This column features short items about sport research in progress or in print, highlights of recent or upcoming conferences, hot topics on mailing lists, and anything else of interest to the sport-science community. Content can range from ground-breaking to gossipy. Send a paragraph or two to Items will be edited and bounced back to you for approval.


Basketball Home Advantage · Monitoring Ironman Performance · Acquiring Skills · Worth the Risk?

     In many sports there seems to be a tendency for athletes and teams to do better when they compete at home.  An article in the latest issue of the on-line Journal of Statistical Education shows how to analyze the phenomenon.  The authors provide and analyze real data from the University of Iowa Hawkeyes' 1997 Big Ten Conference season.  The Hawks were beaten only once in nine games played in Iowa City, but their record on opposing teams' courts was less impressive: five road losses and only four road wins.  It turned out that the Hawks scored on average 16 points more when they played at home, but there was little effect on the opponents' scores (only one point more in games on the Hawks' home court).  Looks like the team is more offensive at home, and their defensive play doesn't slip.
     Ferret was delighted to see confidence limits for these estimates, and nary a mention of p values and statistical significance.  But when you're looking at the seasonal performance of one team, what do confidence limits mean?  Presumably they relate to making generalizations about the performance of that team against its opponents. You certainly cannot use the data to generalize about the performance of other teams, let alone other sports.

Nettleton, D. (1998). Investigating home court advantage. Journal of Statistical Education, 6(2).
Contributed by Will Hopkins.

     Dr Stephan Athan of the University of South Florida had a research study planned that involved competing in the Hawaii Ironman October 3.  He had planned to test a device he helped develop to measure physiologic conditions using non-invasive spectrophotometry.  The device consists of a sensor connected to his finger that measures the concentration of hemoglobin in his blood and relays it to a small computer carried on his body.  He had even arranged for data to be transmitted to the Internet. Ferret was all set to follow the triathlon but has just found out that the study has been postponed.
    Prior to learning of the postponement, Ferret consulted Prof. Tim Noakes of the Sports Science Institute of South Africa about the ability of this device to monitor dehydration. According to Noakes, the concentration of hemoglobin gives "a reasonable measure of overall dehydration only in those athletes who do not ingest sodium during a race.  Plasma volume contracts in proportion to the loss of sodium from the body; if there is additional fluid loss, it will come from the intracellular compartment."  In other words, Athan will know if his blood runs short of water, but maybe not his muscles.
     Noakes feels that there are problems more important than dehydration in ultra-endurance events. He suggests that a probe for body temperature would be valuable.  He also thinks that damage to the weight-bearing muscles is important, but it's not clear how you'd monitor it or do anything about it.  (See also the ACSM conference report on endurance performance in the heat.)

Contributed by Mary Ann Wallace.

     As Ferret gets ready for October and the baseball World Series, she wonders how Little League baseball players acquire their skills.  Do they just naturally know how to coordinate the movements of the bat and their body to successfully hit the ball?
      Fortuitously, Ferret recently read a review article on implicit and explicit learning of motor skills (Magill, 1998).  Implicit learning is learning without awareness, or using "unconscious" methods to perform a skill. Explicit learning is a conscious, deliberate awareness that typically applies strategies provided by a coach or instructor. The article outlines several methods and practice conditions that facilitate implicit learning of skills.
      Ferret suggests that this information can be applied to all sorts of open motor skills, but she is certain you could use some of these techniques to help your Little Leaguers hit the ball better!

Magill, R.A. (1998). Knowledge is more than we can talk about: Implicit learning in motor skill acquisition. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 69, 104-110.
Contributed by Trish Shewokis.

     What do St Louis Cardinals' home-run hitter Mark McGwire, Pittsburgh Steeler's offensive tackle Paul Wiggins, Olympic swimmer Michelle Smith de Bruin, shot-put champion Randy Barnes, and sprinter Dennis Mitchell have in common?  Role models for young athletes wanting to be famous.  But what kind of role models?  Mark McGwire openly acknowledges supplementing with androstendione; the others are suspected of doping offenses.
     Because it's found in the pollen of Scotch pine trees, androstenedione is classified as a dietary supplement by the US Food & Drug Administration. Hear the term dietary supplement and it surely can't be as bad as they say, can it? Yet it is banned by virtually every major sport. Andro as it is commonly called, has been the subject of a recent article in the New York Times.
     In the body, andro converts to testosterone and stimulates muscle growth and sex drive. But like other steroids, used in high doses it has serious side effects that are less publicized: increased risk of prostate tumors, clotting disorders, liver problems, uncontrolled aggressive behavior, baldness, acne, and breast growth in men.  For young people it can have a negative effect on bone growth.
     How do we send convincing messages to young athletes that good training and good nutrition are more important than playing roulette with their health and sporting careers?  Dr Linn Goldberg and colleagues might have the answer: their 3-year program involving 3200 students lowered first-time use of anabolic steroids by 50%.  They made their point with graphic illustrations of the less publicized effects of long-term use of steroids.

Goldberg, et al. (1996).  Effects of a multidimensional anabolic steroid prevention intervention: the Adolescents Training and Learning to Avoid Steroids (Atlas) Program.  Journal of the American Medical Association, 276, 1555-1562.
Angell, M. & Kassirer, J. (1998).  Alternative medicine--the risks of untested and unregulated remedies. New England Journal of Medicine, 339, 839-841.
Contributed by Mary Ann Wallace. · · Homepage · Copyright ©1998
Edited by Trish Shewokis, Will Hopkins, Chris Giles · Webmastered by Chris Giles
Last updated 21 Sept 1998