Leonardo Da Vinci and Jala Hobli, Yelehanka Taluka on the outskirts of Bangalore, are separated by far fewer degrees than seem probable or possible. In between them are Olympic gold medallist Abhinav Bindra and an Italian inventor, and a set of astounding machines. It has taken a combination of the three to make accessible to national athletes in India, the most cutting-edge sports science engineered with real time assessment and high-quality methods of training and rehabilitation.
The SAI-Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance Centre (TPC) is housed in the recently-launched Dravid-Padukone Centre of Excellence (in Jala Hobli, around 20km from Bangalore airport) and is made up of an assessment and training hall, a Pilates room, a cryogenic chamber, and a care therapy machine (for acute pain relief). Bindra has set up two smaller centres with the assessment, training and rehab hall in Mohali and Fortis Hospital in Delhi.
Performance director Dr Digpal Ranawat says that in India there was a big gap between assessment and training: "We have very sophisticated assessment tools and very simple training tools. There is a big gap and this technology bridges that gap."
The technology is manufactured by TecnoBody, an Italian firm based in Bergamo, and at its core are three fundamentals: sensors on the machine floor that tests equilibrium and weight applied on the feet, an infra-red camera which captures images of athletes in motion and computer software that can measure that movement using the anatomical markers (created from the infrared cam) to turn into digital screens that provide instant feedback.
"The SAI-Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance Centre is made up of an assessment and training hall, a Pilates room, a cryogenic chamber and a care therapy machine (for acute pain relief)."
This without the athletes being stripped down to the basics or hooked up everywhere to electrodes.
The eating of the pudding is meant to serve as proof; in case of the machines at work here, the proof lies in the testing. Before bringing the machines to India, they were part of Bindra's preparation for Rio 2016. Ranawat and he carried a portable version of one of them -- the ProKin, a stability trainer -- with him to Rio and put it to use daily.
Had he had more months more with it, Bindra says ruefully, "maybe the fourth would have been converted into third -- it had a huge impact on my performance." Since the opening of the Chandigarh centre, the TecnoBody hall been used by top-flight Indian athletes, including hockey players, track and field athletes, golfers and tennis players. The Bangalore centre, fully operational from January 1, has a greater range of equipment and personnel on hand. Ranawat will visit twice a week, and the experts from TecnoBody, the inventors of the machines, will visit every three months.
The SAI-Bindra TPC in Bangalore is also the first sports science centre worldwide to install the D-Wall (Digital) Wall -- which does what mirrors in gyms are meant to do but acts instead like a digital mirror, providing real-time visible feedback to help perfect motor movements. It can be made to work to check the quality of lifts in strength-training, weightlifting techniques and reaction time for an athlete -- say, in changing direction of movement. The floor sensors pass on the information about an athlete's equilibrium and weight-bearing, and the range of motion in knee, hip and trunk. The difference between being tested and handed a sheaf of papers with results, in conventional sport-science testing and the D-wall is the D-Wall's speed and quantifiable accuracy of the improvement suggested. To the athlete, the D-Wall is like a gym mirror -- except one with a biomechanist's eyes and a physiotherapist's brain.
Within the space of a few minutes, the athlete is able to see the analysis of a movement or repetition in film and on a diagram with real numbers, and then try out exercises which assess live, so to speak, what happens with one degree of variation in the joint or one gram in weight-bearing on each foot. It is, the scientists say, all about proprioception, the awareness and perception of the position and movement of the body. Better to see than to read, any athlete would say.
Under full awareness that the machines will be put to maximum use by elite athletes, the crew at the SAI-Bindra TPC very kindly put me to the test under the machines last week.
Naturally, I maxed out each of the parameters -- on the other side of agility or movement and even (the ultimate couch potato skill) stability or the ability to stay still. Testing endurance or lung capacity, for sure, would have amounted to ambitious vanity. Most striking was the simplicity of operation and the clarity of the data available. What you did, you saw. When you tried to amend an incorrect balance in weight or movement, the progress and the final result was instantly evident and quantifiable.
The ProKin -- which from the outside looks like a fancy weighing machine with a digital screen -- measures, among other parameters, static stability: the ability to stay extremely still, which is what is needed by shooters to start with. The key is to reach as close to a 0mm of area created by the pressure of the feet through an even imperceptible change in weight -- put a rock on that stability board and you will get a zero. Bindra's static stability was 20mm/sq. That was the amount of "elipse" area created by an imperceptible and unconscious change in body weight across the feet. Mine? 151mm/sq, about seven times more. Normally, Ranawat said kindly, non-shooter-type people score well over 100mm/sq. The one apparatus whose qualities I was merely instructed about was the Electrical Muscle Simulation Training system, which features vests fitted with muscle simulation mechanisms that worn when training translate 20 minutes of intense training twice a week into two hours in a gym seven days a week.
"It is, the scientists say, all about proprioception, the awareness and perception of the position and movement of the body. Better to see than to read, any athlete would say."
The TecnoBody machines are not meant for elite athletes alone but for anyone. The earliest machines came out CEO Stefano Marcandelli's original ambition to calibrate and quantify movement as a means to assisting in neuro habilitation. Bindra, a seeker of the infinitesimal advantage available to him through sports science, ran into the TecnoBody machine while Ranawat and he were trying to remedy pain in his back.
The company's Walker View -- which puts walking and running through a range of tests that include the motion of the trunk and gait analysis -- was invented in 2014. It is now installed in 20 FIFA centres as well in AC Milan, AS Roma and Real Madrid as well as in hospitals, where its software can be modified to work with adults, including the wheelchair bound, who require therapy. The company calls its ideas centre TecnoBody 51 -- inspired by the myths around the US' forbidden top-secret military base Area 51 -- where the combination of 20 multi-disciplinary staff made up of bio-engineers, mechanical engineers, software engineers and sports therapists must work together to produce the machines of the type found at the SAI-Bindra TPC.
But what does Da Vinci have to do with Jala Hobli? As a boy, Marcandelli found himself fascinated by Da Vinci's detailed anatomical drawings (he made more than 240, the most famous being the Vitruvian man) of bones and musculature, and loved sport. And in 1994, as part of his master's thesis, the then 23-year-old created his first machine: the earliest version of the ProKin, a balancing board hooked to a computer.