How Coaches Embrace IoT to Keep Athletes Healthy



  • While the initial reaction to “sports science” was skeptical, teams across the NBA, NHL, MLB and hundreds of universities are now embracing emerging data-based tools in the quest to build a better athlete
  • Coaches are exploring tech-driven enhancements to training, recovery time and injury prevention to give their teams an edge over the competition

Coaches and athletes are turning to technology to make training smarter, improve recovery time and, in some cases, prevent injuries altogether

As the recently departed head coach of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, Chip Kelly has heard more than a few people call him, well, more than a few things. And yet, during his 2013-2015 tenure with the team, the fans likely never spit out the words some other coaches were snarling behind his back: sports science. “The violent reaction to it happened over the past two to three years,” says Kevin Davidowicz, co-founder of CoachMePlus. “Chip Kelly was the first to bring sports science into the NFL, and everybody watched that with very skeptical eyes. There’s a lot of positives and negatives to the program that he ran, but in the three years since he did that, we’ve watched teams go from ‘We’re not going to touch that’ to ‘We’re experimenting.’” And the NFL was among the last to the party. Teams across the NBA, NHL, MLB and hundreds of universities have already embraced a wide variety of emerging data-based technologies in the quest to build a better athlete. Teams with smaller rosters have been quicker to adapt because they face a less costly gamble with a squad of 15 players than with, say, an NFL roster of 53. But all across elite sports, coaches and athletes alike agree that when their players can stay healthier than others, their team wins. That makes tech-based enhancements to training, recovery time and injury prevention a trend they cannot afford to ignore.

During the past few years, Davidowicz and others say an explosion of wearable devices and tech-based ideas has transformed the sports science space. Just as the Fitbit has evolved from counting daily steps to analyzing nutrition and sleep patterns, the wearable gear, sensors and tools that elite athletes use are part of a constantly improving world of devices and information. Big Data, the Internet of Things, cloud computing, machine learning—all of them are now shaping the performance and destiny of athletes, coaches and teams. CoachMePlus, one of the many players in this field, works with teams to analyze their athletes’ performance and recommend enhancements. To keep coaches informed when players are dehydrated, for example, CoachMePlus collects diagnostic data and delivers the results via smartphone alerts, printed reports and, in the case of the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, video monitors in the clubhouse. “If I have 90 guys in training camp,” Davidowicz says, “I need to know which five guys are in danger out there so I can intervene.” Travis McDonough, CEO of Kinduct Technologies, is also in the business of predictive analytics. Sorting through different data sets, medical records, live statistical feeds, functional movement screens and athlete questionnaires, most of which offer only apples to oranges comparisons, don’t offer coaches or players enough actionable information. “Who cares how many steps I took or what my heart rate was? What we’re trying to do is say that because you took this number of steps yesterday, this is the workout program you need to do today, this is what you need to eat, this is a road map for individuals to execute a better plan.”

Those plans can emerge in surprising ways once compatible data sets are fully analyzed. Kinduct Technologies worked with the NBA to gather information from SportVU tracking cameras, which captured 25 data points every second during games for every NBA player on every NBA team. “We found a statistically significant correlation between sleep scores below a certain level and a reduction in free-throw percentage, not just the next day but two days later,” says McDonough. “That has a huge impact on travel schedules, sleep programs and on making sure you get the athlete to bed at the right time. No one would have known that unless we pulled the data into one spot.” The types of data available are multiplying and evolving rapidly. Kevin Kramer, owner of U.S. Cryotherapy, builds chambers where injured athletes spend three minutes as the temperature drops to 166 degrees below zero—beyond what you would get in a walk-in freezer. The full-body cold shock that results is like a localized ice pack on steroids, reaching through the entire central nervous system to reduce inflammation and ease pain. Safely achieving the most effective temperature drops at the body’s core requires a highly sensitive monitoring interface because every body differs in mass, vascularity and other qualities. Like virtually every other new sports technology, that interface relies on and produces data. Everyone—coaches, athletes and data-analytics companies alike— are trying to figure out who will own and have access to all that data because they realize it may soon be able to predict whether an elite athlete will have a good or bad day, or a good or bad year. “We see it now in the off-season,” Davidowicz says. “There’s a group in Toronto, 30 guys in the NHL, who are all tracking their own stuff. They want to be ready for that next contract. That level of care and monitoring is only going to translate into wanting more and more information.” McDonough says Kinduct Technology has moved beyond making deals with teams to dealing directly with player associations, because the athletes realize how important their individual data will be. Most want to share it with trainers and coaches to improve execution, but they don’t want managers and team owners using that same data against them during off-season negotiations. “Is the power of the data going to be vested in the league or with the player?” McDonough asks. “I personally think over the next two years, you’re going to see a significant shift to player ownership of their data, under lock and key.” The reasons go beyond privacy. Sports science information could become, for some elite athletes, what video games like the Madden NFL franchise has been to the iconic football broadcaster: a multibillion-dollar asset. “If the best basketball, baseball or football player chooses to put on a wearable and share the data not just with their coach but on NBC or one of the big outlets and put the data on the air to monetize it, then it’s not just player health, it’s also player wealth,” McDonough says. “A guy at home who is an aspiring player can compare his fitness tests to Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton’s, or whoever it might be. Then he wants to press a button and get a program that gets him as fit as that athlete. That’s where it’s going.”


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