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Wearable Technology

GPS Wearable Technology in the NCAA

When I was playing college soccer at Georgetown 12 years ago, there wasn’t one team in the country using GPS wearable technology. 7 years ago, while I was working at IMG Academy in Bradenton, FL, the performance coaches had just started to experiment with wearables. Today, having worked at Catapult Sports for the last 4 years, I have found just about every single professional team use some form of GPS technology across the NFL, MLS, NBA, and NHL. While the majority of teams in college football and soccer use it as well, and a healthy percentage of teams in college basketball, field hockey, lacrosse, volleyball and ice hockey.

So, why are all these athletes wearing sports bras that hold these blinking devices between their shoulder blades? How does this technology help athletic performance and why do coaches care about this data?

The GPS device is secured with a compression-fitting device in between the athlete’s shoulder blades.

In this piece, I’ll talk about the evolution of GPS wearable technology specifically within the NCAA landscape and how it has become such a central piece to athletic performance.

What does GPS wearable technology do and how can it improve athletic performance?

If you don’t know what the specific physical demands are in your competitions, it’s impossible to optimize your training to prepare for those demands.

Athlete monitoring allows coaches to effectively measure the volume and intensity of their athlete’s training and competitions with an actual measuring stick to reduce soft tissue injuries, optimize performance and develop more robust return to play protocols. The ancillary benefits of using a GPS system allow coaches to use the data as a communication tool, as well as a recruiting tool reflecting the coaching staff’s commitment to student-athlete wellness, and ultimately instilling a level of professionalism within the team.

Where did wearable technology come from and who were the early adopters?

In what now is a very saturated marketplace, there were a few companies that were first to the table with GPS wearable technology, starting with Catapult. The Australian government decided to invest in the newly created Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) after a poor performance in the 1976 Olympic games.

Shaun Holthouse and Igor van de Griendt, eventual Catapult founders, began a project with the AIS in 1999. Taking a unique approach to evidence-based science improving sport, they began to measure all facets of athlete performance. Wearable sensors were then created to make science more accessible to athletes, and more routinely deployable across training and match situations. They were implemented for the 2004 Athens games, and then Catapult was born in late 2006.

Aussie Rules Football began using the sensors before the technology expanded globally to rugby, soccer and American Football in the following years.

How has it been adopted in the NCAA?

Inevitably this technology made its way over to the United States around 2012 as performance coaches started adopting it in their training. Florida State Women’s Soccer was one of the first Catapult NCAA clients, using the GK devices on a couple of their goalies. Jimbo Fisher, the Head Coach of Florida State’s football team at the time saw an antenna on the field at a Women’s Soccer practice. After doing a quick investigation of the tech, he started using it with his own team.

Florida State Women’s Soccer were one of the first NCAA Olympic teams to begin using GPS wearable technology. Here, they celebrate their 2018 NCAA Division 1 Women’s Soccer National Championship.

GPS tech quickly spread to football teams in the SEC Conference and then to the other Power 5 conferences. In a press conference after Alabama’s 24-7 win in the 2016-17 Peach Bowl, Nick Saban, the Head Coach of Alabama, went on record saying how much Catapult helped with their conditioning. Today, every single SEC Conference football team, but one, uses Catapult technology. Many athletic departments have taken a wholistic approach, doing multi-sport agreements, enabling cross sport communication between performance coaches.

“We use the Catapult system that gives us a scientific picture of where players are. After the season we did a total analysis of how we went through the season from a physical standpoint. We made some changes on how we practiced and how we monitored this systematically through the season … That has helped us manage our way through and keep our team a little more physically fresh.”

Nick Saban, Head Coach Alabama Football

Today, this technology has trickled down beyond D2 and D3, into high school programs and even youth academies. The largest growth of wearable technology in the college space in recent years has been in the mid-major/FCS level of the NCAA.

What do you need to look for in a GPS wearable system?

The Catapult Vector system includes the pod itself, a vest, a charging case and dock, and a live receiver.
  1. Reliability – Even on the cheaper side of the market, wearable tech is still a significant investment and therefore making sure the technology has been validated (white papers, etc) in its measuring accuracy is critical.
  2. Functionality – Depending on training environment and what the coaching staff values, there are a few features that you will want to vet out:
    • Live capability – If looking at information live is important, you want to make sure the system has that capability (some do, many do not). Live tracking is good for return-to-play and rehabilitation protocols as well as in-game decision making.
    • Indoor and Outdoor functionality.
    • Dual external & internal tracking capability (i.e. heart rate functionality)
  3. Support – GPS wearable companies have a wide range of sizes. Some are equipped to provide meaningful support while others only have a handful of employees. Every team is unique in their personnel structure, but for many, having sport science support is essential in making actionable insights from the data.

What is the next wave of innovation in the GPS wearable space?

Catapult acquired SBG, a video analysis software company for $40m in the Summer of 2021 to help enhance the integration of wearables and video.

