Sports Business Insider

If you did not know it was there, you would probably walk right past the innocuous looking office tucked into a quiet corner of South Melbourne next to a bustling cafe. That little office however, is home to the global headquarters of Catapult Sports, one of the world’s leading innovators and developers of elite sports technology.

The brainchild of Shaun Holthouse and Igor van de Griendt, Catapult Sports has changed the way that a number of leading sporting clubs and institutions think about the way they measure, and in turn enhance, the performance of their athletes, and are true innovators in their field. They were the first to add inertial sensors to tracking devices, the first to use ball tracking, the first to use inertial navigation systems.

Though Catapult was established in 2006, its story starts in the late 1990s, when Holthouse and van de Griendt were chosen to lead a team of 100 researchers with a focus on the emerging field of micro-technology.

Under the governments Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) programme, which was set up to enhance industrial, commercial and economic growth through high level research to deliver quality outcomes in terms of technology adoption and commercialisation, Holthouse and van de Griendt, as well as their team, worked with a number of industry partners, such as Motorola.

Catapult Sports’ Global Manager, Luke Millar, explained how Holthouse and van de Griendt’s work lead to the establishment of Catapult, the services it provides, and its goals for the future.

“One of their projects was with the AIS,” Millar said. “The AIS wanted to take testing out of the lab and into the field.

“Obviously, if you take an athlete out of the field and into a lab, you get a change in environment, a change in behaviour, which changes the outcomes of your testing.”

Holthouse, van de Griendt and their team responded to the challenge by developing easily wearable, robust GPS devices, which would eventually be known as the Minimax, Catapult’s cornerstone product, which could be used to track athletic performance in the field. These devices tracked more than just heart rate and distant covered, but provided an immense amount of data from on-field performance that allowed, 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 success of the technology in the lead up to the 2004 Athens Olympics meant that the government felt that there was an opportunity to commercialize these sorts of products and technologies.

“Shaun and Igor were given a grant by the Australian government in order to build Catapult Sports, which was built around this product, called the Minmax,” said Millar.

“They set up Catapult Sports at the end of 2006, and started off with the AFL market, quite a wealthy league with teams that had quite large sports science teams that had a real big appetite for GPS.

“At the time, most AFL teams were using a different product, but now 16 out of 18 teams are Catapult clients.”

The AFL provided the perfect landing pad for Catapult Sports, but it didn’t take long for company to launch themselves into the global market. Given the companies successes with the AIS and then in the AFL market, Catapult’s marketing strategies rely exclusively on word-of-mouth.

“All of our marketing is done by word of mouth,” Millar said.

“It’s quite a niche industry, the elite sports industry, and if we get a good customer and take good care of them, they tell other professionals, and of course, there are always people in these industries moving between sports and clubs, which also helps spread the word.”

That word has spread far and wide, and today, Catapult Sports’ list of clients reads something like a who’s who of elite sports.

“After expanding within the local market to include NRL clubs, we moved into football with the English Premier League,” said Millar.

“We have almost half the English Premier League now, as well as clubs in other parts of Europe, and we’re also in the U.S, where we have about six NBA teams and four NFL teams, as well as over a dozen colleges.

“To top it all off, we’ve moved into South America now, and we’ve recently been working with the Colombian national football side, as well as some other teams down there.

“We’re well and truly global now, we’ve set up a US office, and we’re in the process of setting up a European head office based out of London.

“The main product is the Minimax, but we’ve also got a smaller product now that takes the GPS out of it, and they are the two main hardware platforms.”

Catapult do a lot more than supply the hardware, and they are also tasked with helping the clubs analyse the data that their hardware produces, so that coaches and other sports staff within a club can better understand just what the data is telling them, so that they can then go and specifically alter their training methods be that with the team as whole and their tactical preparation for a game, or right down to the individual.

“We produce a lot of data,” Millar said.

“A lot of the work with this technology is not so much with the hardware, but with the analysis of the data that hardware produces, so we try and help clubs understand what aspects of the data and its analysis will help improve athletic performance.

“The clubs have their own sports scientists, who are doing a range of different things with that data for the day-to-day running of their teams.

“The clubs usually don’t have the resources to do highly analytical tasks, however, so they need the data provided to them in as meaningful a way as possible so that they can draw conclusions, so we help them out as much as we can.

“Of course we have other clients who might be research institutes that don’t need us to do as much analysis, or clubs who wants to do their own analysis on the data that our hardware produces, but our typical customer would like the data presented to them in a way that they can easily draw conclusions from.”

