Sports, science and technology are converging at an all-time pace and eight NBA teams are experimenting with a new device designed to optimize and personalize training regiments, thus the ability to maximize performance and reduce injury.
The San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and New York Knicks, plus four other teams that have chosen to keep their identities secret, have invested in these complex GPS tracking devices created by the Australian company Catapult Sports, the self-professed leader in “athlete analytics.”
“We just want to be able to get smarter about our players and how to train them and how to put them in a position to succeed,” said Mavs owner Mark Cuban. “So that’s just one component of a lot of different things that we’re doing.”
The device, called OptimEye, is roughly the size of an oldfangled beeper and athletes wear it inside their jerseys on the upper back between the shoulder blades. The device records literally every movement the player makes, accurately measuring exertions such as distance, velocity, changes of direction, acceleration, deceleration, jumps, heart rate and more.
These physiological and physical performance parameters are then uploaded to a computer to be analyzed, allowing coaches, trainers and the players to understand their individual workload levels. These are conclusions that once could only be subjective, say, by reading a player’s body language, to now being totally objective. By wearing the devices during practices, teams can monitor their players’ physical output and closely watch their load levels to ensure each player is not being overworked and ensuring ultimate preparedness to play in each game when performance counts.
Worn during workouts, the device can provide real-time data alerting coaches and trainers if a player’s exertion rate is too high, the moment when a player is most vulnerable to injury, allowing coaches and trainers to pull back.
Catapult’s Gary McCoy compares the company’s technology to the intricate and mandatory gauges that measure engine performance and other vital signs of a high-performance race car.
“Imagine NASCAR, or even mechanically more precise, Formula 1 racing,” McCoy said. “Powerful engines. High-performance mechanical needs. Could you imagine driving one of these vehicles without any dashboard whatsoever? What if you cant ‘hear’ the engine? Would you know when you are ‘redlining,’ causing untold overload to the system?
“The same happens every day for a high-powered NBA athlete — we drive them without a dashboard, we guess. Our eyes give us extremely limited information. We don’t know what is too much, what is too little. Catapult data changes all this. Viable, objective measurements on movement, and then simply what we can measure, we can manage.”
The Knicks did exactly that last season with Jason Kidd. Before Kidd returned from injury, he wore the device during workouts to track his acceleration, agility and force. As Forbes’ Alex Konrad reported, with a benchmark reading set in the preseason, the team got the numbers it needed to clear him to play. It allows for specific measurements to be met, rather than a player approximating his readiness. How many times have you heard an athlete say he’s about 85 percent? What exactly does that mean?
The NBA is just the latest pro sports league to jump headfirst into this new technology. Catapult has more than 300 clients worldwide, including the NFL’s New York Giants, Dallas Cowboys, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars, St. Louis Rams and Buffalo Bills, plus half the English Premiere League and most of Australian Rules Football. The company says it is talking to nearly every team in the NFL and NBA.
The Bills produced a video detailing how it utilizes the Catapult devices. The Eagles, under first-year coach Chip Kelly, hired former performance coach for the U.S. Naval Special Warfare Group 2, Shaun Huls, as the NFL’s first “sports science coordinator.” It’s a direction that Cuban could be moving in as well. He recently fired his 10-year strength and development coach and said the replacement will be “more of an expert in performance technology science.”
The NFL and NBA do not allow players to wear the device during regular-season games. The Spurs used the technology during the Las Vegas Summer League, becoming the first NBA to wear the technology during in an actual game environment.
Cuban said he’s considering using it during the NBA’s preseason in October. He said he has not yet been advised against it by the league. A league spokesman did not respond to an email Friday inquiring if the NBA would allow the technology to be used during preseason games.
Allowing the technology to be used in regular-season games might require a green light from the players association. Such data can cause uncertainty among players associations, agents, front offices and others involved in contract negotiations.
Yet, with so many clients around the world and the technology only to become more refined, these tracking devices might soon become as commonplace during games as the Gatorade cooler.