By Carl Valle
Every year, I get nearly 100 requests from sports performance coaches asking about technology purchases and some guidance for making smarter investments with their budgets. I have spent my whole life as a technology geek and have learned through a lot of trial and error when integrating tools into sport.
Technology isn’t a fad, and its use is only going to increase over the next few years, so get used to it. Technology doesn’t replace good coaching, and it has the potential to make a program worse if used incorrectly. Data from technology is growing and becoming more and more important. This article will survey the simple needs of coaches and offer a little relief for those that don’t have massive budgets.Technology can make a program worse if used incorrectly, so get educated before you buy anything. Click To Tweet
I have four basic principles for technology and data that I share with others. While my principles are not perfect, they have shaped a lot of professional teams and colleges over the years. Over time, I have witnessed nearly everything go wrong, so I understand the reality and potential pain of working with technology that sometimes doesn’t work itself. I feel the pain of coaches forced to use something that may not be worth the time or effort.
Principle #1: Education
Before you even think about buying anything, ask tough questions. Become competent in the technology before buying services or equipment. For example, some software helps make complicated science simpler and more transparent, while some software adds even more metrics and complicates the process.
Does the system or service only provide an “installation and one day of training” type of education, or are they invested with tutorials and other modes of sharing information? Is the company sharing their methodology or are they summarizing the best practices of the science they make more convenient?
The best options always provide some sort of education and customer support beyond a ticketing system. Who do you call if you need help? Great customer service follows up on questions and issues, and the best education continues to investigate the latest research to improve the product. Coaches should educate themselves ahead of time on what the product is trying to do.
Principle #2: Expertise
Sport science is not dead, but applied sciences become buzzwords when companies don’t even use their own products. One medical screening company I worked with had an engineer who needed surgery for something their product was supposed to help prevent. When I asked if he used the product himself, the silence was uncomfortable and very awkward.
Supplement companies have been infamous for years for having “scientific advisory dream teams,” but don’t believe the hype. It’s a good sign if a company has a list of quality researchers, but the true test is whether they are in the office or involved, and not just listed on the website. A good advisory group shapes the company by purposely staying out of the day-to-day processes in order to keep perspective, so don’t think they should answer the phones. However, do expect those advisors to prove they have something to do with the product or service besides getting equity in the company.
The real experts are the power users of the product. Power users are those that use the product to keep their jobs or get results. Always ask who the power users are and how they leverage the product to drive change. The sales guys are good at creating a fantasy; talk instead to those that have paid to use the system over the years, making sure that they are not getting kickbacks from the company. It’s fine for power users to be paid for their insights, but that relationship should be transparent.
Principle #3: Experience
Similar to expertise is the need for experience. No matter how bright someone is or how much they know about a topic or field, being in the trenches over time matters. When the rubber hits the road, many of the online experts on social media are quickly exposed. The best way to audit experts is not to talk to them, but to ask to see what they have done with the system or service by requesting data. I understand athlete privacy, but if they don’t have at least one small example of what they have done, it’s likely they are reading research and living on a cloud but not applying anything. The team- or clinic-based people are the best to visit, and some former coaches and high performance advisors are excellent because they work with groups of power users, making them great beacons of information.
If consultants aren’t paid properly, innovation dies on the vine. Remember, many consultants have broad experience working in many environments, so they can add better solutions because they have seen a wider perspective. Instead of paying to talk to experts with experience in the elite sports realm, hire them to help solve problems with your existing organization.
Principle #4: Equipment
The last, but still important, area is equipment. As with any technology, expect to replace it in a few years. Don’t buy technology without doing a three- to five-year plan of all expenses, because a weight room still needs maintenance and medicine balls break down. Work with your supervisor or management on a plan to increase budgeting to pay for the added costs of technology.
Sometimes this means fundraising for colleges and high schools (hello, golf tournament and 5k races), but most of the time it’s the management looking at keeping up with the Joneses and current standards by asking you “what are other teams doing?”. Boosters can a great help in getting items that are nice to have versus necessary to have but, when a finite budget exists, you need to think clearly about what is important.
