By Sarah Colson
His arms shaking with effort and his face scrunched with concentration, 10-year-old Kai Smith clamped his hands as tightly as possible on a metal contraption designed to measure grip strength.
Meanwhile, 7-year-old Bobby Sullivan from Lake Ridge Elementary jumped as high as he could overtop a black rubber mat.
The boys’ activities, part of Friday’s Olympic Day Celebration at Kermit Tipton Stadium, may not have appeared much different than similar celebrations taking place nationwide. The difference between Johnson City’s event and most others, though, lay in who was watching Smith, Sullivan and their counterparts – world class sports science experts from East Tennessee State University’s Olympic Training Site and Center for Excellence in Sports Science and Coach Education.
Sullivan jumped a total of 39 centimeters, “pretty good for a little kid,” said Chris Taber, a newly-minted Ph.D. from the Sport Physiology and Sport Performance program at ETSU.
“I want to play basketball and it can help you make jump shots,” Sullivan said pointing to the black mat that had measured his jump. “I’m most excited about the 40-meter dash because I like running, which is good for basketball too.”
Sullivan and Smith may have just been having fun, but for ETSU strength and conditioning coach and sports scientist, Dr. Kimi Sato, how high a kid can jump and how strong his or her grip is can be a good indicator of how much raw talent parents and coaches have to work with.
“We do a lot of research from our lab,” Sato said. “The jump height can tell us about the talent ID. It has a lot to do with power, a physical component that leads us to other sports.
“Same thing with the grip strength. This is as simple as how hard you can grip. That’s associated with a lot of hand-related sports… People who have a pretty good grip strength, chances are from the waist down might not be strong enough, but they can throw pretty hard.”
Sato and his team of volunteer students and athletes set up a sport science station, just one of the stations for the Olympic Day Celebration. Other activities included sprinting, hurdles, broad jump, gymnastics, rugby, field hockey, soccer and weightlifting.
Every year, Olympic Day is celebrated by thousands of people, in more than 160 countries. At ETSU Olympic Training Site’s Olympic Day Celebration, more than 600 local kids showed up to learn how to stay active and have fun. Commemorating the birth of the modern Olympic Games, Olympic Day is not only a celebration, but an international effort to promote fitness and well-being in addition to Olympic ideals of “fair play, perseverance, respect and sportsmanship.”
Sato has vast experience mentoring, training and coaching athletes in other countries, including Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea and China. He said in those countries, parents are quick to find out what raw talents their children might possess. He thinks that attitude can be helpful in determining which sports kids might enjoy and thrive in, potentially leading to lower injury rates.
“Let’s say a kid wants to be a marathon runner but they’re better at something like sprinting, more explosive things, needing fast twitch reactions,” Sato said. “So we can inform those kids or parents, ‘maybe you have this ability; you should maybe switch to this sport.’
We can guide those kids.”
In one of his visits to Taiwan, Sato met a 15-year-old baseball player. The young athlete already stood at 6-foot-3 and was pitching somewhere around 92 miles per hour.
“I tried to help his coaches avoid injury,” Sato said. “I was like, ‘if this pitcher doesn’t do what I said, 100 percent chance it’s a Tommy John surgery.’ His posture and his physical ability wasn’t there. He just had a talent of how he used his body to throw the ball that hard. But if his body’s not ready to accumulate that stress over the years, it’ll be all in his shoulder and elbow. We do a lot of coach education because coaches don’t understand the signs behind what they see.”
Sato said the fun day is just a glimpse into what he hopes the Olympic training site will continue to expand: educating the public, parents and coaches about best practices in athletics.
“In future years, what we want to do is a periodic testing, just like NFL combine,” Sato said. “We do some talent ID type of stuff on the kids so periodically we can check those kids and identify somebody who is superior-ranging in some of the testing. We can inform them and say, ‘hey, you should keep going at this. You’re talented at certain things.’”
For more information on the Olympic training site at ETSU, visit sportscienceed.com/.