The ability to measure the speed of an object, whether a projectile or human body, is a timeless need for sports performance coaches. In this guide, we review all of the internal and external tools that measure ball speed or body velocity, including new systems and reliable options from the past. The difference—and it’s a key one—is that timing gates and GPS are not instantaneous measures of speed, and even some sensors and instruments are incomplete.
We cover how these technologies work, and what information they provide to the coach or sport scientist. The sport velocity-tracking market is growing, and we expect it to become more user-friendly for anyone involved in sport, at all levels.
What Are Sport Velocity-Tracking Devices?
While no exact definition exists, it’s safe to summarize a sport velocity-tracking device as an instrument able to measure the instantaneous speed of a body, be it a human or projectile such as a ball. Many systems exist that can collect estimations of velocity, but those systems are often for research and are not day-to-day coaching tools, such as motion capture technology. Some sports that use equipment that creates projectile speed, such as golf, racquetball, baseball, and hockey, rely on the interaction of motion and how the speed transfers to the ball or puck.A velocity-tracking device measures the instantaneous speed of a body, whether human or projectile. Click To Tweet
The majority of velocity-tracking tools are either radar or laser solutions, but there are a growing number of newer inertial measurement unit (IMU) options, due to their convenient size and economical cost. All of the devices use a combination of technology and math to calculate instantaneous speed, or summarize speed with a measurement of peak velocity. In the past, most of the tools displayed the data on an LCD screen, but smart devices now enable us to see the data on tablets and phones. Velocity is the main metric measured by the devices, but some of the solutions can capture how the speed was created during a windup or loading period. Generally speaking, the systems are “speed detectors” and extract a maximal velocity from the body in motion or record the speed and change in speed in real time.
How Does Each Tracking Technology Work?
The three measurement options—radar, laser, and IMU—represent the majority of all velocity-tracking devices, with radar the most common. IMU solutions are becoming more popular, but they are still limited in effectiveness in capturing ball velocity due to the spin of a rotating sphere in motion. It is very demanding to accurately collect the speed of a projectile internally with IMUs, but as the sensor market and algorithm modeling evolves, so will the measurement quality.
Radar and lasers work very similarly to one another, meaning the physics are very similar. Sports radar tools use the Doppler effect to estimate speed from the object and distance away from the device. Lasers are very similar, and collect nearly the same data from sporting actions, just usually with more precision and additional information.
For the most part, radar systems in sport are statically placed systems that measure a ball or athlete, and they usually require a tripod or stable mounting option with nothing in front of them that would impair the signal they’re collecting. Wave information from the device points in the general direction of the activity, and the information calculated from the interaction of the waves and object creates a measurement—usually, peak speed. Lasers sample continuously, thus providing a complete profile of the event or greater summary of what happened, especially with sprinting, as the action lasts for several seconds rather than a very short period of time.
IMU systems are a little bit more complicated, and require even more advanced math than lasers and radar devices. The issue with IMUs is that they estimate the measurements with assumptions or implied information, such as the orientation or movement performed. For example, a swing of a baseball bat may have several different styles, but enough commonalities exist that the calculations have a foundation to work from. Accelerometers only calculate net information, not actual speed of motion. Modeling and gyros are needed to help tease out the true flight of the ball or sports equipment. Solutions that measure wrist or arm speed are indirect assessments of velocity, and pose problems for those needing accurate performance data rather than just reliable data showing trends of improvement or decay of velocity.
Other optical sensors exist, but the aerospace industry and similar use them, not commonly the sports space. You can use conventional cameras, but for simple measures, timing gates for athletes and radar guns for balls are more logical because of their instant feedback benefits, simplicity, and (at times) cost.
What Information Does a Sport Velocity-Tracking Device Provide?
