By Carl Valle
Player tracking technology—specifically the wearable type—is now mainstream. Years ago, I was very critical of the technology, not because of the value of the data, but because those who heavily promoted it were simply unable to perform the primary duties of preparing athletes. I am a huge fan of technology, but reluctant to suggest anything until a fair exchange is available to coaches. Today, the value proposition of wearable load management tools, sometimes referred to as athlete tracking technology, applies to all levels of sport, not just elites.The value proposition of wearable load management tools, sometimes referred to as athlete tracking technology, now applies to all levels of sport, not just elites, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
This article covers everything you need to know about picking the right system for your team and reviews important considerations that are sometimes uncomfortable to talk about. If you are a strength coach, sport scientist, parent, team coach, or even an athlete, this article will give you enough information to take the next step in tracking with both intelligence and wisdom.
Why Coaches Should Monitor Every Athlete on the Field
It may be strange that spectator sports should require monitoring technology, but to be honest, what is being done now isn’t helping much. With all the research and media campaigns, we still see underperformance in many areas. My main concern is an athlete failing to reach their potential due to either injury problems or a coach not knowing how to develop them properly. True, great coaching is at the heart of progressing an athlete, but you can coach a chaotic environment with few resources and the naked eye only. If coaching was just about showing up to practice, nobody would be looking at video later. Now video has evolved, and additional sources of information help guide better decisions.
Monitoring athletes can include simple subjective questions, field tests, and even analyzing their autonomic states. I do think that athletes need a comprehensive monitoring approach, but the average high school or small college doesn’t have the staff to do this. So, the end game is likely to do what is essential and pick a few data points from the field, at home, and in the weight room. Starting with the pitch is a straightforward and direct way to know what an athlete does day to day, as most of the influence on preparation comes from practice.
The weight room is especially valuable, but it is still a distant second. Physiological monitoring, be it internal responses or real-time monitoring, is usually lower on the totem pole as well, often relegated to “bronze” or third class. If you ask a team coach—usually the boss of the team—they want to see information on what is happening in games and practices. Ironically, the errors in loading a player are not from an overzealous strength coach, but from the team coach who wants more rehearsal of strategy and tactics. Ideally, an experienced coach will not break down a team, but not causing injury isn’t a mark of excellence, as it requires more than intention or gut feeling to have each player fit and fresh on game day.
It’s only fair to the athletes today that they have a second pair of eyes on them. Monitoring isn’t an option, it’s a right, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
My “pitch to monitor the pitch” is about building a foundation to get better training at all levels, including both the youth and elite levels. We may not have all the answers, and the process is far from perfect, but it’s only fair to the athletes today that they have a second pair of eyes on them. Monitoring isn’t an option, it’s a right.
Monitoring the Pitch – Old Promises and New Realities
Monitoring the field isn’t new, but it’s now about how much cost and expertise are needed to handle the information. Decades ago, we saw soccer look at workload, and now we analyze so much data that we have to use artificial intelligence to keep up. Like an ocean of water that isn’t drinkable, monitoring today suffers from scientific integrity and companies overpromising results.
Over the past decade, many of the problems we see in sport have not gotten better, so why do we still trust science and technology? The answer is that transparency and reasoning were lost in all the advancements. Many ambitious professionals were more focused on presenting at an analytics conference to get the next big job than finding a way to really help athletes reduce injuries or get better at their sport. Sure, some technology was problematic and limited, but it’s time to move on from people’s shortcomings and focus on what is possible.
Today, we can create a fair expectation of what is, frankly, negligent and foolish for athlete preparation. The hard part is the gray area—the zone where most of the coaches fall—as it’s foggy and complicated to navigate through. A modern program won’t make glaring mistakes, but the hard part is having confidence in what is risky and what is truly a reliable data point. With teams boasting that they are reducing injuries or winning because of statistical firepower, it’s odd because only one winner will arise.
This makes us all wonder, are the losers not as proficient in using the sports hardware and scientific practices that are publicly available? When a team fails to win with the same staff or talent a year later, did they suddenly become incompetent? It’s a lot to think about.
The reality is that a proper mix of great team chemistry with sport coaching, sufficient talent, and a good strength and conditioning program will help win more competitions and keep talent healthy and thriving. What is difficult for the high school or club level is a way to provide the same standards as elite programs with smaller budgets. An MLS club may have 6–8 staff members working for a team, while a high school is lucky to have a part-time athletic trainer on the field. Thus, monitoring is a problem if nobody is around to watch over the team.Today, the inexpensive hardware we see online at the consumer level is nearly identical to what the best clubs had a decade ago, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Today, we can monitor the game with far more precision, and video has improved as well, thanks to technology being cheaper and easier to use. In fact, the inexpensive hardware we see online at the consumer level is nearly identical to what the best clubs had a decade ago. With all of the advancements, however, we still see athletes carted off the field and sports medicine rooms filled with athletes struggling with injuries. It’s so bad that the addition of pressure is actually leading to a decrease in sports participation.
Hardware and Software – What Companies Are Viable?
