Members of the University of Georgia’s women’s tennis team never have a problem finding someone to practice with. Even if no one else is available to play a match or return volleys, they can always count on Boomer–the tennis-playing robot.

Developed by Dave Jordan, Boomer is able to play entire matches at varying degrees of difficulty in a realistic fashion, using a television camera and a computer.

“Ball machines only move left and right,” Jordan explained to a local reporter. “They’ve improved, but they are still limited. When you reach a higher level of play, you have to work on your footwork.”

Boomer can accurately view where the ball is going and can respond accordingly. The robot returns shots based on its opponent’s shots, so if you hit a great shot it’s likely that Boomer will not, while a poor shot will result in a hard-hit ball by Boomer. “The most difficult issue was judging the other players’ shots, whether they would be winners and how Boomer would react,” Jordan said.

If losing to a computer wasn’t enough, a trash-talking feature even allows Boomer to gloat a little if the machine hits a winning shot.

Boomer might be an extreme example, but it’s just one of the many ways technology now pervades school sports and phys-ed programs. Though feats of physical skill still always come down to human talent, rare is the venue where technology does not make an appearance or have any impact today.

Physical education class is now going online, as gym classes in Minneapolis have begun offering online alternatives. For many, phys-ed class evokes thoughts of gym ropes and dodgeball, but the memories of the 21st-century P.E. class might some day be saved on students’ desktops.

The seemingly contradictory nature of physical exercise and computer use might make this class seem puzzling to education pundits, but it has garnered much attention and has been received as a novel idea.

“Our online version will never be a replacement for a face-to-face class for all students, but it serves a certain population very well,” said Jan Braaten, physical education and health leader for the Minneapolis Public Schools. “This population includes students with various disabilities, conditions, or other issues that make a traditional class difficult; it also meets the needs of many of our students who have difficulty fitting physical education and/or health into their schedules, due to music, band, foreign language, or other intense courses of study.”

Primarily used for students with demanding schedules, the online physical education course also can be taken by students who need the credit to graduate–or even those who are uncomfortable working out publicly. Students meet with the teacher at the beginning and end of the class. They are given a heart-rate monitor and are tested to determine their fitness level. They work out on their own time, documenting at least 30 hours of exercise, and eMail the details of their workouts to the teacher each week. Expanding from more than weight rooms and volleyballs, the class also has students study nutrition online and budget money for healthy meals through an online shopping service.

“Many of the parents and students have embraced the course and found it not only rigorous academically, but physically as well,” Braaten said. “I feel that the students taking these courses are gaining a solid background in how to assess, improve, and maintain physical fitness for a lifetime.”

Getting ‘In the Groove’

As the online physical education class allows students to improve their fitness outside of school, some schools are using video games within their classrooms to help improve younger children’s fitness.

An elementary school in Redmond, Ore., is using a music-video game called “In the Groove” that has third and fourth-grade students jumping on a mat connected to a Sony Playstation 2 game system. Sponsored by Sunnyvale, Calif.-based RedOctane, the game’s creator, as part of the Get Up & Move campaign, the pilot project is being credited with making exercise more fun for students while helping to improve their schoolwork.

Students must remember certain patterns and directions shown on the screen and then reenact them on the mat, which helps improve their focus. The game’s length allows for students to increase their attention spans, rather than shorten them like many other technologies do. Students are designated as mentors to help their peers during the game, which aids in socialization and teamwork. The program can be funded through technology grants or physical education monies, organizers say.

Technology also is having an impact in the hands of coaches on the sidelines. Using handheld devices and computer software from companies such as Digital Scout and TurboStats, high school and college teams in football, baseball, basketball, volleyball, soccer, and hockey, among other sports, can keep accurate stats for scouting and reporting purposes.

“Players today are technologically savvy, and their adaptation to computer scouting and digital video work is seamless,” said John Casey, a baseball coach at Tufts University.

The technology “enables coaches to reduce paperwork, so they have more time to spend coaching,” said Nancy Petro of Digital Scout. “[It] generates both statistical and visual proof of performance that supports the coach’s instructions and teaching.”

Digital Scout’s software has a simple touch-screen interface to enter information and give instant feedback at the end of each game. Shot charts and playing time are stored, as well as all standard statistical categories to help track strengths and weaknesses and make in-game adjustments. The software compiles data for individual games and seasons, with instant access for coaches who are looking to use historical data and trends regarding opponents, players, and venues to aid in their game-planning and decision-making. The statistical reports can be eMailed, printed, or put on a web site.

“We envision a sports world in which the time-saving and productivity benefits of [these] products will make them as indispensable as a calculator is to most people today,” Petro said.