Many teams buy a lot of “stuff” and then much of it gathers dust or is used only for a few weeks to make people look like they are ahead of the curve. Some people use equipment all the time because they need to look busy, as they are not getting the job done in the basics. Coaches still need to handle conditioning, lifting and keeping people accountable; not crunch data that isn’t moving the needle.
The purchase of equipment needs to be a wise choice, since many products are labor-intensive and time-consuming. Adding equipment sometimes also means adding a new hire, so beware of companies not understanding the demands of data acquisition with additional equipment. Most companies, except those that market athlete management systems (AMS), are not focused on anything beyond themselves, and don’t understand the coach’s job. Companies that have an ecosystem or service in testing are going to grow, so outsourcing may be needed as an effective and efficient way of supporting sport science.
Now that I’ve established the principles, here are some of my suggestions, based on daily use of this stuff. I have been a big part of technology in sport, and purposely and constructively disrupted major companies in order to help the field.
Tech Law #1: The Best Technology Is Minimal
Companies have the burden of providing a benefit while making a profit, so they themselves are not the problem. It’s mainly the product developers who are motivated to do enough to keep their jobs, but not enough to go above and beyond. Therefore, products tend to fall short of coach’s needs because those making them are not incentivized like the company’s salespeople are. Coaches want the following to be true:
- The product works all of the time.
- The product instruction manual is not needed because use is intuitive.
- The product is durable and lasts a long time.
- The product is embedded into training and rehab.
- The product saves time, and doesn’t add more burden.
Apple and some other companies have made these wishes a priority, but they are not the only ones that can do this. Sometimes coaches hack or adjust things they purchase to make them better, so don’t feel that a product is static. However, make sure you tell the company what you are doing before you start playing. Keep trying to refine the process and keep communicating with the company. Over time, companies will learn from their core users, and tweak their product accordingly.
Tech Law #2: Do a Test Drive Before Buying Anything
Sometimes doing a demo for middle-of-the-road price point hardware is not easy, but some sort of simulation should be available on video so a potential buyer can experience it in action. Many coaches like to test drive things and I suggest every coach use the product themselves for a week or two before forming an opinion. One point of contention, though, is that some coaches don’t know what they want. They just want to play with something and have no intention of buying anything.
Companies can’t function by sending out loaner units, so a good workaround is a video conference call with an agenda of points needed to make a decision. If you don’t have the education and budgeting done first, it’s not fair to waste a salesperson’s time. Many prices I see for services or equipment are high because they factor in how slowly coaches and sports medicine professionals adopt new technology.
Remember that athletes are less interested in the data or the science. If you don’t like a product, expect your athletes to hate it. Many products are consumer-priced so you can buy one before you buy for a team. A purchase doesn’t give anyone the right to be a jerk though; I have seen management refund money and request equipment back from rude customers.
Demos are important for large packages, but keep in mind if the salesperson or contact is struggling with the product, then likely so will you. Technology does fail, so ask around if what you experienced is the norm. Bugs happen, so expect something to be functional most of the time, but never absolutely perfect.
Tech Law #3: Complain Constructively and Cultivate a Relationship
If a company doesn’t receive complaints, it likely means that they are not innovating or people don’t use their products. Polite complaints are not negative exchanges but ways to make the product better, with detailed and constructive feedback. While calling helps, a carefully crafted email is important. Small frustrations or inconveniences that get fixed become product features down the road, so be vocal but, again, polite.
Two-way relationships with vendors are important. Good relationships mean residuals (continual purchases for them) and sometimes referrals (new clients from existing ones), so companies should respect their customers. Likewise, make sure you are good to companies by paying invoices on time and appreciating their time, as well. Just because the “customer is always right,” doesn’t mean you should be a diva or a jerk. The best companies have great products and sometimes better employees, and customers are loyal to those they trust when two products are similar on paper.
