By Carl Valle
At the high school level, the most common question I hear is how to apply sport science principles without a huge budget. Most coaches worry about whether their aging sports equipment and uniforms are up to date and functioning, never mind GPS or other technology. Some bigger college-level programs are still pressed on budgeting because new expenses like recovery devices and nutrition costs are now part of a winning equation. Finally, there’s the individual master’s athlete who is pressed for time but still needs a way to get better and self-fund their goals and dreams.
How does one decide on budgeting and implementing the right technology and not just buy the latest devices on the market? When money or resources like time are scarce, creativity drives innovation. In this article, I share what I did when I did not have a big budget.
Previous SimpliFaster Resources, Buyer’s Guides, and Tutorials
After the first article on investing in sports technology hit hundreds of coaches, I decided to build on the information and dive into more detail here. Before jumping into the list, though, remember that knowing the art and science of training is vital to being productive; it’s not only knowing what’s hot with coaches. The most valuable piece of advice I can give is to avoid buying the wrong technology, as I’ve seen more regression in coaching with technology than advancement.
Don’t worry, when we use the available technology correctly, we can achieve many possibilities provided there’s quality coaching. A list of all of our technology articles would be cumbersome to read through, so I’ll explain the basics available on SimpliFaster and other resources.
Buyer’s Guides—Go to the Buyer’s Guide tab on the SimpliFaster website to find a list of reviews of some of the most widely used sports technology and equipment available, including company names and products.
How-to Tutorials—Although some of the resources are very vanilla, they deliver by getting you started on testing and training with great equipment from the shop and other company tools. Remember it’s not only about sports testing but also about sports training with technology, so first know the details of training.
Best Practices—Besides knowing how to use the technology, you’ll need to know how to follow the best practices in assessment and sportscience. This means you must be able to follow directions while still coaching. Without the art of coaching, much of the science won’t mix well in the real world.
External Educational Resources—We of course think that SimpliFaster is a great website, but also take a look at CoachMePlus Academy and their list of guides describing the necessary steps to become proficient in applied sport science. Also look at my technology reviews in the Performance Digest every month from Science for Sport.
This article is about being smart with your money, not cheap. The list above is extensive and gives you plenty to work with—many SimpliFaster articles are case studies and real experiences with collecting, analyzing, and using data. Nobody wants to buy poorly-made weight room equipment, so don’t treat sports technology as a second-class option. It’s better to buy less of what matters, which means equipment you can use for years—not one season.
Buy Established Technology
Usually established sports technology is free of new technology headaches—meaning bugs. As a guy that tests prototypes and beta products, I’m driven crazy by equipment that does not work. Sometimes the technology works too well and is overly sensitive, also causing frustration. An example is accelerometer-based VBT tools, which detect when an athlete starts to grip but fail to recognize that force is not yet transmitted.
And don’t be bamboozled by technology buzzwords. Case in point is the bashing of linear position transducer (LPT) tools because they use a wire attached physically to a bar. One high-profile coach was bragging about the wireless system he was using, but it was on a barbell connected with an elastic band! I also find the wireless talk funny because, in older gyms, the equipment’s battery life forces you to charge them in closets to protect the products from theft. New technology is great, but sometimes skipping a generation and getting by with older technology makes sense.Sometimes skipping a generation and getting by with older technology makes sense. Click To Tweet
Another example of spending money on old is buying new versions of older technology. Dashr is far cheaper now than Browser and connects to smart devices. One word of caution: when you buy equipment from companies that are not relevant, it may not be replaceable. Before you buy a system, ask yourself what happens if the company disappears in a year or two. Can you handle that?
Turn Your Smartphone into a Sports Lab and Digital Assistant
I love and hate smartphones. They are the greatest invention in the last ten years and a painful devolution to society. Using smartphones has helped change the way we work as coaches. The sensors and components in the technology can turn a simple personal device into a powerful laboratory with just a few apps.Sensors and tech components turn a smartphone into a powerful laboratory with just a few apps. Click To Tweet
One could argue this is the best way to work with sports technology because so many inexpensive apps exist, but remember the key to sports technology is not accuracy or cost, it’s convenience. Compromising speed and convenience means you have to spend more time later, so think about workflow and the data’s value.
What are the two most valuable tools on your phone? The camera and the microphone. True, you can estimate jump height with apps, even measure the first metatarsal joint range of motion. But these are not game changers, they’re ways to do what we’ve done in the past less expensively.
Recording high-quality video and using speech to text makes a small organization into a great organization. Sports medicine professionals can get more information while they work with both hands, and coaches can record movement in ways that can change the game. Dartfish has added the measurement tool to their app and now have a sports analysis feature in 3D that will bridge from tactical to performance and back again.
Use More Coaching Software and Less Excel
I’ve worked with a lot of sports technology companies in dire hopes to make their products better. The number one problem is their products are annoying and cumbersome to work with. Some companies have done an amazing job reducing that burden and have cut headaches and pointless hours. But others have made the coach’s job frustrating and time-consuming.
