Microchips the next big thing in sports technology

Dallas Morning News

Devin Harris says he was unfazed last season when he and his Mavericks teammates were asked to wear tracking devices during practices.

Nor was Harris surprised when the Mavericks became the only NBA team to implement Readiband sleep-monitoring watches.

“They just want to collect data,” Harris says with a shrug. “We’ve got a lot of stuff that we do that’s a little bit different, but if it helps us get better, I don’t think anyone will object to it.”

When your boss is tech innovator Mark Cuban and you play for probably the most cutting-edge team in America, sports science is ingrained in the culture and data collection is deemed essential to deriving a winning equation.

Therefore it is small wonder that the Mavericks have an athletic performance director, 34-year-old Jeremy Holsopple, who says, “We are constantly beta-testing several technologies.”

To Cuban, it’s just common sense. Amid a microchipped society that has transformed our phones into GPS navigators and motion sensors and enables us to find beloved lost pets, why wouldn’t sports teams tap science and technology’s ever-evolving possibilities?

Mavericks training camp begins in nine days. The team’s American Airlines Center basement practice court gleams in wait, thanks to a resurfacing and repainting.

Meanwhile, upstairs in the locker/weight room area, Holsopple is already tinkering in his makeshift laboratory.

This is the second season in which the Mavericks will utilize beeper-sized devices that were conceived by Australia-based Catapult Sports. The technology monitors and assesses players’ training loads, with a primary goal of limiting soft-tissue injuries — muscle, ligament and tendon.

The device emits and receives GPS and accelerometer signals, weighs about 1 ounce and is worn under practice jerseys, tucked into a pouch positioned near the top of the spine. The device emits real-time data on accelerations, decelerations, changes of direction and jumping (height and frequency).

Using the data, which Catapult calls “the world’s first bio-analytics platform,” sports teams monitor daily and weekly leg loads and adjust workouts accordingly. The data also helps quantify the progress of players who are rehabbing from injuries.

Catapult says its clients include about one-third of NBA teams and half of the NFL — including the Cowboys. Baylor and at least two other Texas schools that Catapult declines to name are among the company’s roughly 25 college football clients.

“Anything that makes us smarter about our players’ health is a win for us,” Cuban says. “Catapult certainly has helped.

“Data acquisition is critical to being proactive with every element of player health and performance, and Catapult is a key product for us in that area.”

How strongly does entrepreneur and Shark Tank personality Cuban feel about Catapult’s merits? In March, he purchased a minority share of the company and became an adviser, saying his dual purpose was to “make some money and beat somebody’s ass.”

So where does Cuban draw the line between maximizing his investment and preserving the Mavericks’ potential competitive edge?

“Winning comes first,” he says. “I’m here to answer questions for Catapult and give them guidance. But they know I’m not calling any other NBA teams to make introductions.”

Boost from Cuban

Actually, introductions no longer are needed for Catapult, in significant part because of Cuban signing on. Credit also Gary McCoy, Catapult’s 49-year-old senior applied sports scientist.

McCoy joined Catapult in March 2013. Like the company, McCoy is Australian, born in Melbourne, but he’s a dual citizen, having worked in the United States for two decades as a strength, conditioning and sports-performance specialist, primarily in Major League Baseball.

Catapult was founded by engineers Shaun Holthouse and Igor van de Griendt, who in the early 2000s collaborated on projects for the Australian Institute of Sports.

Since 2004, Catapult’s tracking devices have been used for training by teams throughout Australia and Europe, primarily in soccer, rugby and Australian football, but the company had failed to make inroads in the United States.

“They didn’t understand the culture of the high business of American sports,” says McCoy, who had finished the 2012 season as the Houston Astros’ strength and conditioning coach when Catapult began wooing him. “They didn’t understand why the $3 billion [valued] Dallas Cowboys wouldn’t share their information with the San Francisco 49ers to try to learn about the athletes.”

As of 2012, Catapult had one employee and a handful of clients in America, one of them being the Cowboys. Now the company has more than 70 American clients and seven employees, with plans to expand to 21 by year’s end.

The company recently moved its U.S. headquarters from Atlanta to Dallas, near American Airlines Center, but that was largely to have a more central base, not because Catapult’s clients also include the NBA champion Spurs and the Houston Rockets.

McCoy says that in 2012 and early 2013, Catapult’s U.S. sales were about $140,000. Since then, McCoy says, the company’s U.S. sales are approaching $5 million. McCoy says sales spiked when Cuban signed on, as did phone calls from venture capitalists and others wanting to invest.

