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By adaptive - January 25th, 2016
Wearables that track steps, jogging sessions and gym visits have changed the way health- and weight-conscious consumers go about their fitness routines. But as Siegfried Mortkowitz reports, a growing number of companies are using mobile technology to disrupt professional sports around the globe.
It’s no secret that consumer workout wearables and devices are the prime movers in a rapidly growing, global billion-dollar industry. But less well known, but probably more disruptive, is the mobile technology that is currently transforming professional sports around the world.
For example, Major League Baseball players can use the Easton Power Sensor, which is attached to a bat and captures and analyzes via an app such data as swing speed, time to contact, swing direction, power and efficiency; the 2014 World Cup–winning German national soccer team uses a system of wearable sensors created by Adidas to track each player’s heart rate and workload during training sessions; and the NBA champion Golden State Warriors use cameras and a sophisticated biomechanical movement-tracking wearable to detect player fatigue, a major cause of injury.
The device the Warriors use was made by Australia-based Catapult, which has become a global leader in the field of professional sports technology. Catapult boasts over 750 clients. Its products are used in 40 countries, in dozens of different sports, including all Australian Football League and Australian Rugby Union teams. In the United States, more than 50 NCAA teams, 18 NBA franchises and 19 of 32 NFL teams use its products.
Most of them train with Catapult’s flagship product, the OptimEye S5, which the company describes as “the world’s first GNSS monitor for team sport.” The designation GNSS, or global navigation satellite system, means that the device can access the U.S. GPS and the Russian GLONASS positioning satellites. Boden Westover, Catapult’s marketing director, says they will be able to use China’s BeiDou and Europe’s Galileo satellites when those systems go global.
Catapult also has a version of the S5 for indoors, when positioning satellites are not available.
Westover explains the OptimEye T5 uses portable satellites, known as nodes, for positioning data. Both devices are worn on the athlete’s upper back and track an athlete’s every movement in training and even in matches.
“That raw data is then stored on a powerful microprocessor on the device and can be viewed, in real time, on the sidelines via a laptop,” Westover says. “Catapult’s sophisticated algorithm allows coaches and trainers to see exactly what the athlete was doing in terms of volume, intensity and explosiveness.”
The data is then custom analyzed and presented to coaches. Westover says, “An NFL coach just really cares about how hard the training session was,” “He just wants to know if the players were at 80 percent of what they do on a Tuesday or was it 120 percent, so he can know to back off the next day or rev it up a little more.”
The OptimEye S5 can also determine the physical stress an athlete undergoes during a training session or a game via a proprietary algorithm called PlayerLoad. It provides a score to represent the total volume of an athlete’s movements for a session.
The device also registers the athlete’s heart rate, which provides a measure for the player’s internal stress. As Westover puts it, “If a player’s heart rate is higher than normal for a given drill, then maybe something is not right with that athlete.” The S5 even registers the force of collisions, in terms of G force, via an accelerometer.
The device is also worn in matches, where allowed. Westover says that the S5 has been used in every training session and every game in the Australian Football League over the past seven years, and it has actually led to rule changes. “The data we provide has actually changed the league rules for substitutions. They noticed that players lost velocity after a certain period, so now they changed the time allowed between substitutions to allow fresh players to get in there.”
The device is increasingly deployed in international rugby, where fatigue is often a problem. “We have rugby teams looking at data in real time and making decisions on whether a player should be substituted,” he says. A number of national teams used the S5 in the 2015 World Cup, including Scotland, Wales and the runner-up Australia.
NFL rules currently do not allow using these devices during games, but one day teams in the Super Bowl may be using the S5. Westover says that all 19 NFL teams Catapult works with want to use the device in games, but it may take time for the rules to change.
The Finnish Line: Startup Senses Muscle Activity
You don’t need to be an industry leader like Catapult to disrupt professional sports. Kuopio, Finland-based Myontec has a staff of just 10. But its Mbody high-tech shorts with muscle tracking sensors are used by professional triathletes, basketball players, soccer teams and bicycle racers—as well as sports scientists and researchers.
David Gambarte, Myontec’s sales and marketing director, explains that the Mbody shorts use electromyographic sensors to measure muscle activity during physical activity. Electromyography, or EMG, is primarily a medical technique for evaluating and recording the electrical activity of muscles to detect abnormalities or analyze the biomechanics of movement.
Mbody measures the main muscle groups of the lower body, the quadriceps, a large muscle group covering the front of the thigh, and the hamstrings, the three posterior thigh muscles.
Gambarte says that a recently launched version, the Mbody Pro, also measures the gluteals, a group of three muscles that make up the buttocks. “We added that capacity because a number of our customers and potential customers asked for it, because the glutes play a very important role in all sports.”
The muscle activity data gathered by the Mbody can be stored in a small device attached to the shorts, called the MCell. Once the activity is finished, the data can be downloaded from the MCell to a computer or a mobile app. Gambarte says, “The MCell has a Bluetooth function which can be connected to the computer and to the mobile application and run during the activity; so you and your coach can see what is happening in the muscles while you are exercising or training.”
The activity values of the different muscle groups can even be displayed on a large screen, via Bluetooth, so that the athlete can observe how he or she is using the various muscle groups and make corrections if necessary. “In the software there is a more detailed analysis that you can customize and combine with, for example, the power data used in professional cycling and the athlete’s heart rate,” the Myontec exec adds.
This enables an athlete to track over time how efficiently he or she is using the muscle groups.
Gambarte says that currently about 100 top-flight sports clubs and organizations use the Mbody. The company’s customers include top-level triathletes, the Red Bull Pro Cycling Team and several major European soccer clubs, including several in the English Premier League, Italy’s Serie A and the French Ligue 1, as well as the Spanish club RCD Espanyol and Portugal’s Sporting Lisbon.
But the Mbody has another important use besides training: rehabilitation. “The Mbody enables you to monitor how the muscles are responding to the therapy,” Gambarte says. “It also shows how the other muscle groups are reacting to the injury, because they are compensating for it. And you can measure when the athlete has reached optimal muscle performance and can return to play.”
It’s the promise of a quicker and more complete recovery combined with optimal training to avoid injuries that have created this growing market for sports wearables. Whether they will bring glory to professional users remains to be seen, but as the tech more broadly filters to consumers look for the market to further expand.