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Trickle Down In Sport

We are seeing technology & ideas being implemented at lower levels

16Sep

Today we have seen the level of technology available to amateur athletes jump considerably as the price of previously expensive kit has become cheaper. We have also seen the understanding of many key elements of sports and injuries become more widely accepted and appreciated further down sports thanks to injuries suffered at the top.

In terms of equipment, think about the kind of shoes seen on runners only 20 years ago. Today these would be considered as casual shoes, not specifically for sport. In fact arguably the world’s most iconic casual shoe, the Converse All Star, are a case in point. These were originally created as basketball shoes in 1917, today almost every pair sold will be used for fashion as they are not deemed to be of enough quality to be dedicated sports shoes.

Today basketball shoes have millions of dollars of R&D invested in them, creating air pockets, anti-ankle roll systems and complex ventilation flow in order to create the best possible experience for an amateur player. To put it in context, the mid-range shoes that can be found on any basketball court are probably the same, if not better quality than Michael Jordan wore in his prime.

Similarly, when you look at soccer cleats, the technology that you would regularly find on $200+ sets only 5 years ago are available for sub $100. The innovations of yesterday have become the bare minimum for today. In fact in order to create new innovations sports companies are needing to resort to increasingly unconventional techniques.

Take the Nike Hypervenom boots, who would have thought that we would see a set of cleats which acted as half shoe and half sock? Due to trickle down companies are needing to resort to these new techniques to appear ahead of the curve or to get marginal gains when the obvious changes have already been made.

Cycling is also seeing this trickle down effect in more than just the bikes that are bought.

The affordability of carbon framed bikes has decreased to the extent that you can pick up a complete carbon bike for under $1000. Only 10-15 years ago there were several professional teams who couldn’t afford the new luxurious material, instead being forced to race with steel or aluminium frames instead.

Even though cycling has become one of the most data driven sports in the world at the elite level, the ability to get data has also trickled down to the amateur consumer market. For instance, where the ability to plot how much power a cyclist creates when pedalling was only a dream for anybody who didn’t have a spare $3000 to buy a set of pedals to measure it and another $700 to spend on a computer to record it. In this issue we are testing the Garmin Vector pedals which can communicate this data to our standard cycle computer, in real time. The pedals themselves aren’t the cheapest on the market, but there are power meters available for less that $500 today, although still not dirt cheap, they are far more accessible for a keen amateur.

This level of technology being available at the grassroots of sports is not simply about being able to afford better technology though, it is also about allowing people to be safer playing the sports they love. We are seeing ideas and understanding of medical issues from high profile cases increasing the understanding of the impact that this can have on amateur players.

A recent example of this is rugby, where George North, the Welsh winger, suffered four concussions in five months and missed a huge chunk of the season and was a doubt for the World Cup. For a rugby player, knocks to the head are an occupational hazard, in fact Patria Hume, Professor at The Auckland University of Technology, found that "94% of elite level rugby players experienced one or more concussions”. The shock for people was that North is only 23 years old and already one of the most exciting players in the world.

It is not simply a problem for professional or even players too, the British Journal of Sports Medicine conducted a study which predicted that the probability of a youth gaining a concussion in 1000 hours of playing rugby was between 0.3% and 11.4%. Although this is a significant disparity, it still goes to show that there is a real chance of concussions and that this is an issue that doctors, officials and even parents at these games should be aware of.

Previously this would have been seen as part and parcel of playing youth rugby, but after several high profile cases, understanding and treatment of these injuries has filtered down to youth level, meaning that although it is not easy to prevent the injuries, the treatment is significantly improved.

The pace of trickle down of both ideas and technology is undoubtedly quicker than only 20 years ago, which people normally link to improving manufacturing techniques and increased R&D budgets. This would ring true with the increasing number of patents being filed by sports companies, for instance the number of patents filed by Nike has increased by an average of 14% year-on-year since 2000.

However, one of the keys to this trickle down is the effectiveness of the marketing of these companies and also the considerably wider net that media coverage of these events and technologies has. Where twenty years ago there may be the national newspapers running a single story, one or two specialised magazines discussing it, TV coverage for a day and a few radio phone ins, it has changed today. Today we get to see the newest technology through thousands of websites, shared through significant numbers of social networks and fully searchable on Google. It means that information is digested more readily and is more easily accessible, as well as being permanent - where a newspaper can be thrown away, an article on the web leaves a lasting legacy.

This proliferation of information has created not only the knowledge that trickles down, such as concussion treatment, but the familiarity with technology and a demand for it. This makes it easier to sell higher end products and fund more development for future tech innovations, pushing previous technology down to lower end models. 

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