Over 60 scientific projects were carried out within the framework of the first Youth Olympic Winter Games, which took place in January 2012. They were coordinated in a special "Laboratory" at the Department for Sport Science of the University of Innsbruck. The Innsbruck scientists have recently published the most important results in the renowned British Journal of Sports Medicine.
The Youth Olympic Winter Games were not only a first for athletes but also a unique opportunity for researchers from around the world: "A lot of interest had already been expressed in the run up to the event as it was the first IOC event of its kind in winter," said Martin Schnitzer from the Department of Sport Science and he added: "We knew from experience that there would be many inquiries directed to the already strained Organizing Committee, which would not be able to deal with all of them." For this reason, an external coordination office called YOGINN 2012 (Innsbruck 2012 - Youth Olympic Laboratory for Youth and Innovation) for YOG related research projects was created at the Department for Sport Science. "With the YOGINN 2012 we were able to relieve the Organizing Committee on the one hand and facilitate more scientific studies on the other," explained Schnitzer, who headed the YOGINN 2012. The results are impressive: Over 60 research projects from diverse fields of research and all relating to the YOG 2012 were carried out, including Bachelor, Master, Diploma and PhD thesis projects among others.
A particular success is the publication of articles in the December issue of the renowned British Journal of Sports Medicine. The articles have been published under the auspices of Gerhard Ruedl, Larissa Ledochowski and Christian Raschner and relate to topics such as risk of injury and illnesses, competitive anxiety, athlete-coach relationships and relative age effect. These articles are not only of high importance for the direct scientific community but also for the IOC and the organization of the YOG 2016 in Lillehammer. "With regard to the Youth Olympic Winter Games in particular, there have been continuous discussions about whether young athletes are pushed into elite sport too early and are exposed to disproportionately high psychological and physiological pressure. Bearing these arguments in mind, our results are highly relevant," said Schnitzer.
Risk of injury of young elite athletes
Gerhard Ruedl’s study investigates the risk of injury and illnesses. The goal was to collect data regarding the frequency and types of injuries and illnesses suffered by athletes during the YOG 2012 in Innsbruck. Ruedl employed the IOC injury surveillance system for multisport events, which was also used for the Olympic Games in Beijing 2008 and Vancouver 2010. "By systematically recording all injuries, we are able to determine particularly risky sports and make recommendations for implementing preventive strategies," explained Ruedl. There are data for the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games. However, the question of whether young elite winter sports athletes are injured more often or suffer from different injuries had not been investigated until now. "Our data compared with the one from Vancouver2010 shows a similar risk of injury among the young athletes of the YOG 2012. The frequency of injuries with a total of 11 % as well as the types of injuries are, with some exceptions, similar to those that were reported during the Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver 2010," explained Ruedl. Among the 1,021 registered athletes a total of 111 injuries were reported. The injury frequency was highest in half pipe skiing (44 %), snowboard half pipe and slope style (35 %), ski cross (17 %), ice hockey (15 %), alpine skiing (14 %) and figure skating (12 %). "One recommendation that resulted from our findings is that when building a half pipe physical characteristics of young athletes should be taken into account more," said Ruedl. The frequency of illnesses, with about 9 per cent, during the YOG 2012 was similar to Vancouver 2010. The respiratory system was the most predominant illness location with about 60 per cent. The number of female athletes suffering from an illness was almost double compared to male athletes - 11 % to 6 % respectively. "Taking these results into account, preventive measures against infections of the respiratory system should be implemented before the start of YOG, particularly for female athletes," said Ruedl.
Role of the coach
Larissa Ledochowski’s research project investigated competitive anxiety and how it may reasonably be regulated among adolescent athletes. "Dealing with competitive anxiety successfully plays a crucial role in improving performance and decreasing the risk of injury. Therefore, we analysed the factors influencing competitive anxiety in young athletes," explained Ledochowski, Professor of Sport Psychology. The researchers focused on aspects that scientific sport research suggests are relevant and the relationship between these factors: quality of life, parental involvement in sports career of young athletes and leadership behavior of coaches. Questionnaires were completed by 662 athletes - 316 female and 346 male - during the YOG 2012. The results show that there appears to be a positive influence of high quality of life and useful coach instructions on competitive anxiety. In particular, there seems to be a positive effect in the relationship between high quality of life and coach behavior, which should be taken into account in long-term programs that focus on decreasing competitive anxiety.
Relative age effect (RAE)
Christian Raschner and his team analyzed the impact of the classification of young athletes according to age categories. "Because in almost all disciplines young athletes from two birth years were allowed to participate in the YOG 2012, an age difference of one to up to two years was possible between two athletes of the same age category," explained Raschner, whose research focussed on that problem. "We assumed that the relatively older athletes in an age group, i.e. born close to the cut-off date of the selection year, may have an advantage because of their physical characteristics, such as height and weight," said Raschner. Using different test and analysis methods, he analysed and combined birthdates and anthropometric data of all 1,021 athletes, participating in a total of 63 disciplines and 15 sports. Raschner’s results do show a significant relative age effect, proving that, proportionally, a higher number of older athletes were selected to participate in the YOG. In addition, both older females and males were over-represented among medal winners in all sports. "Our results indicate that relative age has a highly significant impact on event participation in different sports," explained Raschner. A possible strategy for reducing the high RAE could be a fixed quota for each birth year within the two-year age group for all disciplines, said Raschner.
The first Youth Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck had to be sustainable: This was one of the main requirements by the IOC and the host city Innsbruck in the run-up to the games. This mandate was met not least in scientific respects. The most important results of the projects carried out in the framework of the YOGINN 2012 will be presented during an international meeting taking place at the University of Innsbruck on February 21st, 2013. In addition, an ERASMUS partnership and research cooperation between the Innsbruck Department for Sport Science and the Norwegian School of Sport Science, which will scientifically support the YOG 2016 in Lillehammer, was established.