The primary data collected by sports velocity-tracking devices are simply peak velocity, change in velocity, and how the velocity was created. The most common metric, peak velocity, is usually requested with ball speed. Instantaneous speed and change are common with running evaluation solutions. Finally, advanced systems—such as golf systems—are able to look at the way a ball travels, along with what created the path. In the past, leading coaches coveted gross speed; now they want to know how the speed was created. Regardless of the advanced information, raw velocity is extremely valuable, especially for peeling back the transfer of training into actual performance.In the past, leading coaches coveted gross speed; now they want to know how the speed was created. Click To Tweet
Maximal velocity with a body takes time and distance to create, while maximum velocity with a projectile tends to start decaying shortly after release. Any ball in motion falls down to the ground due to gravity, so throwing for distance may be a different movement strategy than throwing for speed, due to the release point. An athlete in the shot put may be able to create faster release velocities with a lower projection, but the shot distance will be compromised more by the angle being low than the speed decreasing with a better inclination point. Thus, testing for ball speed must be relevant to the actual sporting action. With running or sprinting, it’s important to capture the fatigue component of a run; not just profile maximal speed and time to peak velocity, as those metrics may not be too meaningful in isolation.
Continuous velocity, especially in real time, makes radar guns and similar technology very limited, except for research. Laser solutions with real-time feedback are common in the coaching community, as that profession craves information during the session, not for post analysis as utilized by the sport science community. Force analysis, EMG, and motion capture can generate additional information on how the velocity is created.
The Key Features and Differences That You Should Consider
When investing in velocity-tracking devices, knowing the technology limitations and the benefits of each method of data capture is important. Understanding the difference between the technology systems will enable coaches to know what is an appropriate choice for their needs and how to interpret the data. Some research-friendly systems can get both body and ball data, but they usually have limited acute feedback (peak velocity) and are not great for coaching.
Several systems have been repurposed to claim they are sport-specific or designed for sports, and most systems stem from military tools. Newer tools are specifically designed for sport, and every ounce of effort made by companies is to satisfy the most demanding of customers, the coaches themselves. Some systems are very advanced and require a sport scientist, while some are great for personal use.
The most visible difference in equipment is the display, as inexpensive solutions tend to show data in real time with a basic LED display, or connect to an iPad or other smart device. Athlete feedback, as well as information for the coach, can vary from raw peak speed to very intricate data. Golf and baseball lead the way here, followed by IMU sensor products like the Ballistic Ball and the Adidas miCoach Smart Soccer Ball.
Export options are not strong points in most of the systems, as inexpensive models are not designed to be recording devices but just display real-time feedback. Manual collection is expected for radar devices, but not for the more advanced systems that can push the data to other software packages.
Example Options in the Sport Velocity-Tracking Market
Currently, there are three tiers of systems for ball velocity, and they range from inexpensive, commercial radar systems to elaborate golf solutions that provide complete depth of actions in both the swing and ball performance after strike. Prices can vary from under $100 to more than $4,000, depending on the data needed and the features that are important to have. Most of the newer systems that connect to an iPad are for colleges and elite facilities, but youth programs may benefit from a commercial product.
SKLZ: A great entry-level device, the SKLZ system is available at a very inexpensive price and gives immediate feedback after each sporting event, especially ball velocity. The device can measure soccer, football, baseball, and activities including medicine ball throws. Users must operate the system as a simulated option, as it has specific use applications it can’t do, like having a busy environment near the radar. SKLZ is a simple solution that you can use for very pragmatic field tests, but isn’t appropriate for research or any scientific investigation.
Stalker II Radar Gun: A popular solution for research, this system includes simple software and the ability to export data post-session. While some teams use it for training, it’s not a perfect training tool because the data display is very limited. A benefit of the Stalker device is that it can handle both ball and body velocity, which only a few systems can do. The radar system can’t do more than recode continuous velocity, so other measures such as trajectory and running data like stiffness are not possible at this moment. The system is perfect for sport scientists but not appropriate for training, as coaches can’t use it with multiple athletes at the same time.
LabRadar: The only shooting sport system on the list, LabRadar’s device is used as a calibration option rather than a feedback device. This system is important because it shows the versatility and accuracy of a simple radar device. The product is surprisingly affordable, but the information collected is only about shot velocity, and nothing else. Ballistics in sport, or any projectiles for that matter, have enough overlap that they can help coaches better understand the physics of speed. LabRadar is not an optical chronograph, as it uses Doppler technology and not light, an advantage for low sun environments like evening and morning shooting.
MuscleLab Laser: The Norwegian company, Ergotest, created a very powerful, yet simple to use, tool for both research and coaching. The attention to detail and integration with other data sets make it a leading solution in sport. The laser system tracks body velocity continuously and reports it immediately, as well as analyzes the data. MuscleLab is a fully integrated solution, meaning it’s designed to capture all data sets and fuse the information together during and after the training session. The laser is especially useful for sports that need to see patterns of fatigue, since the company understands the big picture after decades of supporting Olympic teams and professional sports.
