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Wearables On Match Day: A Game Changer

Allowing the use of wearables on the field enhances not just coaches’ decision making but fan engagement

23May

Throughout the season, soccer fans and pundits alike were attempting to explain or just make sense of Leicester City’s unbelievable Premier League triumph. With their poor possession retention rate, few chances created and laughable pass completion, the opinion that it couldn’t last followed the Foxes and, probably, spurred them on. But last it did, and Leicester held a consistency many thought impossible of a ‘smaller’ club’ at the opening of the season.

The consistency that, in part, made Leicester’s title charge possible was, itself, made possible by different successes off of the pitch. Leicester had the fewest injuries across the Premier League campaign, a feat that - though made easier by the club competing largely in only one competition - can be attributed to some expert work by the backroom staff. Claudio Ranieri was able to, uncharacteristically, make few changes to his starting XI across the season and, in May, he lifted the trophy.

The Foxes used fitness and GPS trackers in training, and many have hailed their sports science team as one of the unsung heroes of the unlikely triumph; their trademark ferocious intensity was made possible by the work done in keeping their players at peak physical condition. But the Premier League, generally, is way behind the likes of rugby, the NFL and Aussie rules football - wearables may be widely used in training, but are not yet permitted on match day. This needs to change.

Rugby stands as a shining light for adoption of wearable tech done properly. Every club in the Aviva Premiership utilizes wearable tech both on the pitch and the training ground. GPS trackers are fitted between the players’ shoulder blades, which can measure metrics like speed, location and distance covered, among others. In RFU, particularly during international games, it not unusual to see coaches sitting on the touchline with their laptops out, monitoring their players in real-time and using the data to inform decision making, in a way that seems more at home in a video game than real-world professional sports.

The use of wearables in training is one thing - useful, but only for determining a player’s strain outside of the main event - but in-game trackers can more deeply inform backroom staff as to when injuries, which primarily occur in-game, are more likely to occur. The NFL, similarly, uses both GPS and heart-rate to detect responses to different training loads and match day strain. The hope is that, through proper collection and analysis of physical data, injury recovery and training workload can be devised and revised on an individual basis.

And the potentials of match day wearables don’t stop at injury prevention. As well as the coaches and analysis teams on the touchline, fans watching at home will benefit from accompanying data. Imagine being able to see not just the expression of the players but also their heart-rates, to see in real-time the distance run by each of the athletes or the velocity with which a player was tackled. ‘It brings fan engagement to the next level,’ Jim McEneaney told Wareable.com. ‘We could launch in-stadium apps, so fans can engage more with what's happening on the field, and see each player's data. Clubs could develop their own apps for fans too. To be able to see Messi, and say he's running at 9.3 metres per second, compared to someone who's only running 8.7 metres per second… it's the next level for fans.’

For more tactically complex sports, like football, visualization of plays and player positioning is a great way for fans to learn more about the intricacies of the game. Zebra sports, the ‘Official On-Field Player Tracking Provider’ for the NFL, use a coin-sized chip, placed in the players’ shoulder pads, to track speed, acceleration, location and distance travelled, with heart-rate and hydration expected to be measured in the future. The genesis of the use is fan-first, with broadcasters getting access to the data before clubs. It’s only a matter of time before the data is transmitted to coaches in real-time, though, as the future of data-driven sports begins to take shape and the scrutiny under which players perform skyrockets. Your heart-rate might be through the roof when your No.9 is lining up a winning penalty - soon you’ll be able to check theirs, too. 

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