The Digital Difference

Today's low-cost, easy-to-use digital video cameras and software can make a blockbuster out of your training program.

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems, in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning, and can be reached through his Web site, at

Training & Conditioning, 11.9, December 2001,

Sport coaches have long recognized the benefits of video analysis. Even back in the days of eight-millimeter film and noisy projectors, football coaches would pore over every play, looking for something they had overlooked.

These days, video analysis has gone digital. The click of a mouse provides instant access to requested scenes. Baseball coaches can easily scrutinize a hitter's recent plate appearances, searching for flaws in his swing. Track and field coaches can analyze a sprinter's push off from the blocks frame by frame, looking for ways to shave hundredths of a second from his or her time.

Despite the new technology's advantages, many strength coaches and athletic trainers fail to recognize the vast potential of video in their jobs. Performance testing, baseline setting, rehabilitation programs, and program design can all benefit from digital video. It can even help motivate athletes.

Don't be scared off thinking that digital video is only for techies. With little more than a one- or two-year-old personal computer and the same digital video camera that you use to record your child's birthday party, you can improve your athletes' performance. If you have the inclination and money, more sophisticated systems that feature specially-designed hardware and software for analyzing your athletes are also available.

The first use of video is for improving your testing program. As you've heard me say in these pages many times before, testing is an integral part of a performance program. Most testing focuses on quantitative outcome--how high the athlete jumps or how fast he or she runs. If the time or distance is acceptable, then it is labeled a good test. If the time or distance is poor, then it is called a bad test.

I feel very strongly that we are missing something by not recording our testing efforts. Having a moving picture of the athlete improves testing in two ways: It provides a visual baseline and it allows us to more clearly see an athlete's technique and performance.

Why is a baseline important? It provides a starting point for measurement, comparison, and longitudinal analysis of an athlete's progress. By recording the same workout at various times of the training year, we can better gauge an athlete's progress. The ability to record the workout brings the measurement of athletic performance to a higher level. Instead of observing only heights, weights, and times, I can determine if the player is more efficient in movement, quicker to balance correctly, better focused, and so forth.

I have certain indicator workouts that I record to provide the baseline. Usually, these workouts include a series of footwork drills with the speed ladder, such as forward x2, lateral x2, and shuffle x2. Although they are not strictly tests, these workouts indicate where the athlete is in terms of progress toward his or her goals. I use these recordings to compare one workout to another throughout the year, and from year to year.

Another important reason to record baselines is that, if the athlete is injured, you now have objective measures to use in bringing him or her back to full participation. Bill Knowles, ATC, CSCS, Director of Team Performance International in Vermont, uses video when rehabbing skiers, especially after ACL tears. He chronicles each athlete's progress and compares the videos taken during rehab to a pre-injury baseline video taken on the slopes and during off-snow training. He burns the video onto a CD and sends it to the surgeon, who can view it on any office computer. This allows the athletic trainer and physician to better discuss the athlete's progress and set goals aimed at getting the skier back to his or her previous level.

Videotaping the athlete ultimately allows us to better assess his or her problems. Instead of knowing only that the time on the athlete's agility test is slow, we can review the test to see where the deficiency is. Is she not using her arms efficiently? Is she moving her head too much? Is her posture the problem?

I also note what the athlete does well. If her feet are incredibly quick, but her arm movement slows her down, I'll design a program that takes this into account. I'll want to make sure that as she does drills that concentrate on arm movement, she will not lose the great foot quickness she already developed.

Because our goal is always to improve on-field performance, I also use video to analyze my athletes' movements during competitions. This is accomplished using isolated game video, which involves recording only one player during the course of the match or the game.

When analyzing an isolated game video, I look for several things. For example, I chronicle the time this athlete spends sprinting and how many starts and stops this player does (even when he or she is away from the ball). This process allows me to better determine how to structure the volume and intensity of drills for this player. This is especially useful when dealing with an unfamiliar sport or style of play.

I also look for nuances of a particular athlete on isolated game videos. If the player is slowing down late in the game, I know I've got to increase his conditioning work. If he often gets beat to his left, then I know I need to implement drills to overcome that deficiency.

Beyond using your eyes to assess the athlete's needs, you may want to consider using biomechanical analysis software. Biomechanical analysis software enables you to quantitatively measure an athlete's motion. For example, instead of merely viewing a running athlete, biomechanical software lets you take actual measurements of joint angles as he or she runs. It takes a financial investment of several hundred dollars to buy biomechanical software, plus it takes time to learn the programs. But the capability of digital video to capture individual frames for measurement purposes makes this software invaluable.

Lachlan Penfold, Conditioning Coach of the Australian National Women's Softball Team, videotapes all of his players' sprint tests and takes angular measurements of key aspects of their acceleration mechanics. He then uses this data to design specific programs for individual players.

