What links crows, dolphins, otters, mongooses, and octopuses? No, this is not the setup to a bad joke. These guys appear to be the only members of the animal kingdom to creatively use tools outside of the great apes, the animal family that we humans belong to. The apparent reasons for belonging to such an exclusive club can be saved for another discussion on another day, but what is clear is that animals have consistently figured out that applying knowledge to objects can get them more of what they want.
At its heart, this is what links all technologies—to save time, money, or effort per unit of productivity. Despite being wildly different in their application, the great technological leaps of human evolution, from agriculture to metallurgy to industrialization to digital technologies like computing and the internet, share this common trait. And today I’ll make the case that, for these reasons, in sport we still have much to learn when it comes to our use of technology.In sport we still have much to learn when it comes to our use of technology, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
In 2018, the global market size of sport technology exceeded $9 billion a year and was expected to grow by another 20%. At the time of writing, Catapult—one of the biggest brands in the business—has a market capitalization over $400 million on the Australian Stock Exchange. If you’ve worked for a big institution or sports organization, you’ll know that deciding to partner with one provider or another is often a six-figure decision with multi-year agreements.
As professionalization of sport at all levels continues to propagate, the ubiquity and consequence of sport technology cannot be overstated. Speed timing gates, motion capture systems, force plates, velocity-based training tools, athlete management systems, online programming platforms, and injury screening devices are just a few examples of the potential solutions that coaches must filter on a daily basis.
Despite the potential implications of these technologies on operational budgets, work habits, and ultimately the productivity of their staff, too many coaches and teams enter into the process blindly, squandering money and putting technological square pegs into round holes. In this article, I will explore the good, the bad, and the ugly of sports technology, with a view to developing a decision-making filter through which you may pass your next tech-buying decision. I hope that it saves you much time, money, and frustration along the way.
In a time-poor profession like strength and conditioning, where there is an inherent need to free oneself to work on the system and not in it, time-saving technologies are a must. This can be as simple as reducing the time taken to complete repetitive tasks. It sounds trite, but even basic purchases like more effective cleaning technologies, particularly in the era of coronavirus, can save many hours per person, per month.The overarching goal of technology should be to automate wherever possible and without dilution of human judgement, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
Likewise, the outsourcing of human tasks to digital tools can greatly reduce staffing costs for simple daily processes. A Google form, an email or text reminder, and a prod to the less-compliant members of the team are a lot more streamlined than one intern asking the same set of questions hundreds of times after every session.
The overarching goal should be to automate wherever possible and without dilution of human judgement. If there is an optimal solution to the task without need for interpretation or decision-making, it is a simple decision to spend a little time now to save a lot of time later.
Data collection, processing, and visualization scripts for software solutions like Excel, R, or Python are one such example, particularly in data sets where several hundred thousand data points per year are collected. Excel can also be useful in the prescription of training loads and in formatting, delivering, and adjusting programming. However, in my experience, platforms such as Teambuildr, Train Heroic, and Bridge Athletic are more user-friendly and offer greater integration and functionality.
As I’ve alluded to in previous articles, most problems in institutionalized sport are money problems in disguise. The pursuit of a higher mission is extremely difficult when losing money hand over fist, and ultimately becomes impossible when the organization spends itself out of existence. Conversely, an abundance of money tends to forgive all other sins and is a self-perpetuating cycle, from talent ID and recruitment, to staff development and retention, to marketing and sponsorships.
Specific to physical preparation, the biggest financial drain on professional sports teams are wages and productivity lost to injury. In the most lucrative sports leagues in the world, millions per year are spent on injured athletes. The etiology of sporting injury is multifactorial, and of course, a non-zero number of injuries per year is inevitable. But what is clear is that soft tissue and non-contact injuries are inherently more controllable than traumatic ones, and training stress balance is a major risk factor. I personally liken managing injuries without accurate load or stress response measurement to driving a Ferrari with the dashboard covered up. You can do it, but it’s not advisable!
