How wearable tech is transforming team sports
3rd Aug 2016
At MBNA, we don’t have football skills. But our numbers knowledge is top of any league. So when we heard football teams, and other sports, are using data as part of their winning tactics through wearable tech, well, we just had to explore this further.
Wearables are currently used by a range of team sports, all the way from school clubs to professional level. And while their use may not have saturated sport just yet – only around 8% of elite teams currently use wearable technology – high profile teams have experienced success with the technology, most notably Premier League winners Leicester City FC. We take a look at how the sporting elite are using wearables to give themselves a performance advantage.
It can identify patterns in player performance
Wearables combine technologies such as GPS location, accelerometers and gyroscopes to capture and assess small movements during an athlete’s performance including position, direction and speed. Managers, coaches and athletes can then use these findings for anything from calorie intake and training levels, to in-game strategy.
Algorithms created using the data from these sensors show the impact a player’s movements have on their physical health, energy and performance levels. For example, by calculating the force and angle of a tackle, these algorithms can gauge – arguably more accurately than a coach’s intuition – whether a player needs to be benched to recover or prevent further injury.
This knowledge has its merits for player wellbeing, and could be one of the reasons behind Leicester City winning the Premier League last season. While reportedly using wearables, the team had one of the lowest injury levels all season and managed to keep their best players on the pitch.
It’s not just the number of injuries they experienced that’s important either, but the severity too. Despite Jamie Vardy sustaining several injuries over the course of the season, he started every Premier League game when eligible to play, compared to Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney, who missed 36%i of the season due to injury.
Given the average time players were sidelined for each injury over the season was 22 days,ii extending to 29 daysiii for goalkeepers, early detection and intervention of injuries is essential in preventing a major loss of match-fit players during the season.
Elite sports wearable technology company, Catapult, has created the device Optimeye, which records and transmits a player’s every movement including distance, velocity, change of direction, acceleration, deceleration, jumps, and heart rate. This information is crucial in identifying when players make certain movements that could put them at risk of a particular injury.
Coaches can devise better game plans
By identifying the strengths and weaknesses within the team, coaches can devise better game plans, moving players where and when they’re most effective according to an analysis of their wearable stats.
We spoke to Bill Gerard, data analyst at AZ Alkmaar in the Dutch Eredivisie, and Professor of business and sports analytics at Leeds University, for his opinion on the most important match performance aspects wearables provide data for.
“Probably the most revolutionary use [of wearables] to date has been using GPS data to influence the timing of replacements in rugby union, when there is a discernible drop off in distance covered and speed of players in the latter stages of games.”
In territorial sports, moving tactically on the pitch to mark players and create physical barriers which disrupt their opponents’ attempt at making a play, is just as important as direct ball contact. Data that reveals a reduction in performance in this area, such as speed or distance covered, could signal the need for a strategic substitution.
Noticing, and even predicting, when particular game-changing patterns in performance arise can give coaches the edge when it comes to their training and in-game strategy. As Bill explains: Ultimately, data analysis is all about finding patterns. In the tactical analysis of games, I am looking for patterns that differentiate winning and losing performances.”
Wearable data has the potential to expand
Right now, wearable data alone can only tell us so much about an athlete’s performance. However, Bill tells us that a combination of biometric data from wearables and video analysis, could be the future in identifying the tactical, as well as physical, performance that ultimately wins games.
“The teams doing the most effective data analytics adopt a holistic approach combining different types of data – tactical, physical and psychological data, game and training data, video-based and wearable data, internally-collected data and data acquired from commercial data providers.”
According to Bill, while teams are only starting down the road of integrated data analysis, he feels it’s ultimately where the biggest gains in team sports will emerge.
“Combining wearable and video-based data requires consistency across the two datasets of the time stamps and pitch location coordinates. Once this is done, then huge opportunities open up to do detailed analysis in the spatial aspects of the invasion-territorial team sports.”
Where creating and denying space is a key tactic in team sports, according to Bill: “Spatial analytics really is the next frontier in the use of wearable data. Using positioning data from wearables in the game context, by combining it with video-based data, will allow deeper investigation of the positioning decisions of players.
For example, one of the crucial aspects of play in football and rugby is the transition phase after a team loses possession, so how quickly can players get into the optimal defensive shape. GPS data can track how players have moved during the transition phase but video-based data is required to identify exactly where and when possession was lost, and to determine the optimal defensive shape based on the location of the ball and the opposition players.”
Are wearables the Holy Grail for elite sport?
Particularly in sports like football and rugby, opinion is divided over how much wearable data, as it currently is, can really tell us about the game and the individual performance of an athlete.
“There is a belief amongst some that the amount of high-intensity work, such as the total distance covered at sprint speeds, is a critical success factor in the invasion-territorial team sports,” says Bill. “I, however, remain more sceptical. Measuring high-intensity work is similar to measuring possession share. It’s not so much the quantity of possession that matters but rather the quality of what you do with the possession.
Equally, in terms of high-intensity work, a player who sprints more might be a poor decision maker who does not read the game well and has to sprint more to get into position belatedly.”
Since so much rides on these particular elements of the game, coaches will still have a job on their hands over what they choose to do with the data they glean from wearables. Bill warns: “As with so much performance analysis, careful interpretation of the data is crucial.”
While the role of wearables in team sports may be limited from a tactical perspective for now, their ability to monitor the different aspects of a player’s overall fitness can still have game-influencing, if not game-changing, consequences. And once combined with video analysis, wearable data may even begin to map out many of the secrets behind successful strategy.