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Sports: The Industry Driving Wearable Tech Developments

Wearables are ushering in a new era of performance analysis

10Mar

Nowhere is wearable tech a more exciting prospect than in the world of sport. Once the domain of the Football Manager aficionado, professional managers - the ones who, you know, get paid to do it - will now have access to an unprecedented stream of real-time data. Tracking everything from player fatigue levels to distances covered to formational discipline, the risk element of touchline decision making is diminishing.

Data has been around in football for a long time. The likes of Prozone and Opta were founded in 1995 and 1996 respectively, and have facilitated the retrospective analysis of athletes' performances for years. But, recently, the move has been towards live data, analyzing performances in real-time and giving the currently relatively small teams of data analysts at sports clubs a place on the touchline. Wearable tech is the next logical step in the evolution of sports as a science. 'At the end of the 1980s,' Simon Kuper muses in his Soccernomics, 'only about 20 or 30 academic articles on sport had ever been published. Now there are countless.' You'll find books that discuss the use of wearable tech in sports, but there is no definitive study.

The NFL, FIFA and the NBA currently don't allow the use of wearable tech devices in competitive fixtures. But, as the potential benefits begin to outweigh the limited reservations, it is surely nothing more than a matter of time before they are adopted and the benefits graduate from the training centre to the big stage. Indeed, the revenues for sports and fitness monitors are expected to rise from $1.9 billion in 2013 to $2.8 billion by 2019, according to IHS Technology.

One positive that could tip the balance is the potential for injuries to be both detected and prevented by the use of wearable tech. Reebok have developed a piece of headwear that fits under the helmet of NFL players - Checklight - that flashes either yellow or red when a head impact is detected, giving coaches and medical staff an idea of the severity of the collision and the danger of concussion. For sports without helmets, head impact is a little more difficult to quantify, but FITguard, developed by Force Impact Technologies, is a mouthguard that can detect significant collisions and display their severity through an illuminated strip on the guard itself. Injuries are one of the few variables left - for all the work put in by physio teams - to chance, and data on how and when significant impacts occur could be extrapolated and used to prevent future injury. It sees only a matter of time before similar technologies are fitted to soccer players' boots and pitchers' arms.

By closely monitoring training, physio teams are able to retrospectively check a player's activity in the build-up to a muscular injury and try to detect patterns - if successful, they can then avoid the situation in future by building a picture of training that puts too much pressure on a particular muscle. In terms of injury recovery, a physio team can now assess data specific to each player regarding how quickly they typically return to full fitness following an injury. Absences through injury will by no means disappear, but by building a picture of why they happen could see numbers significantly decline.

The application of wearable tech that will have the most affect on match day, though, is performance optimization. In what sounds a utopia for managers, wearable tech will allow them to analyze their players' fitness levels, effectiveness on the field and average position, all in real-time. Want to see how regularly your right winger has been tracking back? How much your pitchers' deliveries have slowed as they have grown more fatigued? How quickly your centre-back has turned in the last few attacks? There's software for that.

Australian sports tech company Catapult have developed wearables employed by Premier League soccer teams and top-level rugby sides in the UK. About the weight of an iPhone 5s, the tracker is worn under a player's jersey, picking up data with previously unattainable accuracy. It details everything from changes in speed to distance covered, logging data a thousand times a second. The information is manipulated in real-time in training sessions and relayed to coaches after every drill. Effective training comes from the ability to make decisions about a player's routine on the spot, to inform them of necessary changes and target areas of improvement from session-to-session.

The wearable tech revolution is making previously unattainable information available too. The movement of soccer goalkeepers has been, up until now, incredibly difficult to quantify; the average 'keeper will actually put in eight times more work on the training ground than they do in a game - outfield players will generally match their outputs. Catapult have developed software to make sense of a goalkeeper's movements, analyzing everything from the speed with which they can get down to meet a low shot to the distance they can cover with a standing dive. Match day data for 'keepers is relatively sparse, and now that their physical performance can be properly analyzed, it can be more effectively optimized.

As Catapult themselves put it: 'Coaching is an art, but back up what you do with science.' Some worry that the data revolution will remove the nail-biting randomness of sport, but its limitations should be understood. Edge-of-the-seat moments will still happen in sport, you'll just have a much better idea of why they occurred. 

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