The cliché is that sport doesn’t exist without its fans, but sport definitely doesn’t exist without its athletes: the man or woman in the arena. The same human body that was competing in the arena at the first ancient Olympics in 776 BC is essentially the same human body competing in modern sporting arenas today.
So if human physiology isn’t improving, how does the Olympic motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius (Faster, Higher, Stronger) ring true as athletes break records and push the limits of what was previously thought possible? Advances in sports science and technology holds the answer.
Sporting teams, leagues and federations are heavily investing in technology to scout the best athletes, help them continually get better, and make sure they stay healthy on the field by avoiding injury (or at least returning quickly when injuries inevitably do happen).
The technology tools at the disposal of high performance staff are not used in isolation. It’s the combination of a variety of these solutions, and the data they generate, which create meaningful insights.
A high-profile example of this combination of technology in action is the improvement of the throwing action of Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen. Allen shared on The Pat McAffee Show how he “digitally mapped” his throwing action via a range of technology, including markerless 3D motion capture for body position; force plates to understand the ground force generated to produce movement; and ball release velocity tracking normally used to measure baseball exit velocity and spin rate. After working on the specific issues diagnosed through the analysis of this data, Allen had the largest three-year increase in completion percentage in NFL history, rising from 58.8 per cent in 2019 to 69.2 per cent by the end of the 2020 season.
The tools available to high performance staff are also continually evolving, as is their ability to understand how to best use these tools to provide relevant and actionable insights to coaches and athletes. An example is VALD Performance’s upper and lower body isometric strength testing unit ForceFrame. This was initially developed to test the strength and mobility of an athlete’s groin and hip area with the product appropriately named the ‘GroinBar’. In the absence of a specialised tool, high performance staff at Major League Baseball (MLB) teams used the GroinBar to test the shoulder strength of pitchers (and an obvious rebrand away from GroinBar followed).
Athlete management systems
Integrating and analysing the data inputs from a single athlete in a training lab setting, with a focus on a particular area of improvements such as with Allen, is a relatively straightforward concept. But when dealing with the vast quantity of training and performance data captured from an ever increasing variety of sources (wearables, optical tracking, strength measurements) for an entire team of athletes, it becomes a much trickier prospect to make sense of it all.
This is where athlete management systems (AMS) step in. AMS are used to store, integrate and analyse athlete performance, wellness, and injury-related data from a wide variety of sources. Much of this athlete data qualifies as sensitive personal health information, falling under restrictive rules and regulations – such as HIPAA in the US – that would be encountered in a medical setting when handling patient data.
By consolidating often-siloed data it enables coaches and high performance staff to make informed decisions for optimised results. The next evolution of these AMS is applying artificial intelligence (AI) to assist in the more efficient triage and processing of data.
Future Innovations – What’s next?
Injuries, apart from being obviously devastating to that individual, will have negative financial repercussions for the team and league. Teams are investing heavily in technology solutions that can best protect their athletes as assets. This includes solutions which claim to be able to accurately predict injury. However, this is a contentious area within the sports science community. Dr Sam Robertson’s Twitter thread below is an excellent, no-holds-barred summary of the main concerns.
Injury prediction is a waste of time.— Sam Robertson (@Robertson_SJ) August 2, 2019
This area of inquiry has become dangerously pervasive and it damages sport science’s reputation. Much misinformation & misinterpretation exists.
Below I’ve started a list of the many problems with the area – please feel free to add to it.
Criticism from within the sports science community hasn’t stopped the growth of injury prediction companies, with team management willing to try potential solutions to keep their players playing and playing healthy. This is exacerbated by the macro trend of fans following individual athletes in addition to or sometimes instead of following a team. These star players are the face of a franchise and the injury to one player can have an outsized impact on the bottom line of an entire club.
Democratisation of tech
Athlete tracking and data management solutions usually reserved for the elite levels are slowly making their way into youth sports and lower levels. This enables in-depth, longitudinal data profiles of athletes to be built up as they grow through the sport. These richer datasets on young athletes can help with scouting assessments and potentially uncover the diamond in the rough usually passed over by traditional methods.
For example, recent advances in the quality of smartphone cameras, instead of traditionally expensive and cumbersome fixed camera systems, combined with super-fast 5G internet connectivity is a breakthrough in the democratisation of optical tracking technology.
