During my time in competitive sport my coaches, armed with whistle, stop watch and a seemingly never ending list of drills (each more punishing and evil than the last), were akin to gods. They had final say as to who made the team, who participated in fixtures and who warmed the bench. The results of those dreaded drills (I can still hear the lady from the bleep test) and coach's intuition seemed to be the deciding factor, that and their never ceasing desire to win. After all university/school pride was at stake.
These pressures are only exaggerated in the field of professional sports. Making the team and playing regularly obviously has huge financial benefits for the players not to mention their credibility in their sport. The coach has the responsibility to produce the mix of the best players for the team and ultimately the pressure of the team’s performance rests on his/her shoulders. Due to this, readiness of players, individual performance and injury reduction is at the forefront of any good coach’s mind. Fortunately technology has advanced, and continues to advance in order to provide greater insights.
Prior to the advancements in GPS technology accelerometers were commonly used to assess athletes performance but these early devices were large and cumbersome, but more importantly they were not wireless. Thus, performance had to be monitored in a lab situation that was very far removed from the environment that the athletes would actually compete in and the results were generally skewed due to the fact that the collection process in itself was a hindrance to performance.
GPS systems currently play a large role in providing player analytics during practice sessions. These lightweight systems can be inserted into (specially tailored) sports clothing and are small enough not to encumber movement of the athletes, allowing them to move naturally and for measurement to be collected in, as close to possible, replication of match day environments. Different products offer different data collection capabilities but the options include speed (acceleration and deceleration), heart rate, distance covered and power right up to collision reporting, step balances, rate of perceived exertion, metabolic load and even a birds eye view in real time displaying the position of the players and their movements.
These systems have been adopted by teams from the NBA and NFL in the United States and also Premier League football teams here in the UK. Producing highly accurate results by utilising mobile phone networks in order to cover large areas such as football stadiums, these systems provide individual data but some can also display data from all members of the team for comparison purposes, again in real time.
Armed with this information gained during practice, the coach is able to spot factors that may indicate increased risk of injury due to fatigue and assess the player’s readiness for performance at the appropriate level. These products also have applications for athletes returning from injury, ensuring that they do not compete before they are absolutely ready and reduce the risk of further time out. These systems can also be successfully used in peaking and tapering for endurance athletes to ensure this vital tailoring is managed correctly leading up to competition.
The accelerometer market is evolving and a viable alternative has been marketed. The manufacturers suggest it will provide more accurate data in respect of changing speed and direction, particularly when it happens quickly and often, and that it will have an improved application for indoor competitors – where GPS connectivity can pose a problem.
These devices are generally only used in training and their application during live competition seems to be viewed unfavourable by the majority of professional governing bodies, suggesting it provides an unfair advantage to the team/athlete utilising it. College teams are permitted to wear the devices during competitive play in order for the data to be reviewed post game and not before. The US Baseball League are currently the only professional body to allow the full use during competitive play, interestingly they utilise the data to assess and evaluate which minor league players may perform in the major leagues also.
This arena is certainly big business for the future, with applications for sports equipment monitoring being suggested. The results would allow the assessment of tennis player’s backhands and serves and also the golfers swing. There is also an emerging market in selling the collected data. In a deal with the NFL one device company has allowed players ownership of their data, to do with as they wish in exchange for players producing custom designs on their devices that will then be sold on to fans who wish to emulate their sporting heroes.
More Blogs from Julie McEwan
Julie has written numerous interesting and well researched blogs on a wide range of topics related to Medical Devices and Human Factors. Please click here to read more of Julie's blogs and here to find out more about Julie.