Sport has always been about pushing limits, but the physical, mental and emotional demands on professional athletes are now higher than ever before.
The constant pursuit of individual and team success explains why players, clubs and federations will leave no stone unturned if an innovation can improve performance by just a fraction of a percentage point – the sporting and financial stakes are simply far too great.
Athletes are the most important asset for any sports organisation, which is why they are investing more than ever in fitness, health, and performance tracking. These activities don’t just cover the field of play, but also nutrition, leisure activities, sleep quality, recovery, supplements intake, functional testing, psychological profiles and so on. The result, however, is an avalanche of raw data.
The largest organisations have the resources to build entire analytics departments that use a variety of wearable and optical systems along with statistical information to make sense of these insights. Smaller teams attempt to emulate this setup by trying to invest in the same tools.
EPTS are now a crucial part of elite sport, but there are major differences between platforms (Image credit: Barin Sport)
Not all EPTS are made equal
This trend is most obvious when it comes to choosing between various electronic performance and tracking systems (EPTS). There are two main categories of EPTS – optical and wearable. The optical systems normally track the external workload of players by measuring distances, speed, acceleration and other metrics using video cameras.
Meanwhile, wearable systems for team sports track both external and internal loads using devices worn by the players. This means it is possible to track a deeper range of information, including heart rate and the time spent in each zone. Within the industry, these devices are referred to as GPS systems.
Many strength and conditioning coaches have created their own shortcuts to gauging the condition of their players, mainly by observing the time spent in each heart rate zone – an ability which has now been available via conventional heart rate monitors for over 20 years. Simultaneously, many club executives believe modern wearable devices are now a commodity, indistinguishable from one another in terms of features and functionalities.
But not all EPTS are created equal, especially at the elite level.
1. The low-cost alternative
Broadly speaking, there are three categories of EPTS and these exclude mass market health and fitness trackers like smart watches, wristbands and rings.
The first category includes systems which provide a few basic parameters, do not offer live data, and only allow for post-training or post-match analysis. These systems are designed as a low-cost alternative to elite platforms and are usually used at a semi-pro or youth level.
They do not come with a heart rate belt as standard and are not wireless – data must be transferred via a USB cable – and allow players and coaches to observe core parameters like distance, speed, heart rate and time spent in different zones, and potentially compare results to some pro-level athletes.
At this level, we are speaking about a product akin to fitness trackers. In some cases, they can be purchased individually and grouped together via an app for coaches to track the team.
2. A more integrated platform
The second level of systems is where we begin to see performance tracking becoming more of a service than just a device. These systems track a much wider range of parameters, and most metrics are available in real-time.
These systems have a docking station for charging and transportation, however a dedicated base station is less common. This means data is transferred to a mobile device or laptop via Bluetooth or Ultra-wideband (UWB) communication but both methods have their limitations.
Bluetooth limits the distance over which the data can be shared, while UWB presents a challenge with throughput, restricting the amount of data that can be sent. Some basic analyses may be available in real time but reliance on a cloud-based platform ensures any deeper analytics on the current session are only available after a match or training session.
3. Elite performance system
The third category of EPTS offer the maximum available number of parameters with a full suite of analytical capabilities. The main distinction here is the focus on providing not just analyses but insights and recommendations with the ability to compare against historical benchmarks and performance.
Most of these systems work in conjunction with a base station and a cloud-based service, so they require a constant internet connection. This creates a new set of challenges when a team is playing abroad or when certain frequencies and channels are blocked during matches for security reasons or because they might cause broadcast interference.
4. The end-to-end option for all situations
These limitations have necessitated the creation of a fourth tier of wearable EPTS. This category delivers all parameters, analytical capabilities, and insights – including historical and benchmark analyses – in real time without lag, the need for internet connectivity, or a mandatory cloud-based service.
This is achieved by using edge computing, which processes data as close as possible to the point of collection. The base station acts as a data repository and powers a private cloud environment with significant processing power, enabling artificial intelligence (AI) algorithms to run directly on both the device and the base station.
A system like Barin Sports PRO combines all medical, functional, condition, performance and tactics data into a single Hardware-as-a-Service (HaaS) platform while also ensuring greater data security.
A crucial choice
Evidence-based coaching as a term has been around for some time now but it has been somewhat over-exploited and misunderstood. Real-time decision-making can give it greater credibility by providing coaches with the insights needed to make stronger tactical adjustments on the fly, manage fatigue more effectively, and help players avoid non-contact injuries. This prolongs careers, decreases medical costs and reduces the need for recruitment.
All of this helps explain why selecting a wearable EPTS isn’t just a case of choosing between several seemingly equal providers. It’s a process that requires a much deeper understanding of an organisation’s needs, what options exist on the market, and what the real differences are between each platform.
Often these decisions are dictated by multiple competing interests or the perceived lower price without taking into consideration the opportunity cost.
A hasty shrug from an executive or a coach, a blind adherence to what is used by the biggest clubs, or an uninformed assumption that it is just the tool that matters might mean the difference between losing 700 player days to injury next season and lifting the championship.