For example, he will time an athlete in a 20-meter sprint and videotape the drill. After uploading the video to his computer, Penfold uses biomechanical software to measure the angle of the shin to the ground at the athlete's first step, second step, and third step. He'll note any deficiencies, then design drills to help the athlete correct her shin angles for better acceleration. After a period of time, he'll test the athlete again and see if the angles have changed and if times have improved. As her times improve over the criteria distances, he shows her, on the screen, how the angular measure of the shin has also changed.

Another use for biomechanical software is analyzing an athlete's ability to stop and change direction on agility tests. In this case, I'd measure the angles of the ankle, knee, and hip during a change-of-direction drill and see if they dominate at any one joint. If so, I'd design an agility program to change this part of the athlete's mechanics.

Using video to design programs is more challenging if you have an entire high school or college athletic department to work with. In this case, you may choose a handful of key players (your quarterback, your setter, your point guard) or one small team per season as your main subject.

Another idea is to use digital video in a narrow, focused application. For example, record the baseball team with the intent of analyzing only the mechanics of base stealing. For the soccer team, use it for one particular agility drill.

Digital video can be applied to the program design of many sports. Therefore, be sure to explain these potential uses to each sport coach.

Beyond using video technology to test athletes and design programs, I'm finding it is a great tool for motivation and teaching. The video allows the athletes to plainly see what I see instead of what they think happens. Being able to show them this works wonders for my athletes in many different applications.

For example, allowing an athlete to really see his or her performance can provide a powerful motivation boost. I had one athlete watch her workout and make the simple comment: "I need to be more intense in my effort." It was nothing technical, it was just effort. I could tell her the same thing, but she needed to see it herself. As a result, her training has taken on a whole new dimension.

When using video as a motivational tool, join your athletes when they view their workouts. Being there to answer questions will help the lessons sink in. For example, Penfold finds that when his players watch the video analysis with him, they better understand the real purpose of the drills, and they are more motivated to correct their movements.

The video can further motivate by providing a sense of accomplishment. If athletes can see their progress over one month, one year, or even four years of testing, they will understand that their training efforts are sound investments.

Going hand-in-hand with motivation is video's ability to be a teaching tool. I use videos of past athletes to show current athletes how to perform a particular workout. These unedited videos show people making mistakes as well as doing things correctly, which assures them that even the greatest athletes struggle early.

Current video technology allows split-screen comparisons between a novice athlete and one with ideal technique. With the skilled performer on one half of the screen and the athlete in question on the other, he or she can evaluate what needs to be done.

I am also planning on using video as a type of instant replay for training. I am going to have a video camera set up with a large projector so that anytime athletes want to see what they are doing they can play it back and view it in life size. This will obviously help with immediate analysis, as well as feedback and motivation.

Now that you know some of the ways video can be used in a strength and conditioning program, it's important to take some time to figure out how you might use it in your setting. Start by asking yourself some basic questions:

What do you hope to accomplish with the video?
How and when will you use the video?
Does it need to work in large-group settings?
Who will shoot the video?
Do you have the capability of editing digital video? If not, who will do the editing for you?
Do you have the capability of using computer software with the video? If not, who will operate the program?
What kind of budget do you have for equipment?

To answer the preceding questions, think about your goals, whether you and your athletes have the time for this, and if video will work in your job environment. You might also consider what resources are at your disposal. For example, you may be able to use your school's video production facilities and personnel.

One more important note is that the strength and conditioning coach should never operate the camera during a workout. Sometimes you can set the camera on a tripod or find a student manager or parent to do the taping. But a coach's hands-on work with the athlete should always take precedence over video.

Which brings me to my final point. As exciting and thought-provoking as the use of digital video is, it is only a small addendum to what a coach can and should be doing. Video can back up your hunches, illustrate mistakes or problems, and motivate your athletes. But video can never replace the years of knowledge and experience you bring to the job.

For a sample list of companies that manufacture biomechanical software, please visit our Web site at and look under the Bonus Editorial section.


Steve Kistler of Videosyncrasy, a video production company in Brandon, Fla., offers some practical tips on using video for strength and conditioning workouts. According to Kistler, some features to look for in a digital video camera include:

Flip color LCD screen, which is very useful for instant viewing. The larger the better.
Image stabilization feature, which reduces the movement that occurs when the camera is hand held.
Firewire, a cable-like piece of hardware that allows fast and easy transfer of digital video from camera to computer, or from camera to camera. Also called "IEEE 1394."
Automated features that ensure you won't have to take a course in videography to be able to effectively use the camera.

Once you have mastered the features on a digital video camera, try these tips for getting good videos:

Use the zoom as little as possible, since zoom amplifies any inadvertent camera movement. Instead, physically move closer to the action.
Set the camera lens at a wide angle and use a tripod to capture the action. This ensures a steady camera that will record a maximum amount of action.
Image stabilization works best in the wide-angle mode.
When shooting outdoors be sure the sun is behind you, otherwise the resulting images may be dark.
Ask a videographer to give you a one-hour lesson in how to best use the camera.

A good place to obtain general specifications for digital cameras and other hardware is the "Consumer Reports' Home Computer Buying Guide." For more information about purchasing this guide, visit