Thus, any technology that can more accurately measure training activity or the response of the athlete to that training offers valuable insight. In field-based sports, accelerometry, GPS, and cardiac monitoring are commonly used and validated tools to assess the input side of this equation. On the output side, a similarly broad array of options is available, including hormone assays, heart rate variability, cortical potential, and neuromuscular monitoring tools such as Nordbord and GroinBar.The correct blend of technologies you use will depend on your sport, the problems you are trying to solve, and your available budget, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
Note that due to the multifaceted nature of both training load and the stress response, no one solution can act as a cover-all. The correct blend of technologies you use will depend on your sport, the problems you are trying to solve, and your available budget. But when median salaries exceed several hundred thousand dollars per week, spending $100,000 per year on sports technology can return many times that sum in increased availability or more consistent or productive training. Even in the world of college sport where labor is free, keeping star players on the court or field in the pursuit of a tournament or championship run can have multimillion-dollar implications.
At its worst, the physical testing of athletes can be a waste of time. Collecting data to say “See, look! The program works. Please can I have a contract extension?” serves the coach more than the athlete. Call me cynical, but it’s supposed to work! Putting aside the politics of justifying one’s own existence to decision-makers, testing can often just confirm what we already instinctively know from training.
We know where athletes lie in comparison to their peers, and it is relatively easy to gauge from the training itself whether the programming is working or not. (The weights are getting heavier or moving faster!) Dedicating an entire day or week to testing to find out what you already knew isn’t the best use of a coach’s time. Likewise, expecting an athlete to “peak” for testing day simply doesn’t tally with the experience of even the most accomplished coaches, and judging a program on one day of data is like trying to guess the plot of a novel from one page.
I would argue the true value of testing is twofold:
- To detect long-term trends or changes in physical performance.
- To derive new information or insight that informs subsequent decision-making.
The former, which Mladen Jovanovic has termed “embedded testing,” relies on the use of technology to consistently gather data as the program is implemented without significant interruption to training itself or the generation of unnecessary fatigue. This is invaluable to an iterative process like training, where assumptions must be questioned and updated on a daily basis.
Tracking bar speed with devices like GymAware, Tendo Unit, or Rep One, timing sprints with devices like Freelap, or simply measuring heart rate response to a given workload within systems like Polar or First Beat are all good examples of how coaches can “test without testing” and make informed decisions earlier and more frequently with no additional time or fatigue cost.
The latter, which Dr. Bryan Mann has termed “diagnostic testing,” is concerned not just with what the athlete did, but how they did it. The measurement of absolute outputs like vertical jump or maximal sprinting speed are valuable in their own right. But different athletes may achieve identical outputs via different strategies, for example via leaning on more force or more time in the instance of jumping, or faster stride frequencies versus longer stride lengths in sprinting.
As training age rises, the likelihood that a specific training intervention is required to address the rate-limiting factor within the system increases. Using technologies to infer which course of action is most appropriate can greatly increase the productivity of training. Force plate systems like Hawkin Dynamics and Force Decks are popular solutions in jumping-intensive sports, whereas sprint-based tools like Ergotest and 1080 Sprint may have more application in running-based sports with deep pockets.
As valuable as technologies can be to sport performance, we have to remember a simple fact: It’s supposed to make life easier! Bad technologies or bad utilization of technologies forget this simple maxim and create more work than they save. Even in professional teams (certainly in college and high school teams), when organizations go shopping for GPS systems, the expectation is that an existing, already overworked member of staff will be tasked with its oversight. The end result is a net increase in time spent in the system for the unfortunate individual.Data and graphs are informative but toothless if they cannot persuade a reluctant sport coach to modify practice loads, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
Similarly, GPS data is only as useful as the coaching behavior that it influences. Data and graphs are informative but toothless if they cannot persuade a reluctant sport coach to modify practice loads. The political capital and time required to help key decision-makers understand such data, care about it, want to use it, and then have the technical ability to see it through to completion should not be underestimated. Overall, this scenario represents a net time cost for not much concrete gain.
