Watching professional sports is a classic pastime—most of us love to gather together and enjoy ourselves while united behind our favorite teams. Unfortunately, there is a major problem with the current state of sports worldwide: player injuries. Obviously, this is an issue for the players themselves, but it’s a problem for the industry as well: Fast Company reports that Major League Baseball spent $665 million in 2013 on the salaries of injured players and their replacements, while the NBA lost $358 million during that same timeframe. Adam Hewitt of Peak Performance Project (P3) calls it “the largest market inefficiency in pro sports.” The players’ outlook is grim: as far back as 1990, a study found that two-thirds of retired NFL players suffered from permanent sports-related injuries. Things haven’t changed much as 87 of 91 former NFL players’ brains studied showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is a degenerative disease that is associated with repetitive brain trauma.
Solving this problem is not simple, but there are some glimmers of hope, thanks to new wearable technology that can track the players’ well-being during a game and help predict and prevent player injuries. Wearables are being used to track everything from body chemistry and heart rates to collect data for analysis. This is helpful for coaches who want to improve their team’s overall performance, but the data can also potentially be used to help reduce player injuries.
Injuries are predictable
Kitman Labs was built on the premise that injuries are not random, but could instead be predicted using data collected by wearables. Wired quotes Stephen Smith, CEO of Kitman Labs: “Essentially we’ve built the operating systems for sports.” They noticed that some teams were losing much more money than others, and hypothesized that real-time data might be able to give coaches insights on which players should be switched out during the game to avoid injury.
Kitman Labs did encounter a few obstacles in this process: getting teams to start collecting data, and how to present it to the coaches to prevent the issue of information overload. Sending raw data that would need to be analyzed to the coaches wouldn’t work, so they created a smartphone interface that would do the work for them so they could focus on their players. Kitman has certainly been able to show the value of their technology. During a three-year trial working with the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants, there was a 30 percent reduction in player injuries. Coaches can detect fatigue and other metrics, allowing them to switch out players when needed or discuss their conditions with doctors proactively.
Types of wearables used
Several companies are making devices that are already being used by many different teams. Catapult is an Australian company manufacturing one of the most popular sports wearables on the market. The device can track over 100 metrics and is worn by over 9500 elite athletes in 35 countries. Catapult can even track whether a player is leaning to one side or another, or favoring one side of the body. The NBA Raptors are evidence of the device’s success: before using Catapult, the team were among the most injured teams in the NBA, but after bringing the technology into their training, they were among the least injured teams in the 2013-2014 season.
Other wearables being used in professional sports include bio-harnesses and trauma-monitoring stickers manufactured by Zephyr Technology Corp, smart garments (with integrated sensors in the fabric), and the ViperPod, which collects and stores data for later analysis. These are just a few of the devices being used to increase player safety—coaches can use the data to change training routines or have players start proactive therapy.
The future of wearable tech in sports
Overall, the future of wearable tech in sports looks very bright. Already, teams are noticing big reductions in injuries, and tech companies are investing heavily in creating new technology. Developers are focusing on integrated, customizable technology and smart fabrics to make wearable technology even easier to use and more relevant to sports teams’ needs. Some owners have expressed concerns that there could be a problem with data security down the road and that sports officials could make decisions about players based on the data alone. This is a higher level conversation that could potentially be solved with encryption of the wearable devices. Overall, predictive analytics and wearables are a step in the right direction for helping players stay healthier and teams stay more efficient.