Wearable technology will up the game for sports data analytics

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Wearable technology is a big industry thanks to the ‘quantified self’ movement. It’s now giving a boost to professional sports data analytics professionals

Imagine watching a game of football where both managers are making decisions on what substitutions to make and when, based on live data taken from players showing what their fatigue levels are like.

At the same time, satellite systems and tracking cameras fitted throughout the stadium stream real-time information to the dugout about what tactics the opposing team are using and what formation might best counter the opponent’s system of play.

It sounds like a utopian scenario for football managers, and their small but growing departments of sports data analytics professionals.

Suddenly the coaches no longer have to rely on gut instinct alone – they can have their thoughts substantiated by cold hard data that minimises the risk of their decision making. While it might sound a bit sci-fi it could soon become a reality thanks to the rapid evolution and adoption of wearable technology developed specifically for professional sports.

Wearable tech is already a massive global industry thanks to the "quantified self" movement – the push for "self-knowledge through self-tracking". This trend has spawned a raft of consumer targeted gadgets like Fitbit and Nike Fuelband, with sales of these devices soaring year on year.

According to Canalys, in the first quarter of 2014 2.7 million smartbands were sold and by 2017 this figure is anticipated to top the 45 million mark, with the total wearable tech market enjoying sales of 111.9 million units worldwide by 2018 [Source: IDC].

But where will be the biggest impact of wearable tech in professional sports and what are the main hurdles that stand in the way of widespread adoption?

Cottage industry

Although wearable tech is still in its infancy – especially when it comes to devices aimed at professional sports – it’s already spawned a healthy cottage industry of startup technology companies that have developed wearable devices that address all manner of different problems.

This is in addition to the global sports equipment giants who are starting to develop kit fitted with sensors that offer an insight into player performance – for instance, Adidas recently launched a range of different monitoring equipment, including a Smart Run smartband and a Smart Ball fitted with sensors for dead-ball training, under its miCoach brand.

However, the companies that are really leading the charge in this field are not household names. They are companies like Australia-based Catapult Sports. It provides two systems to professional sports teams, such as Aston Villa, Bayer Leverkusen and AC Milan: OptimEye S5, which uses satellite reception (both GPS and Glonass), and ClearSky, which is a local positioning system (or indoor GPS).

Both technologies involve players wearing a vest fitted with a small device at the top of the back to capture data, says Boden Westover, marketing manager at Catapult.

“The data is gathered either in real-time, where the athletes are on the field and the staff on the sidelines capture the data and then do their analysis; or post session, where the data is stored on the device’s internal hard drive and you upload everything to your computer after the training or game,” says Boden.

Once the data has been collected users can take advantage of Catapult’s suite of algorithms, which have been developed to accommodate a number of different sports, to measure what’s just occurred.

“The technology can pretty much measure anything you can think of,” says Westover. “We have algorithms to break down everything. Because the raw data collected on the device doesn’t really mean anything, it’s the firmware and the software, with its intelligent algorithms that help explain what a movement was.”

Player-monitoring algorithms