“It’s almost like we got the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval in the American technology and sports worlds,” McCoy says, adding that Cuban’s “DNA is a perfect fit for this company.”

Trade secrets

During Cowboys training camp in Oxnard, Calif., reporters couldn’t help but notice the daily presence of Cowboys staffers sitting at tables, intently looking at laptops.

Inquiring minds connected the dots to Catapult. The company’s website, after all, lists the Cowboys among 12 NFL clients, although McCoy says several other teams are “private” clients who insist on anonymity.

Much like another listed Catapult client, the Spurs, the Cowboys politely decline interview requests about the subject. McCoy says that isn’t unusual, especially among NFL teams. Without naming names, McCoy shares a humorous anecdote that illustrates how sensitive Catapult’s data can be.

“We’re able to see ‘movement deficits’ on an athlete,” he says. “We had an NFL team last year that had a center that had 78 percent of his ability to move to his right — and only 22 percent to his left.

“What that created was the head coach immediately said, ‘[Expletive], no wonder he’s getting beaten on that side.’ This coach puts me in a headlock and holds me down and says, ‘If this ever gets out, we’re [expletive].’”

Careful not to divulge many specifics about Catapult’s work with the Cowboys, McCoy will say only that coach Jason Garrett is engaged in the technology and that director of football research Thomas Robinson and assistant strength and conditioning coach Brett Bech are among the NFL’s best at assembling and utilizing data.

And, McCoy says, because the Cowboys have been gathering data longer than most teams, they have a larger sample size and “are starting to put context around the data. The Cowboys are actually in a leadership position with this in the NFL.”

Catapult proudly depicts itself as “the most-used secret in sport,” but four months ago Florida State football coach Jimbo Fisher half-shouted to the world a rather eye-opening, detailed testimonial.

Fisher attributed much of the 2013 national champion Seminoles’ success to the program’s first year of using Catapult, citing an 88 percent drop in soft-tissue injuries. Fisher said it also indicated how far America is behind Australia and Europe in terms of sports science.

Baylor has demonstrated its commitment to sports science under Andrew Althoff, the school’s director of applied performance, working with the football and track teams.

Althoff says Baylor football coach Art Briles and staff use Catapult data to script practices, which “keeps the athletes fast and physical.”

Althoff says Baylor has identified the 48-hour windows pre- and post-competition as critical to optimizing team readiness.

“Catapult allows us to monitor volumes during practice and competition,” he says. “This data is then combined with our biometrics and self-reporting questionnaires, allowing us to modify and adapt our regeneration strategies during these [48-hour] windows of opportunity.”

Using the data

The Mavericks’ August 2013 hiring of Jeremy Holsopple carried no fanfare, and he was strictly behind the scenes last season, but Cuban says his presence was impactful.

A tight end at Kentucky, Holsopple’s path to sports science began with a back injury his senior season, leading him to join the training staff.

He worked at Ole Miss, then at Florida Atlantic, then spent a year in Germany with NFL Europe, but it was his 2009-13 stint as strength coach for Major League Soccer’s New York Red Bulls and information-gathering visits to European soccer clubs that enlightened him to how far behind major American sports were in sports science.

“In the U.S., we dominate in speed, power and athleticism,” he says. “But in terms of understanding training loads and how to work the energy systems of the body and making an athlete more durable and being able to take athleticism to a higher level, we’re just starting to learn a lot more.”

Two seasons ago, the Mavericks were among a handful of NBA teams to have Stats LLC technicians place SportVu cameras in the arena rafters to track player movement and generate comprehensive analytics.

Last season, the technology was installed in the remaining NBA arenas. Catapult’s wearable tracking devices aren’t approved for game use, so the SportVu technology is used to compile game data and Catapult’s for practice data.

Holsopple says that in many respects, the game and practice data have been apples to oranges. This NBA season, however, Stats LLC and Catapult will collaborate to make more of their data apples to apples.

The Mavericks, naturally, are one of only eight or nine teams that will have both technologies — and the combined data — at their disposal.

“The way I see this is as a five-year process,” Holsopple says. “My vision would be five years from now, you will see a faster, more demanding game.”

Meanwhile, as Cuban points out, technology will continue to evolve, probably quickly, which makes it only more imperative for the Mavericks to remain cutting edge — which the boss mandates will be the case.

“Jeremy’s job is to make our players better,” Cuban says. “That is a never-ending process. Not just for us as a team but for any product designed to improve the health and performance of players. It will always be an ongoing process.”