Sport-LAVEG: LAVEG was one of the earliest laser solutions in sport, used with elite athletes in the 1990s, and it is still relevant as the market has matured beyond research. Much of the research on velocity in track and field includes the laser system, and many studies out of Europe incorporate the technology in the jumps and sprints. The solution is mainly for body speed, as a narrow laser can’t track small implements moving quickly and they are nearly impossible to capture manually. LAVEG is a great research tool, but several top coaches have used the system when training and, due to the limitations of the system, much of the feedback has only been in the peak speed realm.
TrackMan: Known as a golf solution, other sports used TrackMan unconventionally a few years ago. TrackMan is a powerful golf feedback solution for both the athlete and the coach. The TrackMan golf system is for more than just gross velocity—it breaks down the entire process into a full spectrum of information, including club head performance and ball trajectory. All of the data can be analyzed later, and the system connects to an iPad for a more interactive experience. The TrackMan has two systems available now, a simpler model for basic metrics and their latest generation system for deep dives into swing performance.
Rapsodo: One of the most advanced solutions for baseball includes a hitting option, as well as a pitching one. The granularity of data is staggering, meaning it collects and reports a wide and deep amount of pertinent information on the ball after it’s thrown and during the swing phase. Rapsodo is a leading international solution for baseball, and it also connects with golf. The systems are portable, robust, and easy to use. Each solution currently sells separately, but in the past they have offered add-on solutions for team purchases.
Assess2Perform: This Colorado company’s Ballistic Ball is an intelligent medicine ball, similar to the shot put created nearly 10 years ago for a research project. The Ballistic Ball system uses an IMU board embedded into a top-of-the-line medicine ball. What makes the direct measure system valuable is not just its gross output, but how the output is created from the countermotion and buildup of speed mechanically. The system connects to an iOS smart device. In addition to the Ballistic Ball, Assess2Perform provides a VBT system that attaches directly to a barbell.
Adidas miCoach: Besides Assess2Perform, this is the only other IMU-based ball on the market. Instead of being a training tool for strength, it’s considered a smart soccer ball for sport. We could list other similar options like the smart basketball market with 94fifty and Wilson, but they are not examples that demonstrate potential in the IMU market. Adidas has made several attempts in the wearable market, and even tried to do a GPS product years ago before moving on. Much of the speculation on large companies using wearables is that they simply exploit technology as a marketing vehicle and not as a tool, but for the most part we can only judge a piece of equipment based on its function.
Bushnell: This classic radar gun is a top-selling peak velocity tool for throwing sports, and the system displays performance on the device in real time. This solution is very popular with actual sport coaches, such as pitching instructors. Scouts love using the radar gun as it’s a direct measure of performance, and is part of the evaluation process with athletes. Like most radar guns, the system has very limited features, such as export options and other data sets. Regardless, the low price point, solid accuracy, and simple-to-use functionality make this radar gun’s sales stable on the market.
Pocket Radar: The most portable option for peak ball velocity is the Pocket Radar. The name says it all, meaning the solution is not a gun but a small smartphone-sized solution used for simple needs. The Pocket Radar is easy to use and captures data with a button-style approach rather than a pistol option like radar guns. The Pocket Radar, which is used mainly by fans and parents, is inexpensive and relies on external batteries. The limitation of the solution designates it as for the “enthusiast,” but coaches and athletes can also use it.
None of the systems are interchangeable for sporting actions (throw and run) except for radar guns, but these are mainly for peak readings or research only. It’s fine to have a mixed environment, but make sure everyone involved knows that not all data is interchangeable.
When It Makes Sense to Move Forward
If velocity matters in winning, investing in a device that measures human speed or ball speed makes sense. A simple measure of peak velocity—be it radar, laser, or even IMU—does make a difference. How the forces are created may not actually provide all of the information needed to augment performance.If velocity matters in winning, investing in a device that measures human or ball speed makes sense. Click To Tweet
When investing in velocity-tracking tools, focus on how the science can guide you to improve performance, not just measure speed, as velocity is not just a feedback solution. Expect the entire market to focus more on multi-sensor and composite methods of collecting data, to provide a richer explanation of both the cause and effect of speed.
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