Tech Law #4: Work Hard to Be Lazy (Work Flow and the Athlete User Experience)
A lot of technology means a lot of time and a lot of moving parts, so refine the process constantly. Find ways to save time and make workflow more streamlined for the athletes. Time is the most precious commodity. While good technology saves time, some companies rob or perform grand larceny with their products. Automation and passive data acquisition means more time with family and more time with athletes who still need the human element.
I came up with the term “Athlete User Experience” after years of burning out from Quantified Self Experiences that simply couldn’t be ported to athletes who were incurious or uninterested in data. Coaches who try to improve compliance are doomed. Thinking about fighting a problem is a losing mindset; a better idea is to take advantage of what athletes likes to do on their own than try to convert them to something different.
Companies should learn from the video games that athletes play and love, versus the watered-down gamification stuff we see with “badges” and arbitrary point systems. During the 2015 CVASPS conference, Erik Korem and Andrew Althoff talked about “earning your monitoring,” and it’s better to reward than to push. Make things cool and simple, not dated and boring.
Tech Law #5: Faster, Cheaper, Better Myths and Realities
My final reminder for sport technology is to be aware of the future. There won’t be a utopian world of clean energy and perfect society; nor will it be like Mad Max or Blade Runner. Technology will evolve, but expect to always pay for that evolution.
For example, look at the velocity-based training tools that are available. While it’s cheaper to have an inexpensive device, remember that you are paying for the complete turnkey solution, so factor the subscriptions to software and team equipment into price calculations for hardware. Software subscriptions and SaaS are good things, as they show coaches that the company is investing in the future, and not just selling old hardware.
Video 1: Perhaps the best example of lean technology without compromise is the DIY video replay by Yasha Kahn. A simple five-second video delay to weightlifting training sessions can help athletes get instant feedback.
The amount of time you invest in using a product isn’t going to change. Eyeballs mean loyalty, so companies want some time invested in using the product in some way. For example, look at the video analysis market. You can download a free app, but what is the endgame there? Eventually, a company has to make money, so be sure you know what you are getting and what you’re not. Ultimately, you must pay for something and, while the smartphone is great for getting a few selfies, it’s not going to replace IP cameras or even professional cameras when results matter.
Know what you are paying for and don’t be penny-wise and pound-foolish with purchases. Companies have prices for a reason and some are a poor value, so don’t look at cheaper as being better. Shop by looking at the big picture and asking what you are paying for. Convenience is not a “nice to have” with the evolution of sports data, and I recommend looking at the value of the impact of the service or system instead of the cost.
A Buyer’s Guide to Sports Technology
No article is complete without some practical takeaways, such as a highlight of the top options available for coaches and sports performance staff. Again, the term “technology” is not a black-and-white definition, as any training device, like a barbell, is part of the normal continuum of modern training. Usually, if the device collects data, transmits data, analyzes data, or improves data, it’s sports technology.
Technically, a well-designed spike may have an array of computers and manufacturing behind it, but most people would draw the line and say that because no battery or signals come from it, the spikes are not truly sports technology. Here are the three primary areas most coaches consider with regard to budgeting needs and sports technology.Three key areas of sports technology: AMS software, performance testing devices, monitoring tools. Click To Tweet
Athlete Management System (AMS) Software – The most common misconception is that we can truly define what an AMS tool is now. In the past, it was software that warehoused data and provided easy access for multiple people to view the data. Now, however, that entire positioning can be thrown out the window. After a decade of working with teams using AMS, I still believe there is a lot of room to grow in this space because not enough culture exists to truly leverage the software.
AMS software will likely migrate from simple dashboards of aggregated data from monitoring tools and testing results. Also, the communication benefits outside of Wellness Questionnaires are possible. The ironic thing is that those who want AMS systems the most tend to have the least amount of data to benefit from. Conversely, those that need great data management and analysis tend not to buy because they are always looking for features that get the last 1% and not the features that get the first 99% of results.
