The jocks and the geeks may have a lot more common ground than was once thought possible. Sports technology, the successful merging of technological innovations with athletic endeavors, has forever changed the face of every sport imaginable. In performance sports, where even a single-digit increase in performance can mean the difference between going home with the gold or going home empty-handed, technology is allowing athletes and their coaches to gain deeper insights into how to make those improvements.
Data and analytics, virtual reality, and even advanced 3D motion capture have advanced the science of sports, transforming it from instinctual into a practice that is much more predictable. Most sports are about gaining an incremental edge wherever you can. When that edge can be measured with great precision, beyond what even the most skilled coach can detect visually, it can be improved.
The state of sports tech
Sylvester Stallone's 'Rocky' character rose out of the slums to get his shot at the championship, through grit and determination, and the old-world instincts of his trainer, Mickey. Were Rocky to be in the squared circle today though, Mickey would be reviewing Rocky's moves on a computer, and he would have sensors attached to his gloves for real-time feedback. Such high-tech sports tactics might not make as great of a movie, but they do go a lot further when trying to achieve consistent results and steady improvement.
Sports tech is fast becoming the next great tech opportunity, and not just for athletes. Venture capitalists and Silicon Valley tech mavens – not particularly well known for their athletic prowess – are rapidly recognizing this potential. Most recently, Jerusalem-based equity crowdfunding platform OurCrowd launched a $50 million venture fund, Advantage, which focuses exclusively on sports technology.
Everyone from amateurs to Olympians are beginning to understand the enormous potential of improving performance with the help of tech-driven feedback tools. The U.S. women's cycling pursuit team took advantage of wearable tech, with a set of connected glasses that projects performance data directly onto the lenses. The team used them to prepare for the 2016 Summer Games, taking home a silver medal. For the Winter Games in Pyeongchang, a virtual reality ski training software analyzed different types of ice, to determine which type of skate blade is best suited to varying conditions. Even the skin suit had full-body sensors which gave athletes a holistic view of important factors like heart rate, speed, and muscle fatigue.
GEARing up for golf
The game of golf is all about precision, stamina and, the amount of control the player is able to maintain over his swing. 'Traditional golf instruction has, for over a hundred years, said that the grip, the aim, and the stance are the fundamentals of a good game,' said Michael Manavian, Director of Golf and Performance Nutrition at CLAY Health Club + Spa in Greenwich, Connecticut. 'But in reality, those are variable tasks, and they are not demonstrated as a uniform standard by any golf professional. The best-known championship golfers may vary significantly, with one aiming 30 yards to the right of the target, and another aiming 30 yards to the left. Visiting the driving range of any tour event, it is possible to see all of these different variables in grip, aim, and stance. There is no standard.'
In reality, working on those variable tasks often has no correlation to improvement. Measuring exactly where the ball starts, where it curves too and, measuring the body's movement to a degree of precision that transcends mere observation, is what makes the difference.
That machine-based observation is essential especially in golf, where the club may be moving at 120 miles per hour, and sensor-based technology that measures golf swing, position, and body movement has allowed both amateur and pro golfers to measurably improve their game.
The GEARS system, a 3D motion capture system which is available in only a handful of facilities in the United States, uses some of the same technology deployed in Hollywood. Cobra Golf, the manufacturer of performance golf equipment, uses the technology at its 'Snake Pit' facility in Carlsbad, which fits players using 3D motion capture. This is the only manufacturer which provides club head data, club face data, and shaft data in real time and in an overlay, both at its Carlsbad facility and also in conjunction with CLAY.
The GEARS system provides point-by-point data in real time, delivering a significant advantage over 2D tools which require overlays and complex graphs. Every angle is measured to within a hundredth of a millimeter, it's wireless and very user-friendly – and the only system that measures the shaft, head, and body at the same time. GEARS also has the advantage of being useful both in training sessions and out on the golf course, with motion-capture technology and remote Bluetooth connectivity setting up a connection between the club and a smartphone app.
For golfers, the benefit of sports technology is immediately obvious. Not only do golfers have the ability to gain valuable, real-time feedback that could not be detected visually, the golfers' trainers are also able to use that data for things like club fitting and to determine which type of club fits each golfer best. One set of clubs may deflect nine millimeters for one player, and 25 millimeters for another – and the trainer will not be able to see that with casual observation. But with sports technology innovations, that sort of fine detail can be easily determined, and the result is a better game.
We live in a data-centric world, with big data driving decisions for everything from retail and grocery stores, to Olympic games, to how a golfer swings the club on the course.