Some companies have excellent strength and conditioning software and solutions for writing workouts, but most are not worth your time and money. Excel is great for writing workouts and if you use Excel to write workouts, I don’t blame you. But I also need those of you who are mavericks to vocalize to companies why you don’t use their products. Most companies cater to those willing to sacrifice performance for convenience—don’t settle, instead educate.
Excel is great for custom needs, and you can do a lot with it so don’t think you’re wasting time. Use Excel for what it’s designed to do. Then invest in a hybrid solution that uses software programs designed solely for sports performance, like athlete management system (AMS) options or cleverly used business and science tools.
When you homebrew software solutions that aren’t sport-specific, you own the problems because you decided to use software not intended for this use; don’t expect the company to care if your force plate data can’t merge into a dashboard, for example. Write your workouts on a modular online form with real sports training software and list your exercises with videos as a starting point. That alone will save hundreds of hours a year.
Repurpose Industrial Technology
Military and police, and of course industrial technologies, are bigger markets than sports performance, and they may provide better options than sports technology. As it is, most sports technology is repackaged medical devices or manufacturing equipment with the good companies pushing the hardware and software side better than the original markets.
Take a look at the Radar gun used by many of the force-velocity researchers in France. I’m fine with that and love the creative use of existing technology, but I’m not a fan of coaches using it because it’s not a great solution for training. What may work well for research may not be great for training.
If you’re training athletes every week, use appropriate repurposed equipment. I love lasers. Rushing over to a laptop to export data is fine for sport science studies—not for giving needed feedback in training. For years, Bob Alejo has explained the difference between a coach using sport science and a coach trying to be a sport scientist. Be careful. Using the wrong training methods to gather data can backfire on you—hence criticisms and warnings by the profession.Be careful. Using the wrong training methods to get data can backfire on you. Click To Tweet
Many components inside sports technology devices are not novel. When you buy a device, ask whether you’re buying the idea of using hardware for sport or buying technology that solves problems that other fields cannot. Look around and read the research. Sometimes sport scientists use industrial technology but have to do extra work to make it work. Unless you’re sure you can get it right, don’t buy what’s in the materials section of a research paper because it’s cheaper.
Own the Hardware and Subscribe to Software Carefully
Good sports technology can work without a software subscription. If you’re pressured to lease technology and spend money on accessing your technology, be aware of the pros and cons. While giving away hardware technology and selling software licenses is hot right now, I’m begging you to think long and hard about the best sports technology available—timing gates. Some technology I have is older than my interns!
Value refers to cost per year and benefits provided. Buying cheap in year one doesn’t pay off unless it beats the cost of replacement. As a guy that had to budget for replacement technology every few years, I’ve learned that it’s better not to be penny wise and pound foolish with the costs of sport technology. I do like software subscription models because they make companies competitive by adding value year to year, but only if the features are useful and not just ornamental for marketing campaigns.
Sometimes owning hardware is a commitment. If you’re afraid of buyer’s remorse, think about the heart rate monitoring market and ask how much advancement has occurred. Not much. And that’s ok because you can use the equipment today if you know the classic principles of training. I’m not saying be late to the game—many job interviews ask how proficient you are in sports technology—but don’t rush to get what’s new unless you do your homework and have a good contract.
Find the Right Open Source Stuff
I love the book The Cathedral and the Bizaare. It’s a great timeless lesson about the open source movement that started decades ago. One company that’s doing this with great success is ChronoJump, which is marvelous with helping coaches on a budget. True, you won’t get the best solution available, but you’ll be able to make a difference if you’re at a youth academy that barely pays for coaches’ salaries.Open source sport technology is cost-effective, programmable, and transparent. Click To Tweet
What’s great about open source technology is that it’s not just cost-effective, it’s also programmable and transparent. Nothing drives me nuts more than bogus metrics made up in a marketing meeting by sales staff. When you know the formulas and calculations, you know you’re doing real sport science, not sport science fiction.
One big, and I mean huge, word of caution: when you go with open source, you better know your staff. Not only are you responsible for the product getting into the tower, but you also may be surrounded by coaches who don’t want to deal with bugs and extra work. Also, budgeting is not just about the expense, it’s about human resources; if you leave an organization where many administrators hate the idea of something that’s great for only one coach, it will collect dust in the storage room when you’re no longer there.
Open source can be a great option when you have many teachers who coach because they can use the technology for physics class earlier in the day and for track practice a few hours later. Open source is not just for the geeks, it’s for the many of us who truly want to control data collection.
Learn to Hack and Make Things
Another book I recommend is Hackers and Painters: Big Ideas from the Computer Age by Paul Graham, as it’s brilliant. The book changed me when I went from winging it and guessing to collecting meaningful data. My budget was small, so I was forced to make adjustments to existing technology or make my own.
