By Carl Valle
Evaluating athletes to gauge speed is, pardon the pun, timeless. Assessing simple linear or change of direction capacities matters, but with all of the options available for electronic timing, buying the right one isn’t easy. Some teams still use an old Brower system from 20 years ago, as it’s a trusty way to get a reading of point A to point B.
This article covers the reality of making a choice based on what different systems can do, and what is a good fit for coaches in various environments. I have used every single system imaginable and all of them have pros and cons that need to be brought up early. You do get what you pay for, and those that are penny-wise and pound-foolish always find their systems collecting dust, as recording a sprint electronically is different than testing a roster of athletes. It doesn’t matter if you have $10 or $10,000, this review ensures that you buy the timing system that’s right for you.
Before You Start Shopping Around
A quick recommendation before you go online and shop for a system based on price and features. Ask what customer service means before purchasing anything, as you don’t buy a piece of technology as much as you buy a relationship that includes a device. Time after time, coaches complain to me about products, when they need to think about companies. I say this because I have still received no support after weeks of waiting for some expensive vendors to call me back years ago, while customer service for an inexpensive solution helped me that very same day past their typical business hours.Ask what customer service means before purchasing anything, as you don’t buy a piece of technology as much as you buy a relationship that includes a device, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
The life of a product is not the warranty; it’s really how long you think you want to work with that company down the road. Think about replacement parts taking months to get because they are on backorder or a company going out of business in a year. Remember—a product’s value is about the entire package, not just the features you see on the specification sheet.
I recommend buying from resellers or distributors because they have options and likely know more about the market than a manufacturer’s salespeople. Don’t assume anything, as some companies are busy building equipment while resellers are simply trying to move products. I work with both the companies designing the technology and the resellers working hard to sell the best systems, and it’s a hard job for everyone. Companies are trying to turn a profit in an industry that is very difficult, as the cost of making a device is not the only expense of running a company.
Many apps and equipment companies are no longer around because they were focused on selling a tool or piece of software, not on staying in business. Lots of inexpensive solutions are now unavailable or have orphaned their customers because they simply couldn’t turn a profit, and the more they sold, the more their company was tragically penalized. I know of a few companies that had some amazing stuff, but they were not a good business and had to fold. If the company has a short history, you could be taking a risk.
What About Apps and Video Systems?
I have told coaches and likely mentioned this in other articles: You don’t really buy timing systems to measure athlete speed—you buy convenience. Any coach can spend $7 and get a time and extract that from an app, but you miss out on the purpose of video. Use video for movement and invest in timing to automate the process efficiently and conveniently. The smaller your budget, the more you compromise on speed and sometimes accuracy.
I love video analysis and use it from time to time to get a reading on an athlete when electronic timing isn’t available, but I mainly use it for game analysis or competition reviews. A few good apps exist, but they are manual applications, meaning you give up speed and immediate feedback and are forced to do a lot of monkey work after testing a roster. I am fine with coaches who can’t afford to get their dumbbells replaced going with cheap apps, but they are the first to complain when they give up Sunday afternoons to do “data entry.”
Inexpensive solutions like Jawku, which uses an IMU sensor and the camera of smart devices, are popular because they are cheap, but they don’t do everything a coach wants. We used it and it was great for a master athlete who wanted to do repeat 60-meter sprints or time a few 40-yard dashes, but it was far from perfect. The first issue is that you can’t do splits and it uses a personal device or requires an additional device with group timing. The last thing I want is to juggle more wearables and do additional math because of a limitation of a product.
Similar to what I said in this velocity-based training article, you need to think about hardware outside of the device, especially the cost of a tablet. Coaches may buy iPod Touches or cheap Android phones, but they are still spending extra money to complete their solution. Buying five sensors that pair with tablets or similar means you end up having to give up tablets in the weight room while other groups are training.
Sensors are cheaper and some coaches are experimenting on repurposing their player tracking data to get a reading on speed. The problem is that even high-tech indoor systems like Kinexon still didn’t perform too well with short assessments of speed in the research. So, even if you have money for large ticket items, technology isn’t perfect when it’s stretched too thin.Even if you have money for large ticket items, technology isn’t perfect when it’s stretched too thin, says @SpikesOnly #timingsystem. Click To Tweet
If you want to measure speed, it’s important to get the right technology and know when it’s inappropriate to repurpose technology beyond its capabilities. For example, radar guns are great for top speed during training, but splits and other slices of information need to be analyzed after use. Radar guns are good testing tools, but they’re not appropriate for most training needs. While I may be repeating myself, it’s only because coaches tend to want their system of choice to do things it’s not designed for, causing frustration down the road.
Are You Testing, or Training, with Timing?
If you test periodically and don’t time regularly, you should think about why. Many strength coaches run speed training with their athletes in the offseason but spend most of their training sessions in the weight room. Track and field coaches tend to want systems that can help them collect every sprint, sometimes during hurdles and jump practices. The most important decisions you can make are the frequency of testing, as well as the size of your group. If you are a team coach, such as a basketball strength coach who only works with one team, you are lucky because you can invest in anything. A strength coach for a small college or high school may need to be in the dungeon all day and not even see a field sometimes, so your job duties determine what system you’ll likely buy later.