Web brings added exposure

For students who want to make the jump from high school sports to college athletics, being seen by recruiters is an important part of the process. In the past, blue-chip athletes generally were the only students worthy of recruiting trips and scouting visits–but recruiting web sites such as scoutusa.com, prepstar.com, appliedsports.com, and universityathlete.com now enable college coaches to look at athletes whose names haven’t spread like wildfire in recruiting circles.

“Technology, and particularly the internet, has had a profound and dramatic effect in the area of college recruiting,” said Jeff Duva, president and CEO of Collegiate Sports of America Inc.

Web sites such as these enable students to gain exposure to college coaches across the country who likely never would have known about these players before. Thousands of students have created profiles that showcase their in-game statistics, academic achievements, and video highlights. By no means do these web sites serve as a slam-dunk for college hopefuls, but they do offer yet another tool that can open more eyes in the recruiting process.

A student’s profile can be continually updated, and certain web sites will fax your profile to schools that you have shown an interest in. A student that might have been a walk-on athlete before now might receive an athletic scholarship, and colleges can save valuable time and money by limiting recruiting trips.

It’s also becoming increasingly popular for high school games to be broadcast over the internet. These webcasts have proven to be popular with fans who have moved from their hometown or cannot make it to an event.

Continental Vista Broadcasting Group reportedly webcasts thousands of college and high school competitions each year. The technology is available even in rural areas such as South Dakota; last year, Daktronics Inc. provided a webcast of that state’s high school basketball tournament, with live, ESPN-style updates every 30 seconds. The three-day tournament attracted more than 20,000 visitors to the tournament’s web site. (See “Fans win with live-stats software.”)

Another technological convenience that has helped school athletics is the proliferation of DVDs and their relative inexpensiveness. Several high schools, including New Trier High School in Illinois, have begun burning games films to DVD so players can watch them in the comfort of their homes.

Parents have reaped the benefits of this technological renaissance as well. Highschoolsports.net allows parents to go online and check their children’s athletic schedules from anywhere, at any time. Highschoolsports.net uses Web-Sync software that allows parents to transfer these schedules directly to their Palm Pilots or other handheld devices.

Preventing injuries

Technology is not only making school sports more convenient for parents and participants; it’s also helping to keep student-athletes safe.

One technology that is helping to prevent the injury, and possible death, of student-athletes is a weather-tracking software system called Storm Hawk. Currently being used at Coppell High School in Texas, the device uses satellite imaging to detect approaching lightning storms, hail, high winds, National Weather Service warnings, and other foul-weather conditions, with continually updated information for a radius of up to 250 miles. The gadget is intended to help notify coaches when they shouldn’t take the field or if they should leave the field early because of inclement weather.

Other measures that are being taken to help improve student health and safety are the inclusion of cardiac defibrillators at sporting events and the use of specially designed football helmets to study concussions.

The Florida High School Athletic Association’s board became the latest group to embrace automated external defibrillators (AED) when it required all schools hosting state playoff games to have an AED on site.

An estimated 5,000 to 7,000 people die from sudden cardiac arrest each year, including a few student-athletes who otherwise appear healthy and in good shape, according to the American Heart Association. Having this equipment on hand is important, the organization says, because the chances of surviving cardiac arrest decrease by almost 10 percent with each minute that an AED is not used.

While no equipment can fully prevent a concussion, there are several technologies that can detect the severity of its impact and help determine when an athlete is ready to return to action.

Schutt Sports has designed the first-ever football helmet without foam, the Schutt DNA, which uses SKYDEX cushioning technology instead. The company also has created a computer program called Concussion Sentinel that tests an athlete’s memory, reaction time, and decision-making before and after a concussion. The program is being used in numerous colleges and high schools nationwide.

While the positives far outweigh the negatives, there are some controversial and potentially harmful aspects of technology’s encroachment into the world of school athletics.

Students looking to improve their power or speed to help them perform better can easily find illegal steroids over the internet. Additionally, the web has served as a forum for hardcore sports fans to voice their opinions and harshly criticize student-athletes. These disparaging remarks may be warranted, if not tolerated, on a professional level–but to amateur athletes, they can have a damaging effect.

The influx of technology into high school and college athletics has had, and will continue to have, far-reaching affects for students, coaches, parents, and administrators. Coaches and school leaders might justifiably ask, “What will we see next?”

“As with any new addition to a sport, the key is to integrate the technology into your program, not be a slave to it or overburden the players with it,” said Casey.

See these related links:

Robot Optimizers Inc.
http://www.robotoptimizers.com

RedOctane
http://www.redoctane.com

Digital Scout
http://www.digitalscout.com

Turbostats Inc.
http://www.turbostats.com

Daktronics Inc.
http://www.dakstats.com

Storm Hawk
http://www.weatherdata.com/products/storm_hawk.php

Schutt Sports
http://www.schuttsports.com