Stick, wear or swallow? Data collection in sport is close to the skin

Ilmar Mutli, Associate Director, Advisory
Ilmar Mutli, Associate Director, Advisory

Data and analytics is changing the business landscape, but it is also transforming sport.

Ask any professional athlete and they will tell you decisions around the frequency and intensity of their training and the analysis of their game-day performance is now all based on data. ‘Wearable technology’ and ‘quantified self-movement’ have now become a major industry that a host of global sporting and technology brands are ‘betting the house on’. And with the value of the global wearable technology market expected to grow to $16.1bn* in 2015 there is a lot to gain for both sportspeople and business alike. Even my 9 year old daughter is hoping for a Fitbit for her birthday next month.

Of course, your favourite athletes are using technology that is far more sophisticated than wristband technology purchased at the local sports retailer. Much of the technology used by athletes and sporting teams does not come from brands with household names.

You may have seen athletes wearing a Catapult vest when training. This Australian based company, Catapult Sports is providing high-end wearable technology to athletes and sporting clubs around the globe. Their vest has a small device at the top of the back to capture data (up to 1,000 data points per sec and over 260 parameters). The data is gathered in real-time, showing where the athlete is on the outdoor field (or indoor court) using satellite technology (GPS plus Glonass), plus local positioning systems (LPS). The device has the ability to track a players every move via nodes: small, portable wireless devices that act as satellite touch points, constantly sending and receiving signals.

Gathering the data is one thing, but the real benefits come from the analysis. Data is analysed with a suite of algorithms developed across different sports to explain and assess what just occurred with the athlete’s movement. One such cricket specific algorithm accurately measures the speed of a ball based on a bowler’s run up. Valuable information to have if you are coaching or about bat against the Australian cricket team.

But data and analytics is also used by sporting teams to help prevent injury.  Injuries cost money as they translate into wins and losses which then affects the bottom line.

Many sporting teams are now using data and analytics, gathered through wearable devises to understand how an athlete may get injured before it actually happens. Combining data from training together with medical data, wellness data, and match data can over time provide clear patterns and early warning signs may start to emerge. These insights allows the coach to modify a players training program, reduce their game time or even rest players from a match/game, all to reduce the chance of injury.

This powerful set of data and analytics has the potential to extend a player’s career, but it can also reveal hidden physical problems and also shorten a player’s career.

As I look towards 2020, I predict a growth across two areas of technology in sport, wearables and indigestibles; stick or swallow.

The first is the growth of wearables that attach like an electronic skin – think of it as a cross between a tattoo and a Band-Aid. One example, Biostamp, developed by MC10 is generating interest among athletes and top end sportspeople. Biostamp is built out of stretchable circuits supported by an extremely thin sheet of rubber. Sensors, still at various stages of development, monitor exposure to UV light, check pulse, blood oxygen levels, changes in blood pressure, analyse sweat and obtain signals to measure electrical activities of the brain and activities of the heart. It’s not big step to see athletes wearing these ‘electronic skins’.

Another growth area is indigestibles. A tablet sized sensor you swallow provides live readings of what’s going on within the body. It stays in the body for 24-36 hours before discharging. You could imagine why sports scientists and data scientists would love to have such data to analyse how a player’s body is holding up during and after a game.

So whether you stick, wear or swallow your technology the data will only ever be as good as the analysis and this is where the coach’s ability comes into play. But I’ll save that one for next week.

This blog is the first in a series on Data and Analytics in Sport

*Visiongain global wearable technology market report, July 2015

4 thoughts on “Stick, wear or swallow? Data collection in sport is close to the skin

  1. Great article, thank you for sharing this. It’s worth also mentioning the rise of the sport video analysis, such as player tracking in NBA. Companies like SportVU are able to track the ball and the player movement during training and games and provide advanced metrics on individual players, player separation and ball possession. They can even measure, to a very high level of precision, the speed of the ball moving through the air and as well as the angle of a throw/pass. I’m keen to see how teams will to incorporate wearable technology with the video analysis in the future.

    1. Thanks Stas. Great points about the NBA and SportVU. This is an excellent example of taking data and analytics to the next level. The data is now becoming a valuable asset to the NBA as they are releasing some of this data to the public to provide an improved viewing experience and satisfy their insatiable data appetite.

  2. Ilmar, this is a really interesting article. I am a middle/long-distance runner and member of an athletics club. Within my club there are some runners who have all the latest gadgets and track metrics on every kilometre, while others don’t even wear a watch and go by feel. I lean more towards the latter end of this spectrum, as I don’t want to obsess over the numbers – I like that every run is different, be it because of the weather, the people I’m running with or the particular path I take. I do get injured frequently though, and I’m curious to think that science may allow us to predict and prevent sports injuries in the future. To me, this kind of breakthrough would be a real game-changer. I think the potential benefits not only to sport as a whole, but to individual athletes long-term health present a compelling and disruptive case for further research. Looking forward to reading the next article in this series!

    1. Thanks Sarah. I was just speaking with an ex-High Performance Manger from a major sporting team earlier today, and he said that he could look at GPS data and immediately know who the player was. Point was that this data is very personalised with individual markers, almost like a fingerprint or medical record. On that basis very individual training (and injury prevention) programs can be developed.
      Next question then becomes, who owns that data, the athlete, the sporting club, or the sporting association? And how does this context change between official matches, training, to data captured during ‘non-official’ periods throughout the week or year?

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