True, if you’re a strength coach who isn’t good with technology, this advice may sound like it won’t make a difference. But you don’t need to be an electrical engineer, you just need to be good with your hands. And sometimes the weak link to sports technology isn’t the stuff inside the enclosure, it’s the stuff around the equipment like the mounting. For examples, read my article listing hacks for strength coaches read by thousands of coaches wanting better workouts, not just better ways to use technology within the workouts.
I became disgusted by the cost of training equipment after discovering what it cost to manufacture it, and don’t get me started on shipping expenses. I do believe you get what you pay for, but many pieces of gym equipment are overpriced, and flooring is so expensive now that it forces a strength coach to rethink.To save money, avoid spending it recklessly on equipment you'll rarely use. Click To Tweet
To save money, spend less on specialized equipment and more on the appropriate bars and bumper plates. While most coaches will say weight is weight, the cost of everything in a gym is out of control or the equipment is horribly made because it was sold on price. I’m not attacking the equipment line companies—they provide value—I’m attacking the reckless spending on unnecessary equipment that is rarely used.
Don’t Buy the Wrong Technology
A wise budget move is not to buy any new equipment and instead support your existing systems. If something works for you, buy more of it. It’s better to do a few things right and to focus on the few things a product does well than to stretch things too far. There are plenty of “turnkey” and “enterprise” solutions that are just watered down packages instead of high-quality software suites or hardware tools.
It may seem strange that a sport technology company is publishing an article suggesting you don’t buy equipment, but I’ve seen so many great coaches refuse to participate in the evolution because they were burned in the past. We should expect some problems to occur with sports technology. Our rough reality is that we wait, only get what works well, and accept that not every area in sports technology will be a surefire hit.
Instead of looking for things that are good enough to get the job done, skip the lukewarm phase and get stellar equipment or get nothing at all. It’s ok to be late to the party if you’re using a reliable and valid device efficiently; it’s not acceptable to do nothing while waiting for the perfect solution. Buy only when you’re satisfied that a system will work as expected, and then use it for what it’s great at doing and don’t raise your expectations too high.
Raise Money and Buy Your Own Equipment
Who owns the equipment you use? In reality, the school or private facility you work for is likely the owner, not you. If you’re a sports training coach, athletics coach, physical education teacher, or performance specialist, get your own equipment. Why? You can control your destiny when you have what you need, and you can request additional investment by your employer.Buy your own equipment to control your destiny. Then request more investment by your employer. Click To Tweet
At first glance, this may look like a slippery slope where the company or school will think you should always bring your own equipment. The truth is that the opposite can happen. On average, I tend to see a deeper investment by administrators when a coach invests in their own education, and small equipment purchases within reason send a signal that you’re serious.
Speaking of bringing your own equipment, BYOD—Bring Your Own Device—is growing among athletes. Nearly every kid has a smartphone now, so communicating with AMS systems is normal. But what happens when they participate in expenses and buy a personal GPS device or portable sensor? Who knows, but the power of the crowd is real.
If you want boosters and others to support your program, do as much as you can to show that you’re making do with what you have. When showing this resourcefulness, make sure you explain what you’re missing out on because you don’t have the necessary equipment. One example is jump testing: use an app and then show that better equipment can capture running ground contact times horizontally or actual force analysis. Do something to demonstrate you mean business and you’ll likely get the response you want.
Spend Money on Training Equipment
If you test speed a few times a year, don’t buy timing gates—use video and a chronometer. If you’re training speed and want instant feedback, look at the Buyer’s Guide on Sports Timing for Speed to find something that fits your needs. Testing is usually infrequent, monitoring is constant, and training is the best of both approaches.
I’m not telling you to avoid spending money on body fat instruments and jumping equipment, but if you’re doing most of your training with specific modalities, make sure you use measurements. I am all for force plates, but only for maximum isometric testing a few times a year or testing the Reactive Strength Index. On the other hand, sometimes testing is everything because it sets the standard, so it may be worth investing in a few pieces. Don’t force yourself to use equipment more often because you think frequency means value—depth of data may be just as valuable.The strength of AMS systems is to improve communication and allow the data to work for you. Click To Tweet
Many coaches ask me if monitoring should be part of the training budget. I answer yes, but only if it’s used to manage athletes and not just to display their data or dump it all into a repository. If you want to dump data into your computer, don’t buy an AMS—learn to organize. The strength of AMS systems is to improve communication and allow the data to work for you, not the other way around. As I said earlier, invest in software designed for writing workouts and making choices that can be part of the training process.
This guide offers creative options to get technology into your weight room and coaching program. Here is the main takeaway: if you’re struggling to pay for new bumper plates, don’t fear technology. You’ll need to do more work if you’re shopping on price, and if resources are a problem, focus on value please! I want to remove technology’s burden by helping coaches only buy the technology they need and the equipment that will make their jobs easier. Save your money and be patient for the right tools. Buying too early might mean that you’re a beta tester with a bigger bill than coaches will pay a year later.