Artificial intelligence and big data analysis are boosting the performances of top athletes, but are they creating a sport-tech arms race?
Watching elite athletes run, leap and score, it’s hard to imagine there’s much room for improvement, but the Internet of Things, Big Data and virtual reality are shaving milliseconds from sprinters, extending the jumps of Olympians – and helping your favourite striker put the ball in the net.
That’s before bionics change sports forever, with predictions that the sprinters at the next summer Olympics could be outperformed by an athlete at the Paralympics. It all starts with data collection, which shouldn’t be a shock. The film Moneyball was based on the true story of Oakland Athletics’ team manager outwitting rivals with data science – and that was in 2002. Fast forward to 2018 and the combination of always-on sensors and connectivity takes the idea several leaps forward.
“The big initial change was testing work rate through GPS tracking,” said Rebecca Hopkins, CEO of the Sports Technology Awards. It started with companies such as Catapult Sports, an Australian startup that began tracking athletes with GPS in 2006. This took training research out of laboratories and onto the field – in this case, the fields of the Australian Football League, although the technology is now used by the NBA, NFL and many more.
Today, ever more accurate sensors are worn by athletes at all levels, from couch-to-5K amateurs to marathon runners. “This evolved into recording aspects of health and performance such as hydration, recovery, sleep levels, jump capability, hit force and so on,” noted Hopkins. “This is used to make decisions such as how to avoid injury, understand the best times to make substitutions and how to structure individual training.”
Training isn’t all about timing the body – it’s about teaching athletes the best way to react in specific situations as well as learn from their mistakes. Coaches have long shown players the video of a match to highlight mistakes or learn how an opponent operates. That’s now done in much more detail thanks to 360-degree video and VR.