The mobile, technology and information revolution has impacted almost every industry in the recent decade. From healthcare to retail to banking industries, the push to capture, analyse and interpret data to give real time insights is driving behaviours and decision making across the board. This is no different in the sports industry with companies like Garmin and Fitbit creating wearables for amateur athletes and more specialist companies creating tracking wearables for elite professionals. There has been a huge increase in demand for athletic technology and a 2016 report predicted that the global sports and fitness wearables market will be worth $44.2 billion by 2021.
The pressure for success in elite sport dictates that teams and professionals are always on the lookout for ways to gain the extra edge, within the scope of the relevant sporting regulations. Unsurprisingly, the use of wearable technology in order to collect data to improve insights and make small improvements has increased. It is now the norm for elite sports teams to have some form of data analytics personnel included in their sports science teams as clubs and associations look for the small gains that separate the good from the great.
The devices used allow teams to collect data through GPS tracking, automated camera systems and wearable technology in order to optimise performance, prevent and predict injuries, and improve recovery. Much like the use of statistics in sports (pass completion rates in football, for example), the real skill is in the analysis and interpretation of the data.
Specific data can be collected in order to improve the impact of training and maximise on-field performance. Leicester City Football Club famously uses tracking technology in order to assess the movements of defenders in order to replicate them in training. This helps to improve conditioning and prevent injury as well as inform positioning on the pitch. A defender is more likely to have to change position quickly without warning; for example after a direct ball over the top. When this type of pass is played forward, a striker will already be on the run whilst the opposite defender will need to turn and chase towards goal. Using technology, sports science teams are able to inform coaching and conditioning staff of these atypical twisting movements to improve starting positions, condition players and help to optimise performance.
Other technology has more specific purposes. Devices have been developed specifically to monitor and track goalkeeper movements, movement speed, angles, acceleration and deceleration with a view to improving areas of weakness in a goalkeeper’s game. Does the GK favour the left or right side? Is he going to ground too early on one-on-ones? Is there a deficiency in his positioning in certain situations? These questions are being answered through the analysis and interpretation of vast amounts of data. One such device collects close to a thousand data points per second and the skill is in finding the key points of information to improve player and team performance.
Injury Prevention, Management and Recovery
These devices are also extensively used to help identify and prevent injury. NBA basketball teams use wearable devices in order to measure jump loads, jump ranges, acceleration, and deceleration, amongst other variables, for each limb. This allows them to assess and reveal even minor injuries that are undetectable to the human eye. Slight variances in jump loads, range of motion, jump heights can point towards an imbalance potentially caused by a new injury or the incomplete recovery of an old one which can then be further investigated by the wider medical team.
These similar principles are used by sports teams around the world in order to keep players in the optimum condition to perform. Digital modelling has been used in baseball in order to help identify the source of arm injuries, prevent them from occurring and better manage their recovery; especially in the pitchers. This digital modelling is being used in the earlier detection of head injuries in American football, in conjunction with helmets that have in-built technology to collect biomechanical data on brain injuries. This information is helping to create personalised rehabilitation programmes alongside the NFLs concussion protocols. Instead of relying on standard waiting times after a concussion medical teams can assess players individually and make much better informed decisions on their ability to return to training.
As with American Football, player safety in the form of concussion management and prevention is a huge concern in rugby and is the focus for wearable technology. A specific wearable patch is being used by rugby teams to record the force and angle of impacts to the head during training and matches. The data logged can help medical teams make decisions on players and there is extensive research being undertaken to assess how best to utilise this and other similar devices.
Across all levels of sport wearable devices are becoming integral to performance measurement and improvement; from simple tracking of distance, speed and route for amateur runners to complex measurements of specific limb movements in order prevent injury, there is a huge array of information and data being generated. This will only grow and the use of technology will become ever more important in the ultra-competitive environment of elite sports as teams look to find that extra edge over their rivals.