“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Clarke’s Third Law
Conspicuous hardly begins to describe what I was feeling. In the early morning rush of skiers grabbing a quick caffeine rush at the Wizard Grill, amid tables full of Ski School twinks waiting to see whether they were going to have any work for the day, an attractive woman was carefully stringing computer cables up the inside legs of my ski pants. Things like that draw attention even at the base of Blackcomb on a Monday morning.
Robocop. I couldn’t get the image out of my head, although at least one person who asked what all the hardware was about accepted my answer that it was a control mechanism to power my artificial leg.
David MacPhail grabbed the digital video camera and we headed up Blackcomb to take some measurements. Dave — who I’d been working with to document some background on the Rise boot he’s been developing — had only recently launched Synergy Sports Consultants.
I wasn’t clear where exactly he was taking me or what we were going to accomplish, but a more willing guinea pig would have been hard to find. In the nether world of ski theory, and more particularly in the areas of skiing biomechanics and modeling, Dave MacPhail is riding the cutting edge. His work with National Team skiers and his understanding of exactly happens to the human body when it straps on a pair of skis has brought him an international reputation as an authority in the field.
On a clear slope under the Solar Coaster, Dave skied ahead to set up the video shot. Sophie — who’d wired me up — rechecked the cable connections, set a baseline measurement for each of my unloaded feet and told me to point the flash unit down the hill at the camera.
As they signaled their readiness to each other, Sophie fired the flash and told me to ski down toward Dave.
Making my best ski school turns, I skied for the camera. We repeated the process a few times and then we went back down to the Daylodge to…well, I wasn’t sure to do exactly what.
What, turned out to be mind blowing. The unit strapped to my waist was a Pedar foot pressure data recorder from the Novel company of Munich, a techy little piece of equipment that, until last year, was the size of a small desk. On a PCMCIA flash card, the unit was capable of recording about 10 minutes worth of data. Fed by 80 pressure sensors arrayed throughout the insoles in my boots that each took 50 measurements per second, the Pedar tracked pressure across time as my feet worked to move me like a skier.
Downloaded onto a laptop computer and run through the company’s software, the data could be displayed as images of my left and right foot, colour-coded across the sensing mechanisms to display the changes in foot pressure as I made turns. With lower pressure readings showing up as black squares and higher pressure lighting up bright pink, the readout was a moving kaleidoscope of colour as it played back my runs down the mountain.
On each colourful foot profile, a small dot traced a red line showing my centre of pressure at any moment in time. A good skier using foot pressure the way they’re supposed to, would, over the course of a run, track a red line from the ball of their foot back toward their heel. The track would be true and relatively straight with few variations. That’s what the tracing on my right foot looked like. The track of pressure of my left foot looked like someone who had never seen an Etch-A-Sketch grabbed both knobs and started twisting them randomly.
The difficulties showing up in my left foot readout were verified when Sophie explained the graphic display at the top of the screen. “This line graph shows change in pressure over time for each foot. When you make a good turn, like you’re doing with your right foot, the graph of pressure shoots up dramatically at the start of the turn, drops down slightly to a plateau, then falls away as you unweight the foot at the beginning of the next turn. Your left foot comes on very gradually. Something’s blocking your foot function,” she explained.
The final diagnostic piece of the puzzle — at least as far as the technology end of things went —was put in place when Sophie downloaded the images from the digital video camera and synchronized them with the Pedar display. There I was, making graceful turns and there was the readout of what my feet were doing — or not doing, as it turned out.
“Neat,” I said. “Now what?”
“Now you find out what Synergy is all about,” said Dave.
Synergy — small “s” — is about joint action of different substances producing an effect greater than the sum of the effects of all the substances acting separately.
The whole being greater than the sum of the parts.
In a theological context, synergy is a doctrine that human effort cooperates with divine grace in the salvation of the soul. I’ve often thought of skiing as a salvation of the frozen Canadian soul and certainly a day in the high alpine making perfect turns in all conditions is as close to divine grace as most of us will ever come. But it was the more secular meaning of the word Dave had in mind in naming the company.
“The whole concept of Synergy probably came into my mind 25 years ago. I started thinking about something called bio-integration, bringing people with different important skills together to work holistically on making your body work right. Five years ago, we couldn’t have launched Synergy because the technology wasn’t quite there. We needed more sophisticated software and I could see the time coming closer to when we’d reach a point where a lot of things in athletics that are mysteries now were going to be revealed by being able to plug in sensors at key points of interface. Now, we’re starting to get there.”