However, as outlined in last month’s guide, even though there’s a great deal of promise with optical tracking systems they still have a long way to go before becoming ubiquitous, especially with the ability to integrate into existing tracking systems. The ability to capture performance in a training environment with multiple cameras whilst automatically integrating into an AMS with minimal human input and processing is still a largely unmet need for sport.
Finally, the ability of looking at activity within the muscles during training or performance has huge potential applications for improving athletic performance. Electromyography (EMG) is an electrodiagnostic medicine technique for evaluating and recording the electrical activity produced by skeletal muscles but the industry is still way off understanding how this can be used in a meaningful, accurate and consistent way.
Sports teams are investing heavily in injury prevention technologies
Below is a sample of some the major companies offering athlete performance and management tech solutions. For a list of sports data tracking companies see the previous expert guide.
Primary product is Smartabase, a highly configurable platform for human performance solutions. It is customisable without any programming knowledge and provides a combined solution for both athlete management and electronic medical records.
AI platform that analyses over 2.5 million data points per athlete per year to predict injury risk in players, form practice and game plans and evaluate talent and what makes players perform at their peak level.
Data management system that allows coaches and performance teams to centralise, analyse and visualise data to improve communication and informed decision making. Can be used online and offline, software works across multiple devices including laptops, mobiles and tablets.
Software helping organisations centralise all of their data into one easy to access location to manage training loads, monitor readiness and reduce injuries. Integrates with over 50 third-party apps like GymAware, MindBody, and Polar.
Supports athletic, medical, and tactical organisations to consolidate human performance and injury data to improve workflow for coaches, doctors, and trainers, while helping optimise the health and performance of athletes, patients, and tactical personnel. Also integrate with many world-leading wearables, assessment and data collection technologies.
Movement measurement and diagnostics
Innovative human measurement technology used across various disciplines from strength and conditioning to medical and rehabilitation. Suite of products includes ForceDecks Dual Force Plate System, NordBord Hamstring Testing System, and ForceFrame Strength Testing System, among others.
Provides end-to-end care solution for improving movement health from diagnosing movement-related risks with force plates to prescribing personalised exercise treatment plans.
Notable clients: Kovacs Institute for Sport & Human Performance, Department of Defense
Portable, battery powered and wireless force plates with accompanying analysis software. Can also integrate other third-party force plates into its software system.
Notable clients: NHL, NCAA, Premier League teams, individual athletes
Rapid testing for biomarkers related to sports, performance, health and wellbeing. Initial product is hydration testing system that utilises salivary osmolarity (SOSM) and sweat sodium assessment to allow users to monitor hydration status and develop personalised rehydration strategies.
Notable clients: Carlton Football Club, Sweden national soccer team, US Air Force, UCLA Bruins, St Louis Cardinals
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Thanks for reading the final instalment of a monthly series examining the world of sports technology, brought to you by Thomas Alomes and the team at Sports Tech World Series.
In each column, we provided insights into the global sports tech market drawn from our latest industry research, consulting clients and expert interviews.
To make more sense of sports tech, we classified the industry into sub-categories. Having covered athlete performance in this edition, here are the previous six parts in the series:
Solutions designed to improve the efficiency and customer experience in stadiums and venues.
Solutions focused specifically on the unique challenges of betting and fantasy sports.
Data processing, capture and analysis solutions that support insights and decision making for a variety of sports related organisations.
Solutions focused specifically on the unique challenges of esports and gaming.
Solutions designed to enhance and improve the experience of the fan, or increase the value for the sponsor, including memberships and social media engagement.
Solutions that enable and enhance the sharing and distribution of sports content such as streaming platforms, automated broadcast graphics and online content publishers.
Sports Tech World Series (STWS) is the trusted resource in the global sports technology ecosystem. We provide research, consulting and market insight services to help teams, leagues, governments, investors and vendors to achieve results and meaningful impact over the hype in sports technology and sports innovation.
About Thomas Alomes
An industry consultant, researcher and speaker, Thomas Alomes is a global leader in sports technology ecosystem growth and development with a passion for connecting the best people with the best ideas. He is currently SVP, head of market insights at STWS and the founder of Sports Innovation Texas.