Technology Tackles Sports Injuries

When Gareth Bale was sold to Real Madrid in September 2013 for a reported £86 million, in the first half season at the club he only played five full games.

Since the Welsh international was paid a reputed £300,000 a week, having the world’s most expensive soccer player sitting on the bench cost the club millions.

Leinster were one of the first clubs to use GPS trackers

Image: © Tony McIntyre: released under Creative Commons 4.0

But it wasn’t just the wage bill that counted against Real. In October 2013’s match against title rivals Barcelona, Real Madrid lost. When Bale was substituted in a Champions League game against Juventus in November 2013, they drew 2-2. How would Real Madrid have fared if the left winger had been match fit?

More and more clubs in professional sports are turning to technology to keep players off the physio’s table. Tech and sport are, in fact, becoming so intertwined that this year Web Summit, an annual tech conference in Dublin, is devoting an entire track to the topic.

More Than £119 million Paid Out To Injured Players

The sector has gotten the attention of venture capitalists who are backing companies like Dun Laoghaire-based Kitman Labs, an Irish start-up that is hoping to crack the lucrative U.S. sports market with its injury-prevention technology.

“If you look at the cost of injuries, it is a very real, measurable, cost, “ says Iarfhlaith Kelly, CEO of Kitman Labs, which recently announced a $4 million Series A round from U.S. VC firm BlueRun Ventures. “In the Premier League last season, over £119 million was paid out to the wages of injured players. In Major League Baseball in the U.S. it was more than double that.”

While it is soccer that attracts the big dollars, Kitman Labs has used rugby as a proving ground. The Irish rugby team took them on last November before winning the Six Nations tournament, the annual rugby competition between the four home nations, France and Italy.

“Through the Six Nations the Irish team had the lowest injury total they’ve ever had since the beginning of the Six Nations tournament,” Kelly says. That is no mean achievement. Players make 20-40 tackles a game and one in four will get injured in a season.

At its heart Kitman’s system uses multiple inputs to track a player’s fitness. “If you look at what data is available for athletes now, you have sensors for GPS, you have accelerometer data, you’ve got vision information, you have distance covered. You have 360 different variables that are tracked,” says Kelly.

That telemetry is combined with other data, such as subjective wellness scores about how a player is feeling, whether he is stressed or fatigued as well as physical tests on things like hip rotation, hamstrings and various stretch tests, to build up a picture of each athlete.

Bespoke Training Programs

“Our system builds up a model of the athlete over eight to ten weeks … to compare that athlete’s new information against historic information,” says Kelly.

“So much of the sports science research shows that degradation in a range of motion scores or performance indicators are a key indicator of the risk of injury. If we can analyze that then we can start to understand when the athlete is starting to have these injury risks.” Coaches and medical staff use the data to construct bespoke training programs for each athlete.

Kitman isn’t the only company to be investigating injury prevention. Irish designer Mark Dillon was shortlisted for the James Dyson Award 2013, an international student competition for design engineers, with his Mamori gum shield.

Dillon’s gum shield features an accelerometer, a gyroscope and a magnetometer. Together they can measure acceleration, force and 3D orientation to see how hard a player is hit and how much risk there is of concussion.

Dillon, a keen ice hockey fan, says it was the concussion suffered by Pittsburgh Penguins star player Sidney Crosby during a 2011 game against the Washington Capitals that triggered his interest.
Crosby suffered a serious blow to the head, but the concussion went undetected for six days. It was only in 2013 that he returned to his previous form.

Self-Belief Or GPS Data?

On the other side of the world the New South Wales Waratahs rugby team have been working with IBM on a similar system to that made by Kitman Labs. The Waratahs looked to the technology after a presentation predicted “100% accurately” injuries to three key players. Team officials told sports media that the data indicated the players were not at their peak and so were more susceptible to fatigue which could lead to injury.

Can sport really be reduced to something as mechanistic as enzyme levels and GPS tracking data? Two Irish rugby matches against the same opposition could not have been further apart. Against New Zealand in June 2012, Ireland suffered their worst defeat, losing 60-0. But a heartbreaking game at home in Dublin in November 2013 saw Ireland come achingly close to ending their century-long failure to beat the All Blacks. The game was lost literally on the final kick. Surely that was more about self-belief and team spirit than GPS data?

Kelly is sticking to his guns. “The natural instinct of people is to want to prepare intensely for something that is important, but in order to be competitive you may need to have to fight that instinct. That is where monitoring and planning training is so important, so that when you get to big games you know that you’re ready.”

Is he saying that had Ireland used his system the team could have ended a century of heartache?
“That Ireland competed against the All Blacks, and then ended the Six Nation championship with the lowest injury rate it has ever had, is down to the trainers, the coaches and the decisions they make.
“But having the data we’re collecting and having the culture within the team of collecting data and analyzing it and making decisions based on it really emphasizes the importance of this data and how impactful it can be. We would like to think that has played its part in the Six Nations that Ireland had.”