The more you sprint in training, the more you will need Freelap, but if you test infrequently, don’t see that as an excuse to go for the cheapest available. If you are unable to get data regularly, when you do have the chance to time it needs to work and it needs to work well. Some coaches only test quarterly and invest a lot of money into getting more data. For example, a few colleges invest in laser timing and contact grids because they want to see every detail possible when they do time, including video analysis. It’s fair to only want a basic system to get short sprints, but splits are handy because they tell you more information.
Large groups can be an organizational nightmare, especially when you are by yourself and need to run the equipment and keep the athletes in line—literally. Going one at time isn’t bad when each sprint takes seconds, but that’s why RFID is useful for combines and large team testing rosters. If you are testing more than 20 athletes, you will need to think about multiple systems because of time constraints, and this also means synchronizing data if needed. A soccer team will take an hour to time, not because of the equipment, but because a warm-up and running one at time takes a full 60 minutes. The more that time matters for you, the more likely you are to invest in higher cost systems or spend money on workflow needs. Again, when you buy into timing systems, conveniences like the rate of analysis become a deciding factor.
Logistically, the choice between training with speed and testing speed is about group size, facility access, and, of course, the system you buy. It’s not that Freelap is the only system that you can use in training, but if you choose to go with the other systems, don’t forget that tripods take over 2-3 lanes and you can only run one athlete at a time. I will cover multi-athlete timing versus individual timing in detail, but it’s the engineering that has made Freelap a very popular option.
Multiple timing systems can test athletes at the same time, but they are not designed to share tablets, and it’s a big effort logistically to set up the systems. A small group of 5-8 athletes can run well with one system, but as it leaves the half-dozen mark, the workflow slows down even with long rest periods. If you want to train every rep with feedback or record every sprint, you need Freelap or you will have to go with multiple timing systems.
Multi-Athlete Timing vs. Individual Timing
Here comes a very important point to consider—the logistics of timing multiple athletes at the same time. Again, I mean simultaneously synchronized, not multiple systems in the same session. Even if you time athletes using multiple systems, you must manage the issues of a limited track or running surface because of the real estate for tripods. Small tripods are fine, but wind becomes an issue. So some systems, especially the old Brower, do require some extra finessing to keep in place.The logistics of timing multiple athletes (simultaneously synchronized) is a very important point to consider when choosing the right sport timing system, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
If you are going to do sprints with other athletes, the Freelap system is designed to stack two athletes per transmitter, instead of two timing gates per athlete. Each athlete uses one sensor, and each split uses one transmitter. Two athletes with conventional timing would need 10 tripods or up to six lanes to measure men’s and women’s hurdles (four splits), but with Freelap you can test four athletes with only four lanes using Freelap transmitters because of the size of the sensor and the way it collects data.
Outside of real estate and cost, multi-athlete timing is about competition. When athletes feel the heat next them—meaning another athlete is racing close—good things happen. Sometimes athletes may try too hard and not run their own race, but eventually they will need to learn to run comfortably when they are competing. You can run the athletes off of a reaction sound, stagger them when using multi-athlete timing, or just go one at a time like conventional timing gates.
Combines and other group testing environments benefit from athletes running with timing gates because workflow isn’t as important. Athletes in combine situations just need to be timed and recorded properly, and that means conventional timing gates are worth investing in. Teams running internal testing with low frequency of use may benefit from timing gate solutions as well.
Exporting Sprint Data and Athlete Management Systems
Fusion Sport is the only provider of a near “closed system,” meaning they offer an athlete management system and hardware such as timing gates and a contact mat. Technically, they can import other testing data, but their program is good for sport scientists and not ideal for individual coaches. Some systems offer expert features, but an API is disabled in the long run if you plan to automate features such as leaderboards and workout algorithms. I remind companies every year to learn what coaches do after they export the data and provide that solution as a feature. Some companies listen and some don’t get it, but those companies that are nimble and listen do get more adoption without spending a fortune on marketing.
CoachMePlus has a universal uploader. This means that if you consistently upload a CSV file because you don’t have an API, you can program the system to sort data from Excel files or similar. While I love the flexibility, companies that collect timing data don’t change their data formats often enough to need customization, and if they do it should be because they are collecting new data.
Much of the reporting found in programs such as MuscleLab improves during upgrades, so you can see the summary of their data beyond raw listing of the splits. If you have a laser, you can see fresh metrics like time to peak velocity or distance to peak velocity, and other important measures that coaches want. Even with the conventional timing gates you can extract added value metrics, such as mean velocity of each split in meters per second or kilometers per hour. Smartabase, the AMS product from Fusion Sport, can create reports and customize data that it warehouses as well. Due to the science-rich nature of the company, sport scientists favor Fusion Sport, but it’s hard to say how team-friendly it is with high school coaches.
