Wearable Technology in Sport – Part 3

Performance Analysis

In this third post on wearable technology in sport I am going to be looking at how wearables are being used for performance analysis, and the affect this has been having on the players and the sports themselves. As sport has become more professional over the last 30 years or so, the level of performance has increased, as athletes are becoming faster, stronger and more skilful. To help facilitate these performances, the analysis of the athletes is an ever-developing field.

Wearable performance analysis is much more readily available to us that we might be aware. Many smart watches have built in GPS and heart rate functions, allowing users to track how quick and far they have run, for example, but also estimate how many calories have been burnt during exercise.

I have spoken in the previous post about Catapult, who are one of the leading wearable companies for sports analysis. Teams from many sports all across the planet use their services to help manage their athletes. A friend of mine, Will, who is a Sport Science student at Loughborough University, has recently completed a placement year with the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU). The WRU have been using the Catapult Optimeye S5 to monitor their players. They use the product to monitor work completed, session intensity, duration, high speed distance and efforts, for every training session. All of the information that is gathered is stored so that they can reference current efforts against any session in the past. They use this information to essentially determine whether certain players are ready for the demands of competition. Welsh age group players from u18 are monitored during their training sessions, so by the time these athletes are playing at senior level, there is a scary amount of data for the coaches and training staff to refer back to when gauging fitness and preparation level. The technology supposedly helps to quantify the work that is performed in ways that were previously impossible, and hence helps the staff know when to push and pull the training for each athlete. Will didn’t directly deal with the data himself, but as far he is aware, he thinks the data didn’t really have much impact on the training that the players did. It was purely used for post training analysis.

The Optimeye S5 from Catapult

Catapult products are made up of a unit that encloses the electronic components, and a garment that houses the enclosure while it is being worn. The electronic enclosure is positioned on the athletes back, between their shoulder blades, keeping it out of the way so that the athlete can perform their sport unhindered by the device. The garment appears to be tight fitting to the athlete so that the unit is held firmly in place. The higher end models actually use this tight fit garment to record heart rate of the athletes. Will has worn these a few times and mentioned that they ‘were really fine’ to wear. Once you have been wearing them for a little while you would barely notice they were there. This is the perfect user feedback for wearable technology. My boss at Liveskin, Jack, has talked in the past about the higher end Catapult models, particularly the heart rate monitoring devices. There has been some feedback from professional athletes that indicate that these are not particularly comfortable to wear, and that some athletes refuse to wear them for competition.

These insights into the Catapult products has made me give some thought into what makes a successful wearable product in sport. Firstly, I think the function of the product must be relevant to a sport itself. Take Catapult for example, their products technically do not do much more than an average smart watch, but the way that this technology has been implemented into sport savvy garments, where a watch would be impractical, makes them hugely functional. At Liveskin, a huge amount of thought is given to how the product will be used in the context of rugby matches or training, as this is essential for the technology to be used to its highest potential.

The comfort and unobtrusiveness of the products are also essential. As I have mentioned, some Catapult models are criticised for hindering the athletes that wear them by being too tight. The comfort of any product is an obvious one, but unobtrusiveness is critical when it comes to sport. Most sports require a huge about of physical movement and having a product get in the way would be problematic. I have come across a number of sport-based wearables that have implemented their technologies into already existing sport specific equipment. Smart-foam, and FIT-guard have incorporated sensors into helmets and mouthguards respectively for American football. Skiing is a sport that is a prime example for incorporating technology into pre-existing equipment. Oakley have developed a pair of goggles, the ‘Airwave’, that have a discreet heads-up display with GPS location, speed and other useful information. Rossignol have developed skis that use embedded sensors to provide feedback on your technique. Another essential feature of wearables in sport is the visualisation of data to the user. The product is only useful if the user can benefit from its use. In the example of Oakley’s Airwave goggles, the information is presented to the user whilst the sport is taking place, but for most performance analysis-based wearables, the data is used post-activity. The presentation of data from a wearable can turn an otherwise great bit of design into something impractical and clunky.

A view of the Oakley Airwave heads-up display

There is a lot of concern amidst the boom in the use of wearable technology in sport about the impact that athlete monitoring has on the life of the athletes outside of their sport. From a financial point of view, some devices that monitor minute details of an athlete’s performance, can potentially impact how much athletes earn. Brian Bulcke, a defensive linesman in the Canadian Football League, told The Guardian that despite being at the top of his game, he could see a decrease in pay during contract negotiations. This won’t be due to any particular drop in form, but based on “macro patterns related to age, injury history and previously undetectable biometric data.”

Brian Bulcke, an engineer and American football player

There is also a concern in the intrusion of such devices into a professional athlete’s personal life. As sport is their profession, and that most athlete’s get paid handsomely for what they do, there is little concern over their athletic performance being recorded and stored, especially as sport is primarily a form of entertainment for the public. According to Bulcke, the line gets crossed when athlete’s personal data such as diet and sleep pattern are recorded. He says that in his experience of athlete monitoring, they are often treated a little like guinea pigs, and are just expected to play ball (excuse the pun). The over scrutinization of players can have a very negative impact on their welfare, particularly their mental health, outside of the sport.

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