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It's a New Digital Ballgame

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The Seahawks lining up against the San Diego Chargers (now the Los Angeles Chargers).

The Seattle Seahawks of the U.S. National Football League is one team taking advantage of a combination of digital technology and data to transform low-tech human beings into high-tech data points.

Credit: Kevin Lisota

Few things are as inherently human as athletics. Pushing a body to its limits in the quest to run faster, jump higher, or swing harder has been a goal since the beginning of time. However, digital technology—including augmented reality, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, sensors, and the Internet of Things (IoT)—is emerging as a game changer.

"Human beings are incredibly complex. Understanding different signals that influence performance is critical to maximizing results and minimizing injuries," says Dean Riddle, a sports performance scientist and consultant who has worked with the Seattle Seahawks of the U.S. National Football League and Sheffield United Football Club in the U.K., and now heads the firm KYP.

The combination of digital technology and data is transforming low-tech human beings into high-tech data points. Coaches and trainers can monitor factors that once escaped detection, while athletes are able to push harder or back off when a body shows signs of fatigue, or when they are on the cusp of an injury.

"Technology is changing athletics and sports in a big way," says Adam Deutsch, managing director, Deloitte Consulting LLP.

A Pitch for Digital

Tapping technology to enhance sports performance is nothing new. In the 1970s, the Oakland A's baseball team pioneered the use of data science, a story made famous by the book and film Moneyball. Since then, sensors, video, and other components have moved into the sports arena. Steve Haake, professor of sports engineering at Sheffield Hallam University in the U.K. and author of Advantage Play: Technologies that Changed Sporting History, says the modern era of sports engineering was born when the iPhone appeared in 2007. "It introduced a hub for tools and data."

Today, there are football helmets that can sense when a potential concussion occurs, virtual reality training systems, motion tracking systems, augmented reality apps that can show flaws in a jump shot or baseball swing, sensors in shoes that monitor forces, and much more. Haake says his group has created more than 100 digital tools and apps for sports as diverse as gymnastics, diving, basketball, and boxing. "Dashboards and data have become incredibly important."

New tools and applications are emerging. For example, Riddle worked with electrical and mechanical engineers, including representatives of aerospace manufacturer Boeing, to develop a tool for the Seattle Seahawks that allows an athlete to sit in a specially designed chair to test the resistance of different muscle groups, such as groin and hamstrings. "By measuring the force exerted and the pattern of the force, we can see when performance is below the norm. This often indicates fatigue, and a higher probability of injury," he says.

The Seahawks also collect data from GPS trackers and other sensors that players wear, store this data in the cloud, and then use analytics software to generate visualizations that indicate player readiness. These tools deliver insights into perceived exertion and how players respond to different training regimens.

Sports engineers and scientists are now experimenting with sensors woven into clothing, including systems that can measure blood oxygen level, temperature, pulse, and other vital signs. These systems indicate when an athlete is dehydrated, or tiring and in need of rest. Haake says researchers also are developing connected mouthguards that, using a sensor that analyzes saliva, know when an athlete has elevated blood lactate levels that indicate fatigue.

Scoring with Data

Biometric monitoring and other digital tools are here to stay, Deutsch says. There's a growing body of data that professional coaches, teams and athletes now rely on to gain insights. This includes the National Basketball Association testing Oura Smart Rings that track sleep, heart rate, body temperature, and more.

A few teams are also experimenting with digital twins, which can simulate games and performances in different ways. As IoT devices become more prominent in sports, everything from the sport to the box score data likely will change.

The key, Haake says, is to use the technology in an appropriate way. For one, metrics, statistics, and data readouts aren't a replacement for human thinking, coaching, and decision-making. Players and situations are all very different. Consequently, Haake says, tools and apps require multi-disciplinary teams, including input from sports psychologists, to produce positive results.

Another issue, Riddle says, is adapting to the changes the technology introduces. For instance, current collective bargaining agreements prevent players in some sports from wearing monitoring devices while performing or playing games.

Riddle is also leery of systems that collect too much data or open the door to potential misuse or abuse. This could include information about injuries or underlying conditions that athletes, performers, and teams don’t want publicized. Says he: “Digital technology creates opportunities to push performance closer to its limits, but there are questions about ethics and law that must be addressed.”

Samuel Greengard is an author and journalist based in West Linn, OR, USA.


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