AMS products tend to be cloud software that aggregates sensor API data and manual data file uploads, or accepts manual entry. Common systems are AthleteMonitoring, SMARTABASE, CoachMePlus, TrainingPeaks, Metrifit, and Kinduct. Some products are more like weight room tools or are specialized like Bridge, iTRIMP, TrainHeroic, and TeamBuildr. A smart way to assess the different products is to talk to users who are actively paying for the product and using it daily. Another way to evaluate them is to do a trial and experience a daily workflow. I have used all of the products firsthand with my own teams and many of them have similarities. It’s really up to the end user to decide what works for them.
Performance Testing Equipment – The priorities for testing should be hard data points that are very general and global, like jumping and speed-testing devices. Obviously, SimpliFaster specializes in testing and training devices in this area, but other tools like force plates and maybe even player tracking tools can be considered testing equipment. Remember that training and testing are sometimes the same and sometimes very different. Sport practices that stream general displacement data from GPS devices, like PLAYERTEK, are sometimes placed into the monitoring category. Pure testing devices like body composition tools are very limited and narrow, but are often seen as tests or monitoring.
You must invest in tools such as video cameras, weight scales, and even a simple measuring tape. Nothing beats electronic timing and jumping for distance, and it’s up to the coach to decide how much information is enough. For example, if you are good at following directions and can control protocols with athletes, a jump mat has some great reliability. However, a force plate might be better if you want to get the most information possible.
Coaches may find that performance or field tests have more value with the addition of extra sensors or instruments. The gray area here is something like a heart rate monitor or foot sensor, or even something as exotic as a smart shirt. Conditioning tests are great for looking at the physiological influence, and not just distance covered or time.
Monitoring Tools and Systems – Usually, monitoring measures the internal load response versus measuring the external output. I love monitoring, but it is secondary to managing workload, as training data has a monitoring feedback if you train hard enough. I view performance testing as active monitoring—provided it’s not too demanding—as nothing proves someone’s ability like a hard data point.
Monitoring is about convenience, provided it’s not too demanding and invasive. Also, monitoring is passive, meaning it doesn’t require someone to put energy into completing an evaluation. Sometimes submaximal tests that are not exhausting are monitoring tools, such as abbreviated fitness tests or single bouts like vertical jump tests.
Omegawave, Ithlete, Firstbeat, and GPS software like Catapult are examples of products that monitor internal or external loads. Some other products are similar, like Suunto and Garmin for endurance, but those are geared more toward performance than fatigue observance.
I have used all of the products mentioned. I have also used sleep products, which are important and underrated. Everyone talks about sleep, but very few people measure it beyond subjective ratings from wellness questionnaires. Fatigue science is the current leader in sleep data. Other options exist that are consumer-grade, but enterprise systems have value-added tools and modeling calculations.
For example, I am a big fan of using consumer products to get very crude data sets, like using a bed sensor to see time in bed—a very useful measure of rest. Sometimes, activity sensors like Misfit can see general rhythms of activity, such as relaxation patterns. Invest wisely because the amount of validity and granularity matters.
Getting Started and Investing in the Future
If you have a small budget, don’t stress that something is obsolete or outdated. It’s nice to have a weight room with all the gadgets, but nothing beats a coach with great knowledge. When a coach or team buys something, they are basically saying that the data or tool will help make a change and they must be held accountable. If you are buying pressure-mapping technology, expect management (who paid the bill) not to see fifth metatarsal fractures on an x-ray. If you buy force plates, make sure the athletes are strong and are improving year to year. If you are getting blood analysis, focus on direct things like vitamin D and other nutrients.It’s nice to have all the gadgets, but nothing beats a coach with great knowledge. Click To Tweet
Finally, use and maximize every purchase. Don’t just pretend and then possibly find yourself accountable for something insupportable. These days, everything can be bought and outsourced, so there are no acceptable excuses in high-profile settings. In a few years, the rural high school will be doing what Olympic teams are doing now. Don’t be left behind: Start building a foundation by getting informed today.