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Prof. Bert Otten: ‘Science and sport need each other’

14 November 2012
Movement scientist Bert Otten from the University of Groningen compiled a superb analysis of Epke Zonderland’s gold medal Olympic routine. ‘As an analysis, it shows how sport and science are helping each other to progress’, says Otten, whose research enabled him to explain exactly what was so fantastic about Zonderland’s performance. But the scientist learned more from Zonderland than Zonderland learned from him. ‘It’s not that we scientists know everything and want to tell sportsmen and women how to do things. On the contrary. We can’t teach super-talented sportsmen anything; they perform by instinct. Scientists follow in their wake, trying to explain how they do it.’

When Zonderland won gold at the London Olympics, he did things with his body that no-one would have deemed possible. Movement scientist Otten is still in awe. ‘As a scientist, you can see that he has mastered the control of every bone in his body. But he has gone way beyond what even I had assumed was possible. By mastering this unique element in his routine, Epke has thrown scientists a brand new challenge. It’s as if he’s saying “Explain that if you can!” I’m getting closer to being able to explain it, despite the difficulties I have measuring his performance. If I could measure better, I’d be able to explain the amazing power and timing in much more detail.’

Works two ways

Otten’s scientific analyses are not only intended to help top sportsmen and women achieve a better time or performance. He stresses that the relationship between science and sport works two ways. ‘It’s a win-win situation. Science wants to advance and top sportsmen benefit from working with us. On the whole, highly talented athletes base their performance on instinct, experience and talent. They don’t really need scientific analysis. But keen observation can certainly help.’ Otten takes Zonderland’s routine as an example. ‘You can see how important energy is. His near miss in the third flight element in London can be explained by a lack of energy in the flight phase. He managed to save the day because the fantastic reflex in his thumb enabled him to correct his mistake.’


Top sportsmen and women must not think about what they have learned while they are actually performing, warns Otten. ‘That’s a huge pitfall. Once you start thinking, you break your body’s natural flow. Reflexes aren’t controlled by the frontal lobes, which is where conscious thought is located, but by the pre-motor cortex and the primary motor cortex. Everything you learn during training has to become firmly engrained there, and this takes time. I analyzed the strokes of speed skater Ireen Wüst using a whole suit fitted with sensors. It showed a tiny defect in the way she pushed off with her left foot during the bends. Her coach Gerard Kemkers acknowledged the defect, and the analysis helped her to improve her technique and times.’

Explanation essential

The essential part of Ottens’ research is that he is one of the few scientists in the world who is not only able to demonstrate what is going on, but who can also provide an explanation. ‘There is no shortage of exciting animation films showing what happens in a martial arts kick. But the models and measurements we made for the Dutch mixed martial artist Marloes Coonan allowed us to show why she could hit so hard. Even she was amazed.’


Some sportsmen and women seem to be able to perform magic, which is what makes their sport so attractive. Otten thinks that his analyses will only add to the magic. ‘I showed Epke’s parents my images and explanation, and they were very impressed. They said: ‘We’ve never seen Epke in this way’. My analyses can add extra allure to these athletes’ performances. It’s a misconception to think that you shouldn’t analyze miracles. The more you find out, the more you realize how much you don’t know. You never lose your capacity to be amazed.’

Curriculum Vitae

Bert Otten (The Hague, 1954) studied biology and was awarded a PhD in 1982 by Leiden University. He started working for VU University Amsterdam in the same year, carrying out research into the functional morphology of the human back. Otten has been employed by the University of Groningen since 1984, working in the Medical Physiology Department until 2001. He was then appointed associate professor in the Institute of Human Movement Sciences at the University of Groningen. He has been Professor of Neuromechanics and Prosthesiology by special appointment since 2005.

Last modified:28 November 2017 4.51 p.m.
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