Will sports technology replace the coach?


New digital products and services that analyse athletic performance are launched every week. They claim to help athletes improve their performance, encourage them to train, and give advice on when and for how long they should recover. These issues have traditionally been the coaches’ responsibility. Will digital sports technology make coaches a thing of the past?

From measuring the pulse to analysing athletic performance

Wearable products connected to wellbeing and sports have been actively developed in recent years. Heart rate monitors have moved from being specialist equipment for top athletes to being supermarket products available to ordinary people; at the same time, heart rate analysis is used to gather an increasingly large variety of information to help understand athletes’ training and recovery. Activity bracelets assessing people’s movement, sleep and energy consumption have rapidly developed into popular products for the general public, similarly to heart rate monitors.

At the moment, wearable sports technology is focused on products that can be used to measure the technique of a specific athletic performance and its flawlessness. In Finland, solutions are being developed for analysing the technique of running, swimming and cross-country skiing, for example. With such products, the performance analysis is based on data on the athlete collected using a small, wireless sensor. As for the business aspects, these are based on analysing the data and offering services based on the analysis.

Sports technology provides information to support coaching

The goal of sports technology is to provide information based on which the athlete and the coach can analyse the performance from a neutral point of view, without personal preconceptions. In world-class sports, the decisive moment of victory or defeat often lasts only a fraction of a second. Technology can be a great help when studying what happens in the high jump at the moment of take-off or in archery right before releasing the arrow, for example.

In addition to the trained eye, video cameras have been traditionally used to analyse performance, and measurements have also been made in test laboratories at training centres. These remain important tools, but they are starting to feel inadequate compared to the possibilities offered by wearable technology. Laboratory measurements can provide accurate data on a performance, but they nevertheless do not correspond to the performance at a competition. Video analysis of a performance that lasts for less than a second can likewise take several hours  to carry out.

Feedback immediately after the performance

With wearable technology, the performance can be analysed in the field instead of a measurement laboratory. We are approaching a situation in which the athlete’s total performance during training and competition is digitised through wearable technology. This gives the athletes detailed feedback about their performance immediately. The key performance indicators are an essential part of the feedback, but the performance can also be compared to previous performances during training or competitions, or they can be visualised for the athlete with the help of augmented reality.

Data-based coaching offers better tools for the coach and the athlete, who can focus on fine-tuning the performance. Director of Technology & Innovation for the U.S. Olympic Committee Mounir Zok agrees. At a sports technology seminar in early July he proposed that the use of technology in world-class sports is a key method in improving results: “Technology is the new secret sauce that will make or break any athlete, anywhere in the world.”

Smart networked products, the Internet of things, and real time data analytics revolutionise sports

The development of wearable sports technology is also promoted by the arrival of smart products on the wellbeing and sports market. It is based on the Internet of Things (IoT): the rapid development of sensor technology, wireless communication, data processing and digital services makes it possible to measure different kinds of events and phenomena with inexpensive, easy-to-use technology.

In the end, competitive sports share something fundamental with industry: improving competitiveness. If IoT looks like a solution for improving the competitiveness of the industry, the same logic can certainly work for competitive sports.

Will technology make coaching and coaches obsolete? No. Technology visualises what has happened during the performance. The new technology offers a more comprehensive picture than before, and it helps with understanding the performance and how it went. However, the athlete and the coach must decide together what to do next. Better information helps with making better decisions.

Petteri Alahuhta, Business Development Manager

Twitter: @PetteriA

The author has been a member of the Finnish national archery team and is currently acting as the Chair of the Finnish Archery Association.

Sports technology grows rapidly – Finland is at the top of the field

The goal of sports technology is to offer athletes and coaches better tools for improving performances. The investments in sports technology by capital investors have increased strongly in recent years. For example, during 2015 capital investors invested more than a billion US dollars in startup companies in the field. This shows faith in the demand for products and services in the field.

Finland has been a pioneer of sports technology for years. Established operators in the market such as Polar and Suunto have been developing their products for decades. In recent years, several startup companies have also started to develop their solutions for the sports technology market. Finland has high-level competence in data analytics, embedded devices, and software and service development.

As technology developers are combined with world-class sports research, Finnish companies will continue to create interesting wearable technology solutions for sports in future.

See also:

Wearable technology – VTT’s services

Presentations of the Sports Analytics Seminar in June 2016

Information about HILLA Sports Technology Growth Mill seminar

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