Sports Business Insider

Melbourne-based Catapult Sports has been at the forefront of sporting technology for some time, domestically and internationally, but this year they are set to up the ante once more with the introduction of world-first ball-tracking technology to the AFL in the NAB Cup.

Catapult has developed a range of technologies, most notably its cornerstone product, the MiniMax GPS tracking device, which is used to track athletic performance in the field. These devices track more than just heart rate and distance covered, but provide an immense amount of data from on-field performance which allows, when properly analysed, sports scientists and coaches to know exactly what the on field demands of every athlete in any sport, and how they could enhance their training to cater to each athlete’s specific needs, not only from sport to sport, but also from position to position within a sport.

The technology has been more than five years in the making, and represents the first wireless ball-tracking technology, which will also not rely on any video-based tracking technology.

The SmartBall, developed alongside Sherrin, works by corresponding with the GPS trackers worn by the players on the field of play, meaning that the ball does not need to carry a GPS device itself. Instead, the balls position is tracked in relation to the player or players it is closest to on the pitch. The chip sits inside the bladder in a protective skin and communicates with the GPS trackers worn by the players, and weighs only 15 grams due to the lack of an actual GPS transmitter, allowing Catapult to develop balls that comply with the AFL’s specified match ball range of 480-520 grams.

Currently, 17 of the 18 clubs in the AFL use Catapult’s products to measure and improve athletic performance of their players, but the development of the SmartBall will shift the focus from being strictly about the amount of effort a player is putting in to how effective they are on the field.

Catapult Sports business developer and 1991 Hawthorn Norm Smith medallist Paul Dear says the SmartBall technology would give coaches a clearer picture of how their players are performing, in relation to the ball, not only in terms of how they use it, but also how they win it back.

“There’s two aspects [to the analysis of a game],” Dear says.

“Looking at it from a sport science point of view, we can look at the work rate of every player in any of the three phases of a game, those being when the ball is in ‘our’ possession, when the ball is in ‘their’ possession and the ball is in dispute.

“Are they marking the ball at full speed? Are they kicking the ball at full speed? We can also look at the workload requirements of each player, length of kicks and all those sorts of statistics in terms of the ball that have been the missing link.”

The SmartBall technology will also allow clubs who use the data to render a 2D animation of the game, which will show coaches where their own structures are breaking down during a game, as well as analysing those of their opponents.

“Where we see the most exciting development in this technology, is that we will be able to reproduce a 2D animation of the game,” Dear says.

“As it stands, the tacticians of the game do extensive video analysis to try and get a 2D animation of certain plays or structures, but the SmartBall allows us to move the technology into a whole new area into the tactical side of the game and the educational side of the game.”

Dear believes that as AFL, and indeed most team sports, continue to become more structured, this sort of data will become invaluable to coaches and data analysts at clubs as they strive to perfect their existing systems, by allowing them to see a clearer picture of how a game has unfolded, pinpointing with greater precision than ever areas which need improvement, and focussing training on those areas.

The company has developed a smart ball for AFL, rugby league and rugby union, and is working on one for soccer.

Although the AFL has yet to give final clearance to the SmartBall for use in the NAB Cup, Dear stated that he was confident that clearance would be given in time for the use of the ball in this year’s edition of the pre-season tournament.


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