Buying a Hammer, Then Looking for Nails
To reiterate, technology is the application of knowledge to things to give us more of what we want for a given input of time, effort, or money. Phrased another way, technology simply helps us to better solve our problems. To steal a quote from Judea Pearl, “You cannot answer a question that has not been asked.”
It should therefore follow that good sport technology decision-making begins with the identification of a problem. The next step is to understand the nature of the problem. Based on the understanding of the problem, the coach will then consult the various offerings within the marketplace (whereas engineers will simply create one). They are evaluated on their merits and suitability to answer the questions posed by the problem, then a buying decision is made, and the technology is implemented.Good sport technology decision-making begins with the identification of a problem, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
- “We’ve experienced a spike in hamstring injuries.”
- “Research appears to indicate low relative eccentric strength is a predisposing factor to non-contact hamstring injuries.”
- “Nordbord is a commercially available tool for tracking various force metrics of the hamstrings.”
- “Based on our budget, staffing, and last year’s wage losses due to non-contact hamstring injuries, if we can reduce our incidence by 20%, any intervention costing up to $20,000 per year will represent a positive return on investment.”
- “OK, let’s invest in Nordbord.”
Bad technology decisions tend to flip the process on its head, begin with a buying decision, and go from there:
- “OK, let’s invest in Nordbord.”
- “Measure all the guys, let’s see who has weak hamstrings.”
- “Take a look at the hamstring guys, were they lower than everyone else?”
- “What are the key metrics we need to look at anyway?”
- “Is Nordbord the best tool to track this stuff? I hope so, because we signed a three-year deal!”
In short, beginning with the problem first, asking questions, and following them to their logical conclusions can save you a lot of time and money. Do not succumb to the sales and marketing pressure to buy a $10,000 hammer, then go looking for nails that might not even exist.
Decentralized Technology Purchasing
In traditional performance models, each sport coach is an island. They have their own (largely unqualified) philosophies and beliefs with regard to physical training, they have their favorite conditioning methods and assessments, and unless they have to share, they tend to hire their own strength and conditioning coach, who the university merely rubber stamps after a background check.
Importantly, they also make their own technology decisions. They are courted by technology companies in the marketplace, swayed by trends within their sport, counseled by members of their professional network, and ultimately, they make a buying decision. The new piece of equipment is promptly delivered to the strength coach, who is told: “Here is what we’re using now. Figure it out.”
So far, not too bad. But now multiply this scenario by the number of sports a strength and conditioning coach is responsible for. What happens when lacrosse uses Catapult, but soccer uses Kitman Labs? Baseball wants to use Tendo for their VBT because X team uses that in their weight room, and we need to get kickers from football on the GroinBar. This is an extreme example, but I’ve seen it happen. Every new piece of equipment from competing companies is another platform to learn and integrate with the AMS; another sales rep to deal with.
If nothing more, centralizing technology-buying decisions with the school harnesses economies of scale while greatly decreasing the time needed to upskill, use, and maintain sports technology equipment, and places the buying decision in the hands of a qualified high-performance manager/team. The price per unit for a given technology drops precipitously when you’re buying for a few hundred athletes versus a few dozen, and the positive PR of landing a school-wide deal can be leveraged.
Not only this, but centralized technology and data more easily facilitates comparisons between data sets. It prevents allegiances being switched to another brand following coaching changes, minimizing the potential loss of data. And it allows for shared skills amongst all members of the high-performance staff so coaches can be quickly and easily reassigned to different sports with no need for upskilling on “our” technology. Notch up another win for the high-performance model.
As I highlighted previously, most sport coaches make the decision to invest in a piece of technology because another coach for a bigger, more winning team swears by it. They can’t handle the fear of missing out, they want the success of bigger teams, and they want the respect of their peers for being so forward-thinking. The purchase is usually swiftly followed by a media release by the organization about how the team is using the same technology as X team. Twelve months later, the coach’s work habits are the same as before, and the tech is gathering dust. Personal experience: I was almost a year into my time in Tokyo when my assistant informed me that we had “one of those GymAware things in the cupboard.”