But data is just data without something to make it sing. And that’s where the principals of Synergy begin to make the concept work. Joanne Younker is Synergy’s president. She’s been working with Dave for 12 years on both the Rise boot and putting together a biomechanical model of how people ski, how joints and muscles and nerves and bones work together to overcome our natural tendency to fall down when the earth starts to slide out from under our feet at an accelerating rate.
Joanne’s a level IV CSIA instructor and a level II CSCF coach and a personal trainer when she’s not on skis.
She’s been a keen skier since she was fourteen and a student of kinaesthetics since 1989 when she blew her back out squatting improperly in the weight room, an injury leading to temporarily paralysis and a burning desire understand how her body works.
“Working with David, and studying the biomechanics of skiing, I can look at someone skiing and understand what they’re doing wrong and, more importantly, probably why they’re doing it. That is, what muscles aren’t functioning right or what functions are blocked. Working with this technology, I can validate my diagnosis with hard data.”
Using a set of dry-land kinaesthetic exercises, Joanne led me through a session designed to help me experience the “feel” of having the right muscles firing and applying pressure with the correct area of my feet. Once I’d managed to do these correctly, she had me stand on the Pedar’s insoles outside my ski boots. Connected to the computer, they gave me a real time display of where, in turn, I was applying pressure with each foot. Running me through the exercises again, I could use the display to associate that “feel” with a visual representation of correct pressuring. There was no guesswork. When I lit up the right area of the pressure pads, I was having my feet do exactly what they should do to initiate a good turn.
The final step of the exercises was to slip the insoles back into my ski boots and repeat the exercises again. Within the confines of my boots, I could watch as I pressured the ball of my foot and got my bulk into the right plane of alignment. I was surprised — as is virtually everyone else who has gone through this exercise — at how far forward I really needed to bring my centre of mass to consistently apply pressure where needed.
All of this might have taken a lot longer to happen if the third member of the Synergy team hadn’t walked into town by accident. Sophie Cox finished her B.Sc. at the University of Brighton School of Podiatry in, England, in the summer of 1998 and was working in a Podiatry clinic in London. Her mother brought home a bottle of Whistler spring water — the same water that gets flushed down toilets in Function Junction, ironically — and she was taken with the idea of goofing off for a year in Whistler. After some web surfing, she decided to take a job as a bootfitter at Can-Ski and really learn how to ski and party, Whistler style.
A colleague in Boston mentioned the groundbreaking work Dave had been doing in biomechanics and planes of movement associated with skiing to her and she attended a presentation Dave made last March to the Congress of the Canadian Sports Medicine Association. “After Sophie met David and explained what she’d been doing with the Pedar, he was really excited. He called me up and said, ‘I’ve met the third person!’ and we went from there,” Joanne explained.
After a summer back in England working , Sophie returned this fall to work with David and Joanne on the biomechanics of skiing and help launch Synergy. What she brings to the table, in addition to the technology, is an in-depth understanding of the structures and movement of the foot and ankle joints and a wealth of knowledge in diagnosing problems related to feet and lower limbs.
“I look at a skier’s mechanics, what they can and can’t do, and try to decipher why they can’t do it. Sometimes it’s bad motor skills and that’s Joanne’s part. But if she’s trying to teach them a skill and they just don’t have the biomechanical capability to do it, that’s where I come in. I can determine the physiological problem and refer them on to a physio or bootfitter or local podiatrist.”
“The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.” Clarke’s Second Law
For me, the proof of what Synergy was offering was back out on the slopes. I practiced and visualized what Joanne had shown me, let Sophie make a few modifications to my left footbed and got wired up again a few days later. Back at the computer after two or three runs, I sat in rapt amazement at the difference.
On the Pedar’s readout, the front of my feet were lighting up at the initiation of each turn. The tracking line of the centre of force had moved inward — indicating a much stronger pronation, getting the ski on its edge — and my left trace looked like something made by a functioning foot instead of a peg leg.
I know what you’re thinking; almost anyone can help me be a better skier. That’s like crowing about doubling your money when you only have fifty cents to start with. But what about good skiers? What can all this do for them?
Funny you should ask.
In the fall of 1991, during dry-land training in Banff, Rob Boyd blew a disc at the L-5, S-1 joint in his back. An ensuing laminectomy restricted his mobility and left some nerve damage on his right side— although not enough to keep him off the podium from time to time for the next six years. “I learned to compensate using different muscle patterns,” he said.
