Monday, June 15, 2015

Potential boost for high performance sport

Canterbury: The preliminary research findings of University of Canterbury (UC) PhD student Megan Blakely have the potential to improve sporting performance, as well as health and safety in occupations like construction and emergency response. Megan has been using mobile devices, like smartphones, to research the impact on human performance of simultaneously doing both motor tasks, like running, and cognitive tasks, like map reading. Megan has been working with Professor Deak Helton in UC’s Psychology Department.

In the study, skilled multisport athletes were tasked with running on a mountain trail or flat grass running track as fast as they could for five minutes. They did runs with no cognitive task, a low demand cognitive task (keeping track of one frequency tone) and a high demand cognitive task (keeping track of three different frequency tones).
Physical performance reduced markedly as cognitive tasks became more complex. Running distance was reduced with increasing cognitive demands and this happened regardless of terrain difficulty. Tone counting performance was only reduced when it was the high demand tone counting task and only on challenging terrain. Participants also did counting tasks while seated as a control condition.
The study has just been accepted for international publication in the Institute of Industrial Engineers Transactions on Occupational Human Factors and Ergonomics and could have wide ranging application.
Megan says her own experience as a multi-sport athlete has helped her see the real world applications for the research.
“Many sports like orienteering, rock-climbing, paddling, abseiling, skydiving or yachting may all see benefits from better understanding the impacts of multi-tasking,” says Megan.
Beyond sport, Megan says the findings are relevant to those in the police or military, as well as construction or emergency response, where workers have to consider plans or strategy, listen to intelligence information, or communicate with team members while undertaking physically demanding work.
“It’s about understanding the mechanisms that affect performance,” says Megan, who has been studying at UC in her hometown of Christchurch for six years.
The UC research attracted international attention because it is unique in studying precisely the nature of the relationship between actual mental demand and control over physical output – running speed, as well as studying it in more naturalistic or realistic settings. Other research teams worldwide focusing on the interaction of cognitive and physical work typically employ treadmills and stationary cycles, which underestimate the mental demands of physical tasks done in the real world.
Megan says better understanding the relationship between whole body exercise and high order thinking will potentially be of use to sporting coaches, tactical leaders and athletes alike.