Can wearables help athletes get closer to the Olympics?

Theme #3 for C-Prize 2017 is ‘Play Smarter’, so in this blog, we’ve looked at the devices that are already helping athletes to reach their goals.

What do you bring with you to the gym, or when you go out for a run? I think we’d all agree on comfortable clothes, a good pair of trainers, and a bottle of water. But would you also consider your smartwatch to be an essential bit of kit?

If so, you’re not alone. With more than 100 million wearable devices sold in 2016, the market is booming, and not just for gym-goers. As Dr Dianne Jones from Myovolt said, “Wearables offer endless possibilities for ordinary New Zealanders in the wellness, medical, sports performance and entertainment industries.” As we’ve explored in previous posts, wearables are already having an impact in the workplace, and they’re changing the way we manage our health and wellbeing. But in elite sports, wearables have long been a valuable tool for coaches, and an easy way for athletes to monitor their performance.

From a conductive fabric that provides electrocardiogram data for IndyCar driver Tony Kanaan, to an ongoing debate around biometric trackers in the NBA, wearables are making a lot of headlines today. And the reason for the sector’s surge was succinctly summed-up by NZ swimmer Laura Quilter, who said “When your wins and losses come down to hundredths of seconds it’s easy to see why technological innovation is important.”

Sports giant Reebok launched their concussion monitor cap, called Checklight, back in 2014. Designed to fit under a football player’s helmet, only a small LED protruded from the base. Green under normal conditions, the light turned yellow or red if the player experienced a stronger-than-normal impact, giving the coach a vital visual clue to their condition. There’s also Pomocup from Swiss start-up Gait Up. It allows skiers to measure data such as altitude, speed, glide, grip, and leg symmetry via a tiny, magnetic device, and wirelessly transmits it to the accompanying app.

Voice-activated smartglasses developed by Intel and Oakley can measure a runner or cyclist’s pace, and offer ‘virtual coaching’ in a multitude of languages. Wearables may soon come to cricket too, if Pakistani start-up CricFlex have anything to do with it. They’ve developed a sleeve to measure the angle of a bowler’s arm without restricting movement. A sports bra from OMsignal monitors the wearer’s breathing via sensors embedded in the fabric and an accelerometer that clips onto the band. The aim is to determine their anaerobic threshold – the point during exercise at which lactic acid starts to accumulate in the muscles. And NZ’s own StretchSense are developing soft, stretchy sensors that can be stitched into clothing to measure forces associates with body movement.

This obsession with gathering information is not new in sport – according to Stafford Murray, Innovation Manager at High Performance Sport New Zealand, Data collection and analysis has always been important for coaches and athletes – they want real-time, high-quality data. What’s changed is our ability to capture that information. It’s just so much easier now. Some of the most valuable information we have on our elite athletes comes from wearables they use while training. Almost all of them are now monitored throughout their day – everything from wellness metrics to their power output.”

VX Sport are just one company already operating in this space. Founded by engineer Richard Snow, their devices are now found on everyone from All Blacks players, to professional surfers. VX Sport are on the leading edge of sports wearables here in NZ, and their Sports Performance Director, Jamie Tout credits a lot of their success to our location, “Although NZ is geographically isolated, it’s what makes us innovative. We have limited exposure to the trends coming out of Europe or the US, so that means we lack any preconceived ideas about what’s ‘normal’ – we go out and do things differently.”

It was this uniquely-kiwi approach that tempted Stafford Murray away from Team GB, where he worked for twenty years. “Sport is incredibly important to New Zealanders – they are extremely passionate about it. And when I look at my team, including our engineers within Goldmine, and their technical director Dr Kerry Spackman, there’s no doubt that they are the best in the world in their field.”

But however impressive today’s devices are, there is no risk of them replacing a human coach – For me, sport science is a blend of objective data and the tacit knowledge of the coach,” said Stafford. “Data is a tool, which means that its effectiveness or performance impact relies on the coach or the athlete using it, or the scientist applying it.” It’s clear that Jamie is very much of the same mind, when he said, “Through technology, we’ve become very good at measuring stuff, but if we don’t use it properly, it can become clutter. I think with any new device, it’s not how sexy it looks, or how many functions it has, but what the output is. What’s the simplest thing we can do to enact the biggest change?”

With entries now closed for this year’s C-Prize, we’re looking forward to seeing the ingenious kiwi ideas that will help our future sports stars play smarter.