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Human Performance Lab

By Skip Tate

The sign hangs ominously outside the O’Connor Sports Center: Human Performance Lab, it reads. An arrow points the way.

Wind through the maze of hallways in the old arena and through the lab’s wooden doors, though, and suddenly this “laboratory” doesn’t look so foreboding. No men walking around in long white coats. No bubbling beakers. No human guinea pigs wired to blinking machines. In fact, it doesn’t look like much at all. Most of the room is actually an athletic training classroom—taping tables, medicine cabinets, muscular system wall charts. The lab is just this tiny section in the back corner of the room on the other side of a chest-high wall. There, a few machines are scattered about, looking remarkably low-tech and not at all intimidating.

The machines, however, are the basic, state-of-the-art tools for measuring hand-eye coordination, says Tina Davlin, who oversees the lab as associate professor of athletic training. They allow for a wide variety of research.

And, that’s exactly what the University is doing. Although the University’s had a human performance lab for nearly 10 years as part of the athletic training program within the department of education, it’s been dormant. Davlin’s hiring last year, though, sparked new interest in the facility, and the purchase of the state-of-the-art equipment this summer brought about a new commitment to conduct research there.

The goal, says Davlin, who has a doctoral degree in kinesiology from the University of Utah, is to run all of the University’s 250-some athletes through the lab, testing them on reaction times, anticipation skills, balance and other physiological areas.

The benefits, she says, are multiple. She gains material with which she can publish articles. Students gain valuable experience helping conduct the research. Coaches receive specific information on certain strengths and weaknesses of each player. And team trainers get a standard by which to judge the healing of certain injuries. If a volleyball player suffers a head injury, for instance, and only tests at 50 percent of the reaction time level she did before the injury, should she return to games? It’s valuable data for everyone involved.

One of the initial studies, Davlin says, will be on the long-term cognitive effect of soccer players repeatedly knocking heads while trying to head the ball. Does it affect their balance? Their coordination? Their reaction time?

Another study she is beginning this fall is testing the difference between how men and women soccer players gain control of the ball when it is kicked at them—the “first touch” in soccer lingo.In order to establish one of the necessary control factors for the study, she arranged to borrow a $1,700 machine from the Jugs Co., that can shoot soccer balls at the players at a constant velocity.

“You need a reputation as a research institution in order to get a grant to buy such equipment,” Davlin says. “We don’t have that reputation, so we have to fend for ourselves. But I’m used to that. At Utah, our annual budget was $200, and in order to do my dissertation I had to get a company to lend me $50,000 worth of equipment.”

The Jugs Co., in turn, became the University’s first client, asking the University to conduct research on whether different colored soccer nets have any impact on a player’s kicking accuracy.

Much of the human performance lab’s initial testing will center around soccer players, since the lab falls under the authority of the academic department of sport studies, which is headed by Ron Quinn, who doubles as the women’s soccer coach. The Cincinnati area also has an abundance of youth soccer players, so testing can be done with different age groups as well.

“Are soccer players the same as basketball players?” Davlin asks. “Is a 10-year-old soccer player the same as an 8-year-old soccer player? How do they differ? How can that be applied to practices or games? How can it help prevent injuries?”

Igor, open the lab, there’s testing to do.

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