Three years off the World Cup Circuit now, and away from the daily coaching, Rob wasn’t happy with the way he was skiing this season, nor was he happy with his finishes in the early Ford Pro Series downhill races. “I saw Jim DeMarco, M.D. wired up to this thing one day and started thinking maybe Dave — who had done a lot of boot work for Rob in the past — could do some testing on me and help me find some answers.”
Sophie and Joanne ran Rob through a gait test, using the pressure pads inside his running shoes while he walked the treadmill at Meadow Park. “What we saw,” Sophie related, “was Rob had some blockage in the way his foot was functioning. He wasn’t pushing off the ball of his foot with any force at all but compensating through other muscle patterns.”
“Right away, from what we saw on the data, my suspicions were confirmed that my right side wasn’t working well,” Rob added.
What they saw when Rob was hooked up to the Pedar for the first time on the slopes was even more surprising. His heels lit up like a Christmas tree and he was almost never pressuring the front of his boot. His left turns were strong and crisp but his right turns were nowhere near the same intensity. “Yeah, that was surprising to see. It felt like I was skiing alright and using the balls of my feet but I wasn’t even close,” Rob said.
Dave went to work on Rob’s boots, Sophie made some modifications to his footbeds and Joanne got him started on a series of patterning exercises and visualization techniques. “I could really feel the difference when I started concentrating on using my foot more. That and the changes in my boot environment made a big difference. I could feel it right away at Sugarbush (Vermont). My skis were gliding on the flats; just floating,” Rob said. He could also see the results in his times: second on his first run and fourth on his second.
“The next step will be to set Rob up with a physiotherapy regimen with Allison MacLean,” Joanne said.
And that’s where the remaining synergy of Synergy comes into play. The company’s goal is to actively work with bootfitters, physiotherapists, chiropractors and other specialists in the community who can treat the whole person.
Allison is just beginning to work with the Synergy people and is excited about the “integrated approach” they’re trying to bring to problem solving. “The data gathering and testing they’re doing is interesting,” she told me. “It’s hard sometimes to know exactly what’s not functioning in the case of lower limb injuries and whether what your treatment is as effective as it could be. When they send someone to me, we’ve got a pre-treatment set of data we can compare to post-treatment performance to really know whether what we’re doing is effective.”
“Every other person you bring into this adds something to the mix and produces even more beneficial results,” Dave explained. “Sophie and Joanne and I, working together, have a much greater impact than any one of us could have on our own. That’s the genesis behind Synergy. But we want to bring the best resources we can to bear and make it so everybody looks like a hero.”
This obviously includes some of the best bootfitters in town. George McConkey is sold on the idea. “What Synergy is doing validates a lot of my own ideas about foot function and bootfitting,” he said. “I still believe 99% of most peoples’ problems are in their boot and with any luck, what we’re starting to see in the way of data coming out of this will get the manufacturers interested in designing boots that work.”
Scott Humby, one of the owners of Fanatyk Co., isn’t so sure what’s going on is going to shake up the industry, but he sees potential benefit. “I think what they’re doing can help you by really proving what’s going on in your boots. If it make you feel better about your skiing; you’ll ski better. If, as bootfitters, we’ve done all we can for someone and they’re still struggling, we’ll definitely send them on to Synergy because there may be something we’re just not seeing. There’s a huge benefit in being able to refer someone on to a team of specialists.”
It seems axiomatic that what Synergy is doing is the way sports will go in the future.
The advances in sports in the last 25 years have largely come about because of a refinement in coaching techniques and technological innovations in equipment. But most of what’s being done on the coaching front still relies on what a coach can see and how he or she interprets that visual data. The advances in coaching and teaching in the next 25 years will probably be realized through the application of measurement technologies only now being brought into the field.
Some people in town and on the mountains think what Dave’s up to is another bit of high-tech quackery, other’s are true believers. But whether coaches and instructors and others who guide athletes embrace the kinds of tools is probably more a matter of when, not if. Elite athletes will demand it; the wired generation coming up will assume its presence. And guys like me who just want to get better and shorten the distance between muscle pattern and muscle memory will embrace it the same way we embraced those shapely new skis we can’t live without.
In the meantime, Arthur C. Clarke’s Law of Revolutionary Ideas is probably apropos:
“Every revolutionary idea — in science, politics, art or whatever — evokes three stages of reaction. They may be summed up by the three phrases:
1. “It is completely impossible — don’t waste my time.”
2. “It is possible, but it is not worth doing.”
3. “I said it was a good idea all along.”
Watch out for number three.
author- J.D. Maxwell
reprinted with the permission of Whistler Piquenewsmagazine
published on February 18, 2000