If you are on the same page, the next step is selecting hardware to detect the activity of players. This is a broad area, and I hope to define some clear parameters. Tracking a player is about automating and quantifying their position or motion, and this means something different to everyone in the sport science game. Video monitoring is pretty much the standard, but if you are on a high school practice field or in a guest competition venue, then video tracking is unlikely. I don’t want to make video seem like an alternative to or replacement for wearable sensors; video should be done with the addition of wearables if possible.
Most of the discussion below will be about satellite outdoor products, but I will address a few indoor solutions, as well as inertial measurement unit (IMU) systems. Soccer, football, field hockey, and lacrosse are all sports that you can monitor with wearables. Hockey and basketball require a separate article, but what I share can help those sports too. I wrote about athlete tracking previously on SimpliFaster and InsideTracker, and the Buyer’s Guide covers much of the nuts and bolts about the technology. For the sake of time, I will get into many of the small details you want to know now.
You can opt for a formal team solution or try to organize a “bring your own device” strategy, but know that you may need a team solution in order to centralize the data, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Coaches will opt for a formal team solution (enterprise) or try to organize a “bring your own device” (BYOD) strategy. With each sensor priced at $200–$300 on average, the real expense will likely be the software. Athletes who make individual purchases may not be able to connect to a coach or move their data freely. This may be okay if you can log into their private portal or they share screenshots, but when you invest in the technology, you should really look for a central hub to organize data, rather than having to hunt through apps and online pages to collect data. A good monitoring solution does the work of gathering and cleaning data.
Be warned: A team solution may be required to centralize the data, as I experienced firsthand with PlayerTek offering two choices for hardware. Start backward with the way player data gets migrated from upload to a central web or team application. Titan Sensor offers a small, complimentary monitoring package for five athletes, and other systems are sold based on roster size.
Each kit usually includes a charging or transfer cable, a shirt, and, of course, the sensor itself. Nearly all of the technology is similar enough that a clear winner is very difficult to determine because after the hardware, the calculations are where most companies stumble. It’s super easy to show distance traveled or create a heat map; it’s far harder to estimate body loading mechanically, especially when the sensor is worn on the upper back. Some systems do synchronize with heart rate sensors and other additional devices, but most consumer products are just a GPS and IMU unit.
We should use GNSS (global navigation satellite system), as the terminology is biased to what we know from marketing and car navigation, but when a coach hears “GPS,” they know it’s satellite tracking. Sampling rate, IMU quality, and, of course, algorithm development all improve the quality of data. Generally, coaches want to know how fast, how hard, and how much an athlete is doing on the pitch, and slicing data into smaller metrics helps identify how an athlete is practicing and playing. Interpreting that data is a different story and requires experience and education.
Now comes my personal experience and opinion from working with the hardware and consulting with teams using athlete tracking systems. When buying the technology, don’t forget that while you are mainly investing in data, small choices such as wireless charging and indicator lights matter. When managing a team, the last thing a coach wants to deal with is troubleshooting, and this is why coaches tweet the gif of Bill Belichick tossing his Microsoft Surface.
There have been countless times when a sensor didn’t collect data, and it was hard to determine if it was on or recording. Practically speaking, make sure you buy plenty of shirts or athletic tops because laundering the shirt daily is impractical, and they break down before the hardware fails. I recommend a week’s worth of shirts, and that adds up.
Team portals matter, but you can tell a lot by a simple summary. I personally care about practices more than games, as we all have eyes and can tell what is going on because games are usually filmed. Add in fan “opinions” and player feedback, and the game will usually be clear and have more context than the tracking data. To me, it’s about how the week allows players to improve their game while timing all the physiological and biomechanical factors together at the right time. Games are analogous to restaurants timing the meal for a large table so that all of the dishes cook properly and at precisely the right time.
Due to the pace of playing, you won’t see much difference, usually just absolute peak effort and density changes. Support training, in the form of strength and non-specific fitness, should complement the loads we see in training. Whoever can combine strategy, skills, physical performance, and periodization will win in the long run.What we need now is a big injection of quality education, but what I usually see is very light marketing rather than a structured education on getting started with monitoring, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Overall, I am pleased at the quality of BYOD options for athletes at the high school level. What was only available for professionals before is now easily accessible for a child athlete. What we need now is a big injection of quality education, but what I usually see is very light marketing rather than a structured education on getting started with monitoring. The issue is that formal education is slow to keep up with current advancements in technology, so I recommend private workshops and collaborating with coaches who have intervention plans. Those with prepared adjustments or modifications are experienced and know what is coming, and they have mapped out what is needed to navigate a very complex and chaotic environment.
Moving Beyond GPS Technology – Enter PlayerMaker
Bryan Mann formally introduced me to PlayerMaker a few months ago. I was already a fan of the system, as I was consulting with a few overlapping clients, and I am a staunch advocate of using data from the foot to educate the staff with what is happening on the pitch. In 2009, I consulted for an NBA team that had a star athlete struggling with a lower extremity injury, and I custom built an IMU-based foot sensor. The problem was mounting it, as an athlete in the paint would likely get their foot stomped or kicked, and the raw data needed filtering.