Catapult believe that the deliverance of this technology has forced plenty of clubs and institutions to change the way that they think and the way they train and prepare their athletes for matches, and Millar suggested that the emergence of technology which enables the measurement of athletic performance has driven that change.

“Training has changed over the years with the introduction of certain technology,” said Millar.

“You go back to a certain time when clubs were training people based on how long a session went for, and maybe two hours was seen as the optimum amount of time for a good session.

“Then heart-rate [measurement] came along and then training was aimed at keeping the players’ heart-rates at a certain level for a certain period of time, before they realized that was only part of the picture.

“Then GPS was introduced and we started measuring how far people were running in a session, but now we’re not just looking at distance, but also velocity, acceleration, deceleration and now we’re looking at inertial sensors, so non-GPS type data, where we’ve got accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers in our device so that now we can pick up all the movements of the body.

“So now it’s not just about how far players are running and at what speeds for what times, but all these other efforts; jumps, changes of directions, lunges, all of which also fatigue a player.

“We’re constantly evolving.”

And it’s not set to stop anytime soon. Already Catapult are looking at ways of enhancing their technology to relay more tactical information about a game as it unfolds for coaches, which will include using ball tracking devices, which Catapult hopes to launch in the AFL next season.

“We’ve traditionally been all about the conditioning side of things, so thinking about how we can make the players fitter,” Millar explained.

“Our technology is now evolving into the tactical side of things, with ball tracking to be launched next season.

“You’ll be able to see which players are on the ball, pass chains, which players are running further and working harder to get the ball, how your team behaves with the ball as opposed to how they behave without it.”

Catapult is waiting for the AFL to approve the use of ball tracking sensors with testing underway, but should that approval be given, these sensors will be capable of identifying which player is in possession of the ball, giving coaches a much better understanding of how the game is unfolding, and how effectively each member of the team is performing their own roles in real time.

There is plenty more innovation to come too, and there is plenty of demand for it. NBA clubs, for instance, are hungry for more data as they seek to learn more about how their athletes jump, the heights that they hit and how frequently they do it, meaning Catapult are always looking for ways to take the next step in improving the capabilities of coaches to improve their elite athletes.

This has ensured that, for now, Catapult’s focus remains on the elite market, but they’re not ruling out eventually moving into a more mainstream market.

“It’s always possible [to move into the mainstream consumer market], but it’s not our focus at the moment,” said Millar.

“We’ve got so much we want to do with elite sport, and we’re really focussing all our resources on reaching our full potential in that field.

“We’re only at the tip of the iceberg.”

From humble beginnings, to a world innovator, Catapult Sports is a great story about an Australian company becoming a global leader in its field. With a clientele that includes almost every single AFL club, global powerhouses such as Liverpool Football Club, national sports associations like Cricket Australia and many more, it is fair to say that Catapult has well and truly captured the attention of its niche market.

Five ways that Catapult Sports are revolutionising sport:

Ball tracking technology – Understanding that in any given team sport the ball is the focus, Catapult has developed SmartBall ball tracking technology that understands the characteristics of the movements around the ball. This can be beneficial in terms of conditioning, where team behaviour with and without the ball can be measured, and in a tactical sense, where coaches are better able to diagram team movement by using hotspot plots to gauge how the team is using the ball.

Helping coaches make training meet game demands – By measuring physical characteristics of every player’s movement within a game situation, training programs can be individualised for each player to make training more relevant. Traditionally AFL players were sent out on 10km runs to improve fitness, but Catapult’s technology breaks down the demands of the game to help training requirements have players ready for competition.

Making better use of training time – There has always been somewhat of a conflict between the coaching staff and the conditioning staff in balancing the time allocated towards skill development and fitness testing. By being able to measure workrate and intensity during skill-related drills, the conditioning staff are able to monitor player development and fitness levels without cutting into valuable time improving skills and working on team tactics.

Periodisation – Managing fatigue levels in order to improve overall fitness and reach your peak at the right time has always been something fitness staff are aware of and work towards, but there has never been a tool to actually measure your progress to ensure players are following the periodisation model. It is one thing to plan for it, quite another to being able to measure it.

Rehabilitation – One of the most important aspects of elite sport is the ability to rehabilitate injured players and ensure they don’t re-injure themselves in getting back to competition too quickly. Conditioning staff can accurately plan and measure velocities of injured players to make sure they are not overloading and pushing themselves too hard, as well as providing measurable goals to have your players back in competition as soon as possible.


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