A key point of working with athlete management systems is their ability to anticipate needs and drive innovation. I love bottom-up companies that listen to customers, but some users simply are following the leader and don’t know what they need. A good example of this is the change of direction deficit, a very straightforward measurement that every AMS should provide in their system as a default. Sadly, very few companies worry about small details like this, so what ends up happening is practice becomes slow. If you want to make a change, do it earlier and educate immediately so coaches know what to do later. Many of the timing system companies understand that subscription models and online web programs need to be maintained, so they plan sustainability with the pricing of the product.
Recommendations Based on Needs and Features
Now comes the final decision. Eventually you will need to buy a system and decide what is best for you. I have come up with a rubric to help you; in all honesty, it’s a virtual Gartner “Magic Quadrant” with alternating zones of strength characteristics of the timing systems. While each company has strengths and weaknesses, I wouldn’t worry that a coach buys the wrong product from this list. Again, this is really an opinion piece based on my experience, so if I have eliminated a few systems it’s because either I am not familiar with their equipment or I have found firsthand you should stay away.
Professionally, I don’t like saying a product is terrible or “doesn’t work” until I have tried it over and over again in different environments and different training systems. I used to have very low opinions of some systems mainly because rain and blowing leaves would trigger a false reading, but that is not the fault of a product. The same goes for when I used Freelap and found out the hard way that a generator was near the area of our starts and we started to get weird times. My final horror story was when a product was defective and the company shipped it back to me twice, both times with the promise that it was repaired. I know that it wasn’t even touched, as the packaging wasn’t opened after the first mailing. Again, customer service is everything because technology is almost guaranteed to fail once in a while.
Features and functionality, such as agility, are everything for sports performance coaches. Types of data needed for deep sport science investigations like speed profiling demand high-performance timing systems. Workflow and the unobtrusive demands of track coaches are why some use Freelap. Finally, cost and low usage rate are why Dashr is perfect for programs that just want to test athletes periodically. Combine directors should think about functionality, as they need to time change of direction and use RFID to organize their assessments. Generally, the clearer a coach’s philosophy of training, the more likely they will succeed finding a perfect match.
Also consider the cost of information; meaning, if you want to just test 20 meters, that requires a start and stop setup with timing gates, while splits over 60 meters (with first 5-meter measurement) means you will need to have over a half-dozen timing gates. That adds up. The same can be said for a lot of athletes using Freelap FxChips, as you can share the sensors between athletes, but the convenience of a 1:1 ratio is perfect for easy collection, and a dozen or more athletes sharing technology is more of a chore than a learning experience. Timing needs to work for the coach, not the other way around.A dozen or more athletes sharing technology is more of a chore than a learning experience. Timing needs to work for the coach, not the other way around, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
The difference between continuous laser timing and laser timing gates with beams is a bit confusing to coaches. Most coaches know that conventional electronic timing is a beam of light that they pass, like a tape after a marathon run. Now, if a laser is continuously pointing behind them and sampling the distance properly, you can get instantaneous times, not just splits. Instantaneous times are perfect for sport science and progressive coaches.
The best example for why I love continuous laser timing is my first article on floating sprints in the fall of 2018. Visually, you don’t have to worry about timing gates, and you can add a contact grid seamlessly. You can add a contact grid to different brands of timing systems; you just need to make sure the data is cleaned up a bit manually when you export it. Every timing system except for the Ergotest laser is a split-based system.
The last point I will make is that some coaches will find themselves in a mixed environment, and this often happens with colleges that sometimes have their own separate departments. We tend to see this with big football programs that use their own timing system and the Olympic sports program may have several due to coaches having preferences. That is perfectly fine and more than acceptable. Be cautious though, as more systems means more training and more issues having sports being confused on how fast an athlete really is. In my article on errors that coaches make with timing, I address a few issues regarding the challenge of capturing first movement and why splits are sometimes limited.
Invest in What You Need and Buy What You Want
Electronic timing is not about keeping up with the Joneses—it’s about knowing what you need to do your job now and what you may need to do it in the future. Some elite custom systems are available at Olympic training centers, but a few athletes have made it work with a portable individual system, so don’t think that more money equals better experience. Be cognizant, though, that you do get what you pay for, so systems designed for more consumer uses are individual products that get unfairly pushed into functions beyond their capabilities.#Electronictiming is not about keeping up with the Joneses—it’s about knowing what you need to do your job now, and into the future, says @SpikesOnly. Click To Tweet
When making an investment, you’re spending more than money—you’re also spending time learning. Therefore, switching from year to year becomes more of a hassle than an upgrade. The more of a grasp you have on what you do in training, the easier it is to make a purchase. Some coaches have seen the light with timing and sprinting and now scramble to “get an accurate watch” on their athletes. If you know what you want to do in training, this article will point you in the right direction. You just need to trust yourself and think about the long run.