Wearable Technology in Sport – Part 2

Player Welfare and Injury Management

In this second blog on wearable technology in sport, I am going to be summarising my research into how the technology can be used for player welfare. Arguably the most successful athletes in their disciplines are the ones that are able to look after their bodies, stay injury free, and have a long and prosperous career. Roger Federer for example, my favourite tennis player and arguably the greatest of all time, has stayed at the very top of the sport winning 20 grand slams over a career of 22 years. A huge part of this prolonged success is down to his graceful, elegant style that takes very little toll on his body. Injury prevention and conditioning is an increasingly important aspect of every athlete’s life, professional and amateur. 

Since the boom in wearable technology it has been incorporated in a whole array of uses to prevent injury, in and out of sport. The start-up company I am working for, Liveskin, is developing wearable sensors for contact sports such as rugby. The sensors will measure collision forces with the aim to improve technique – the lack of which is a very common cause of injury. The tool will provide real-time feedback to coaches who can then compare the impacts alongside footage. This product focuses on prevention of injury by refining how a sport can be coached. A more common tool for injury prevention is through monitoring the players performance. I will talk in the next post about monitoring from a specific performance analysis point of view, but from an injury prevention point of view, there are a number of devices that monitor the musculoskeletal system in ways that provide analysis on how the body is performing.  

LiveSkin monitors the impact of collisions in rugby

The type of injury can vary depending on the type of sport that is being played. Cycling injuries happen instantly at very short notice, for example, whilst running injuries tend to develop more slowly over time. These slow developing injuries can be monitored. Sensoria Socks have developed a wearable that detect foot strike, weight distribution and rhythm of movement to find out whether there is any variation from usual data that can be attributed to early signs of injury. Stridalyzer works in a similar way.

Another slow developing injury is Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) which is very common in American football and ice hockey players. CTE is a neurodegenerative disease that is caused by repetitive head injuries, and there is increasing concern over the development of head injuries in contact supports. Concussions in rugby in particular is an ever-growing issue, and there are new rules and regulations introduced each year to help safeguard players. In a recent study on American football players, it was found that 87% of 202 players tested, were found to be affected by CTE. CTE does not show symptoms for years, and often results in dementia. Due to the realisation that a great many American football players are being affected by CTE, a number of wearable products have been developed to recognise and diagnose any impact before it turns into an irreparable injury. FIT Guard have developed a mouth guard worn under the teeth which can determine the severity of collisions. Similarly, smart-foam is a material designed to be used within helmets that can determine head impacts.

Catapult is one of the leading companies in sport-based wearables. They have a device that is able to detect certain habits that a player might be developing. It has been implemented into both the NBA and NFL in America and has seen incredible results in reducing the number of injuries of basketball and football players. It can monitor the way that players jump, land and move, giving insights into whether they favour a certain side over the other, which is an early indicator of injury. In 2013 the Florida State Seminoles (University side) saw an 88% reduction in soft tissue injuries among their football players as a result of introducing Catapult sensors into their training.

Skiing is a sport, similar to cycling, that can cause injuries in an instant due to a collision or a crash. You can travel at tremendous speeds where the smallest mistake can lead to catastrophic consequences. Dainese, a motorcycle clothing brand, have developed a wearable airbag for speed-skiers. It is called the D-air Ski and it is a vest worn under your ski suit. The vest is designed to protect your torso and shoulders, and by utilising accelerometers and gyroscopes, it can identify when a crash is imminent and inflate. A product with a similar concept, but very different context, is the Hip’Safe, a wearable airbag that protects the elderly from a fall. Instant injury prevention is now being implemented in many high-speed and adventure sports. 

Player rehabilitation is often more arduous and painstaking that the injury itself, as players are desperate to get back ‘on the field of play’ as soon as possible. For professional athletes being able to play their sport is their livelihood, so they have a huge incentive to play as much as they can. This eagerness is very often detrimental, as players return to compete too early in their rehab process and as a result cause further injury. The NFL are using ViPerform, a biomechanical analysis technology from dorsaVi. It has been used particularly well for knee ligament rehab. The ligaments in your knees are put under a huge amount of strain in most sports. I can count a number of players that I have played rugby with that have ruptured or sprained ligaments in their knees, and can say with confidence that it is a very frustrating rehab process. ViPerform can see what physiotherapists are unable to see with just their naked eye. It can show the stability in the knee, reveal how much force can be put through the knee (useful when compared to the other one). From this data, a player specific training program can be implemented to address any issues.

ViPerform in Action

America tends to be leading the way with this technology, especially within contact sports, which are a particular interest of mine. I haven’t yet come across anything that has been designed for use within rugby (outside of LikeSkin), which is odd considering the current concerns around concussions in the sport. Perhaps this could be a project worth considering for my final year project.

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