How Technology is Changing Contact Sports
First Published in Sports Performance & Tech
Technology in contact sports has evolved in a very particular form in the past couple of decades and especially over the past few years. A significant amount of technology is becoming portable and wireless and data is now often being made available in real time for coaches, trainers and sport scientists. This has supported the transition of technology from laboratory settings to practice fields, courts, and in some cases in official sport competitions.
A very recent example is the case of a partnership between Adidas and the Major League Soccer in the US in which the Adidas MiCoach system has been approved and is currently being utilized by all MLS teams during practice sessions and during official competitions to track athletes’ heart rate, speed, jump height, distance ran, and other data. This has been made possible with the use of miniaturized GPS, gyroscopes and accelerometers that have been embedded into a small system that is lodged in athletes’ jerseys and in some cases in their cleats. This system has also been utilized by Rugby teams in Europe, North America and Oceania.
Tracking systems like MiCoach and Under Armour39 also assist an athletes’ health maintenance through a number of analyses that can be made in regards to fatigue, overtraining and other important health related information with this information then being compared to their unique physical and medical conditions. With the goal to monitor contact sports athletes’ health, another piece of technology has entered our courts, fields and rinks – these technologies have made it possible to track the intensity of head impacts experienced by athletes. This new device from Reebok, called Checklight, is a very small and flexible system that fits to the athlete’s head – the device is lodged in a beanie; it is also a standalone system that doesn’t need additional software or to be paired with another device, instead, it uses an LED indicator that displays a yellow signal in the event of a moderate impact to the head, or a red signal in the event of a more intense impact. The Reebok Checklight is a game changing device developed by MC10, which is a company that specializes in developing stretchable, flexible, thin, and small sensors that are designed to be wearable and virtually unnoticeable by the user. MC10 is currently developing multiple devices in this new area, including a system that will provide data on athletes’ perspiration rate in real time. Within the same field Gatorade has developed and been working on analysis of sweat composition for each athlete in a team and implementing a personalized formula for rehydration for each team member according to the athletes’ loss of fluids, electrolytes and minerals. This product can be seen in different sport teams and is going to be implemented during the 2014 FIFA World CUP.
The use of technology in contact sports has grown a lot within performance enhancement, injury prevention, injury recovery and athletes’ health maintenance. The use of advanced high speed and high definition cameras, along with the development of biomechanical software, has allowed teams to have an in depth view of athletes’ movements. This detailed view may assist coaches to better understand a hockey athlete’s kinetic link (chain of muscular, joints and body events) during a slap-shot, or a rugby player’s penalty kick, or a soccer player’s corner kick; this information is then used to improve speed, accuracy, but also to analyze possible indicators, like the imbalance of movement which may cause injury.
Another field of sport science and technology that has evolved significantly is neuro/physiology and neuro/biofeedback. With technological advances things that were only possible to be measured in the laboratory, like muscle activation, respiratory rhythms, and neurological activity are now available during practice and games, not only as a measure and assessment tool, but also as data that can be sent back to the athletes in real time. Devices like the FlexComp Infiniti from Thought Technology and the Nexus-10 from MindMedia are portable and allow data transferring to be made wirelessly through Bluetooth, which could potentially train athletes to have faster reaction times, quicker decision making, more focus and many other performance enhancing possibilities. It is now possible to measure how focused, how ready to react, and how warmed up a football player is in the line of scrimmage, or a soccer goalkeeper during a penalty kick, or a hockey player during a face-off, or a rugby player during a scrum; sport scientists and trainers are able to use this data and train their athletes to be at their peak level of performance for each circumstance. Moreover, the analysis during game-play or during practice may provide data on an athlete’s ideal ranges of motion, data on the balance between flexor and extensor muscle groups activation. This is crucial information for performance, but more importantly, is paramount to the evaluation and training of ideal conditions to prevent injuries.
Another technological advance is the Hawk-Eye, from Hawk Eye Innovations. It is a precise ball speed and trajectory tracker that uses cameras and advanced software - The International Tennis Federation already approved the software for tournament play in 2005. It was launched in 2012 as a soccer simulator training system that tracks the ball’s trajectory, spin and speed.
Some sport organizations have made use of geoanalytics to try to have a better understanding of team strategies by analyzing athletes’ and a team’s geographical positioning and movement on the field/court, by using systems like ArcGis, which provides data including team and individual movement and positioning trends.
Besides technologies that can be applied on the field, there are options that can be used to improve performance from off the field variables, like athletes’ activity and sleep. Monitors that track athletes’ activity and sleep patterns (similar to the ones available commercially, like the Misfit-shine and Nike’s Fuelband SE) provide team professionals with information that allows them to understand each athlete better. With this information professionals can provide athletes with individual guidance, according to the team’s travel, practice and competition schedule so that they can improve rest, recovery and readiness for performance.
Other advances also targeting athletes’ recovery are devices that emit electrical signals to stimulate small muscular contractions that assist on post-activity muscular recovery. These include TecElite from LG, and Marc Pro, which both require specific calibration and positioning from a trained professional, and the FireFly from FirstKind which is a take home device that does not require calibration or adjustment to specific levels and can be used by the athlete when away from the club.
More technology has been made available for on and off the field performance enhancement, and for athletes’ health maintenance; some professional teams have followed this phenomenon and have increased investments in sport sciences. While some teams have done so in a more public way, like AC Milan from Italy, with the Milan Lab, and Real Madrid FC from Spain, with the Real Madrid TEC-Sanitas center; other teams have made investments in a more discrete and even secret fashion.
With the fast growing advances of the technological field in sports comes challenges, like finding trained professionals who know how to implement sport sciences with professional sport organizations in a seamless way, or to train members of the training/coaching staff to be able to take full advantage of the benefits that technology is bringing to sports. An example is of what benefits advanced sleep and rest data can bring to a team. But if there is no one able to create a program to optimize athletes’ rest, recovery and sleep quality will it be valuable? Another important fact to highlight is that some technologies provide objective data and measures that need processing, analysis of the data according to each athlete’s characteristics, and statistical analysis in order for it to make sense and to produce positive results for the teams. On the other hand, some of the technology that is being made available can already make its own calculations and algorithmic analysis, providing an outcome that also needs to be looked at with caution, as in some instances these technologies provide estimates and approximations, instead of exact measurements.
Even though there are some obstacles, the future of sport and technology is bright – there is potential to see a great deal of improvement in team performance enhancement and health maintenance coming from sport and performance technologies, especially with programs that make the adequate use of, and correct adaptation of the technology that is currently available. Finally, there are plenty of reasons to be excited for and to be looking forward to the future of sport performance technologies, as new conforming wireless technologies are being created and improved, and more efforts are being made in preparing knowledgeable professionals who will make the best use of them.
By Dr. Paulo Opperman, Sports Scientist
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