We strength coaches are not immune. The rise of social media over the last two decades has coincided neatly with the uptick of tech in sport, and the various platforms today are awash with coaches showing off their toys. We eagerly post up kinograms, R outputs, bar charts, Dartfish comparisons—you name it. We get a pat on the head from our followers, then immediately go back to implementing the same program we were going to do anyway.Flexing on social media is a part of the game, but there are cheaper ways to do it. The Running Man Challenge is free, a weight room full of VBT tools is not, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
The next time you see a fellow coach post on social media about their use of a particular technology, ask yourself: “Is this actually being used to make decisions or uniquely answer questions in the program? Is this changing how they work? Will it still be used a few months from now?” The answer is no, more than we care to admit.
Flexing on social media is part of the game, but there are cheaper ways to do it. The Running Man Challenge is free, a weight room full of VBT tools is not.
Technology as a Recruiting Tool
I’ve argued in previous articles that most weight rooms suffer from being showrooms in disguise, designed more by equipment manufacturers and administrators than the coaches who end up using them. For most institutions, weight rooms are, unfortunately, for recruiting first and training second. Expensive technologies are the expensive cherry on top, and many tools are purchased that don’t need to be there, get purchased in excessive numbers, or don’t get used once the shine has worn off.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: If we win with people, those people will probably feel more valued if you don’t tell them the cupboard is bare out of one side of your mouth, while demanding they upskill themselves on a new (and unnecessary) platform that costs $10,000 per license. Ten grand is a lot of staff appreciation lunches, it’s books and clothes for the interns, and it’s a comfy couch and a coat of paint in the staff locker room. The recruits won’t notice the tech missing from the weight room, but your staff will notice the extra attention, and it’ll pay far higher dividends for morale and productivity.
A Stick to Beat People With
The case for regular data collection is a simple one. The higher the sample size, the larger the pool of data, the more easily and accurately potential trends can be identified. The declining size and price of technologies have greatly opened up the market for wearable tech such as Fitbit, Apple Watch, Fatigue Science, and Whoop. Now we are able to collect data 24/7 without the athletes even realizing. But we have to label this for what it is: an invasion of the athlete’s privacy. It may be with consent, but it is an invasion, nonetheless.
Pre wearables, when athletes left the facility, their work stayed. However, post wearables, work follows the athlete home, and the coach is granted ever-growing insight into the athlete’s habits and behavior outside of work, which is ripe for abuse. Anecdotally, the abilities to infer sexual activity during nighttime hours, to see who was really sleeping and who snuck out to the club, and even who partook in drink and drugs are all possible with commercially available wearable technologies.With some wearable technology, there is a clear need for the establishment of agreed-upon rules, informed consent, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to opt out, says @RUGBY_STR_COACH. Click To Tweet
To say this is a moral minefield is an understatement, and as this becomes the norm, there is a clear need for the establishment of agreed-upon rules, informed consent, and perhaps most importantly, the ability to opt out.
The Ideal Technology
Great technology is groundbreaking. It integrates so seamlessly into our daily lives and offers such time efficiency and such drastic increases in productivity or ease of use that you forget how you ever lived before it came along. In just my lifetime: broadband internet, smart phones, Uber, and electric vehicles like Tesla are just a few technologies that have changed how we live. This is the same ideal that sport technology should strive toward.
Conversely, when I was 12, Tamagotchis were extremely popular. They harnessed advancing computer technology that made it possible to shrink down a basic computer program for a digital pet into the palm of your hand. They sold by the tens of millions, but as far as I can figure out, the pet did absolutely nothing. It was such a trivial technology that it was rewarded with an Ig Nobel Prize (the parody version of the Nobel) for economics. Two decades later, they’re an entertaining memory and nothing more. Food for thought…
Since you’re here…
…we have a small favor to ask. More people are reading SimpliFaster than ever, and each week we bring you compelling content from coaches, sport scientists, and physiotherapists who are devoted to building better athletes. Please take a moment to share the articles on social media, engage the authors with questions and comments below, and link to articles when appropriate if you have a blog or participate on forums of related topics. — SF