While half of Catapult’s business is built around GPS wearable technology, the other half is built around video editing software. This past summer Catapult acquired a company called SBG, a UK-based video company that specializes in Formula 1 motorsport and elite soccer video solutions. The acquisition was a strategic one, as the SBG software has enabled Catapult to accelerate their ability to integrate wearable metrics onto video, allowing coaches to get more visual context to the physical data. With the wearable technology, you may know that your center forward made 40 high velocity sprints during the match, but now with this wearable-video integration, you see exactly when those 40 high velocity sprints happen and what has happening in the match. With the performance data married to the tactical information, the technology’s value has grown exponentially and has become more digestible to your average coach.

FitBit on Steriods – Wearable Technology in Elite Sport

Technology. It’s a word that seems to be a buzz word through virtually all sectors of business in today’s day in age. It’s a word that has plenty of connotations associated with it, some positive and others not quite as much: intimidating, sophisticated, futuristic, automated, efficient … the list goes on and on. Look at the biggest, most popular companies today, Salesforce, Amazon, Facebook, Apple … they all center around technology. Tech start-ups have become synonymous with the Millennial generation.

TechCompanies
Technology companies like Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Salesforce represent the most popular sector of business within the millennial generation.

When I chose to dive into the world of sport technology just less than a year ago I wasn’t exactly sure what I was getting into. When I interned at Nike in 2010, there was lots of chatter about their new Nike Running Club App as well as their Nike Spark System that measured athleticism. When I got my Sports Management Master’s Degree from Georgetown in 2012, there was excitement around fan engagement & fan experience apps while creating digital marketing platforms. During my time down at IMG Academy from 2012-2015, it was all about innovative equipment that facilitated rehab and training, like the AlterG (anti-gravity) treadmill and their hyperbaric chamber oxygen therapy.

Today, we have more technology available to us than ever before. In the World Cup right now, you see goal-line technologies, and in-game sports-analytics companies like OptaPro that are changing the face of scouting analysis. With the prevalence of technology in sport being greater than it’s ever been before, one sector of sports technology that is growing as fast as any other is wearable tracking technology.

Think FitBit on steroids … designed for professional and elite collegiate athletes. These GPS wearables are no bigger than a watch, are lightweight and positioned in a compression fitting sport vest garment between the athletes’ shoulder-blades, out of the way of any meaningful contact.

The technology gained it’s first meaningful traction down under in Australia where the Australian Institute of Sport poured lots of money and resources into the technology specifically within their Aussie Rules Football leagues.

AusieRuleRugby
Catapult was one of the first wearable companies in the space with Aussie Rules Football 

The first company of its kind was born in 2006 with Catapult Sports. Expanding beyond rugby, to soccer, to American Football, the technology spread quickly thereafter to other sports like hockey, basketball, lacrosse, field hockey, volleyball, and even baseball. Today there are over a dozen companies that produce this technology with companies like STAT Sports, Polar, Zephyr, VX Sport, First Beat, Titan and several others.

SportsGPSCompanies
Companies like Catapult, VX Sport, Stat Sports and Polar all represent various GPS tracking technology companies within sport … and yet all products do slightly different things. 

In all 5 of the US’s professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and MLS), this technology has become prominently worn by the vast majority of teams. At the power 5 collegiate level, the majority of colleges and universities are doing something with this technology, at least within their football, basketball and soccer programs. Today, a trickle down effect has started to occur where mid-major D1, D2, D3 colleges, high schools and even youth sports academies are beginning to utilize these devices.

As this technology has grown, there has been a distinction of products; some of which track internal metrics (like heart rate, heart rate variability, VO2 max, calories and sleep quality), while others focus on external movement metrics (distance covered, top speed, playerload, collisions, and jumps), and some other products can do a combination of both. As this data has become available to coaching staffs, we’ve seen the birth of a new field of sport science.

With this technology, coaches, strength coaches, and athletic trainers are all becoming more intelligent about their athletes.

IMG_1221-620x413
A performance analyst for the Seattle Sounders (MLS), Ravi Ramineni, looks at live wearable tracking data during a Sounders practice. Wearable tracking technology has become the standard in Major League Soccer as well as most top international soccer leagues. 

They’re able to quantify the workloads of their athletes to a much more scientific degree and consequently are able to better understand whether or not they’re over or under working their athletes. When you’re able to understand the demands of a game, and develop benchmarks for certain positions and even individual athletes, coaches can design and optimize training more efficiently. With the periodization (or systematized structuring of practice workload), coaches and performance coaches can start to limit soft tissue injuries and increase the wellness and longevity of their athletes’. Athletic trainers can additionally structure return-to-play protocols as injured athletes return from inevitable injuries.

No longer is wearable tracking technology a well-kept, secretive trend; but rather, this has become the normative standard within elite sport. The inherent competitive advantages the data provides, has eliminated this as optional technology for those organizations with available budget. It is now all but required.

We’ve only just begun to see wearable technology’s pervasive proliferation.

 

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of solely the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of any company mentioned. 

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