Remember, this was only a few years after the iPhone launch, so from a practical side, monitoring was really cumbersome and a burden. Fast forward 10 years, and we now see a large list of products and services in the IMU space, all with pros and cons. Countless times, I have heard the same ugly tale of a salesperson selling magic beans, then the buyer is let down when the product fails to deliver.
Perhaps the most important point is that collecting foot data enables a coach to see passing patterns that torso-wearable products cannot, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
PlayerMaker is not a unicorn or panacea; it’s simply an enterprise product that transmits foot strike and motion data to a central web application. The key difference, however, is it collects actual foot strike data, not estimated information from the top of the spine or lumbar region. I don’t care about how great algorithms are with single sensors—they will always manage the problems by detecting what occurs with two different limbs and will be far from the action (torso versus foot). If you want to eavesdrop on a conversation, you put your ear to the wall; you don’t hope for better filtering and calculations from a location further away.
The last point, and it’s perhaps the most important one, is that collecting foot data enables a coach to see passing patterns that torso-wearable products can never provide. While tracking the ball itself will likely always be king, the data captured from the IMUs is enough to see patterns of technical proficiency that are badly needed in the sport of soccer. The place where most of the systems start to end their power and advantage is the place where PlayerMaker begins.
Coaches want direct information that is clear and obvious, not more heat maps that look like technicolor dreamcoats superimposed on the pitch or vague summary data. Knowing if an athlete still favors a side, either with the ball or with a potential medical problem, is useful. Having data such as stride parameters rather than just peak velocity only is ignorant. PlayerMaker took a risk on drilling down to paydirt, and they struck gold.
I know that with any technology, imitation and iteration will occur down the road, but whatever you do, do something now as the athletes today deserve better attention and coaching. To me, the data from the boot trumps the back, as I have seen the impact of ground reaction forces being managed directly, rather than from a distance.
Practical Guidelines and Personal Recommendations
In a utopian world, I would have every athlete monitored from head to toe, but I realize this isn’t going to happen at the youth or even pro level. More data isn’t necessarily better, but I do think minimalism and other trends aren’t the way to go either. If I had my druthers, I would have a satellite option with foot sensors and heart rate monitors, but I realize this is wishful thinking.
Based on the political and practical considerations, it seems that I would go with the tactical option of PlayerMaker first. Additional monitoring of physiological and positional information will certainly help, but information from the ground up is what I believe in.
Here are some additional recommendations before you get started. Remember, they are not barriers or demanding prerequisites; they are just realities of what is effective to get the most out of your monitoring.
- Talk to your athletes more. Most of the conveniences of technology (read: automation) come from not having to do routine tasks over and over. While this is great on paper, the manual analog approach presents an opportunity to interact with athletes. When the digital era diminishes actual human face time, communication breaks down. Instead, use the extra time to have healthxchanges with more intelligent conversations.
- Do not let the ACWR (acute chronic work ratio) be a decision metric for load. You can use rolling averages and other simple statistical load management metrics, but risk is about all data sources, not an arbitrary volume metric changing over selected time frames.
- Be patient and committed to the long term. Most professional teams will have turnover, but data will still be accessible if the administrators and management have a vision. Even if you don’t have the data, lessons learned are timeless, and you can expect the meaningful value to actually grow over time if done right.
- Solve no more than three problems per year. Don’t invest in athlete tracking systems believing all of your sports problems will be resolved. Most of the advancement will be in better questions, not clearer answers, but if the data requires excessive time to analyze and create value, it’s unlikely to make an impact with winning or injury rates. Data mining tends to be an exercise in ego rather than a game-changing advantage in sport. Clear is usually powerful.
- A modern uniform now includes wearable technology, so embrace the evolution. Support staff members, usually the equipment managers, need to be briefed on their new role changes. The responsibility of the technology should lie with everyone, otherwise it becomes a burden on one department.
- End-of-season reports with debriefing are the minimal step to inform an athlete about the use of the data. Don’t feel obligated to have weekly or game reports, as athletes need to feel that the coach is in control, not the data.
Don’t feel pressured to get the most out of the product you invest in. Just having better conversations with objective information will dramatically improve meetings and disagreements. When the data is valid and useful, then the conversation becomes about preference and experience rather than arguing about what actually happened.
No Athlete Left Behind
I think it’s an ethical responsibility to monitor practices. We are truly in the information age, yet we still read horror stories about athlete welfare. It’s time to make technology a part of what we do, rather than either worshipping it to promote an agenda or attacking it because we don’t like what it reads back. As long as we have education and research, and realistic expectations, the technology will work for us.It’s time to make technology a part of what we do, rather than either worshipping it to promote an agenda or attacking it because we don’t like what it reads back, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Most of the sports science initiatives require measurement, and objective information should be part of the process, not a bully in the back room. Often, those who collect the data are scapegoated or become greedy for power, and this needs to stop. Offering a transparent approach that all parties can access will lead to better outcomes with athlete welfare, and a chance to protect the future of sport by building a framework of communication for everyone.