a heavy fall.

The Future's in the Fridge takes a scientific look at new diets being tried out by some of our top stars. Sally Gunnell promotes natural ingredients for natural energy but says she only adopted the natural diet after she had won Olympic gold.

The boxer, Danny Williams, needs to lose weight for an important fight. The sports scientist advises low-intensity exercise and a low-fat diet. After five weeks following this regimen, Williams ironically finds he has been weighing himself on an unscientific set of scales and is still 4 kilos overweight. So, it's back to the sweat shop, consequent loss of energy and inevitable loss of the fight.

The third programme, Tools of the Trade, illustrates how sport has been influenced by technological advances in recent years. Video freeze-frame analysis, for example, pinpoints a significant weakness in the technique of high-board diver Bobby Morgan. Unfortunately, it fails to help him eradicate the problem another branch of sports science needed presumably. Chris Boardman had remarkable Olympic success with his revolutionary bike design. In the video we see an experiment in which Boardman compares the performance of his own bike with someone else's revolutionary design. In the end Boardman grimly accepts that the new design is superior to his own is it back to the drawing board?

International sports performers are now considered to be very similar in fitness, skill and tactical awareness. Is the difference between gold medal winners and losing semi-finalists simply in the mind? Dave Collins, a sports psychologist, claims in Mind Games that, before a competition, athletes have a psychological battle with themselves. Thus the job of the sports psychologist is to ensure that the performer truly believes in himself or herself.

Steve Backley believed in himself for the World Championships. Not able to throw the javelin for many months prior to the World Championship, he trained with mental workouts, doing 1,000 throws in his mind and only 10 with the javelin. But did this really help him to get his fourth place?

Chariots of Fire compares the professional approach of the Australian Institute of Sport with the UK where many aspiring athletes try to maintain full-time jobs while pursuing athletic careers. With abundant facilities, equipment, coaches and medical support the Australian Institute smacks of the professional approach to sport adopted by the former Eastern bloc countries. However, perhaps the most interesting feature of the Australian set-up is a scheme called Sports Search, where potential champions are talent spotted in every school in Australia. Only time will tell whether this clinical approach will pay dividends in terms of Olympic and world champions.

Overall, these programmes are entertaining and would prove valuable as trigger films to create interest in sports science topics. However, the topics are treated superficially, so the study potential is limited.

This could have been overcome if the accompanying notes had followed up the sports science topics comprehensively. Unfortunately, although the fitness notes are well organised and produced, they do not relate specifically to sports science issues.

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