The world of sports has always been anchored in statistics. Since the very first baseball trading cards, teams, fans, and analysts alike have tracked in-game events to draw conclusions about players. The 21st century has now ushered in a new type of statistics: not the high-level in-game performance data we’ve become used to – such as who scored a goal, how many yards were gained, or the number of strikeouts – but rather biometric information related to how an athlete’s body moves and functions, obtained by tracking and monitoring players even when they are off the field.
In recent years, the sports world has been moving toward wearable technologies and other revolutionary data collection methods. Data-driven technologies, more advanced than simple GPS step trackers, now exist that allow teams to predict musculoskeletal injuries, analyze player readiness and develop stronger rehab programs. Each season, these advancements continue to pick up momentum, all toward the goal of improving player health and performance.
Increasingly, the team that wins championships is not simply the one that has the best players, but rather the one that is able to keep its best players healthy and available to play. One need look no further than last year’s NBA Finals, when the heavily-favored defending champion Golden State Warriors were defeated by the underdog Toronto Raptors. Many credit this surprising result to several of the Warriors’ superstar players – including Klay Thompson, DeMarcus Cousins, and Kevin Durant – being hobbled by severe injuries.
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified the momentum toward greater tracking and usage of physical data. The twin needs of testing players for the virus while helping them stay in shape during weeks or months away from the team gym has created a culture of increased monitoring all around. Teams, rather than players, have taken the primary role in collecting and analyzing data, and they have used it to inform their medical and roster decisions. Many have also used it to empower their players to reach peak performance. Currently, questions about rightful ownership over the data and how it should be used fall in a gray area.
Going forward, COVID-19 must be a turning point for teams and players to fully adopt transparent, data-driven strategies for the benefit of all involved. At Sparta Science, we work with sports teams who use our movement diagnostic software and machine-learning technology – including the Portland Timbers, winners of this summer’s MLS is Back Tournament. Teams like the Timbers use our force plate and machine-learning technology to perform a five-minute Sparta Scan assessment on players and generate scores that predict their risk for an musculoskeletal injury. Customized training programs can then be developed to strengthen trouble areas while minimizing the chances for future injuries.
Teams like the Timbers are successful because they have adopted the right blend of team culture, player buy-in, and accountability when it comes to the usage of data. Players agree to participate in the system of monitoring and tracking, the team shares tracked data with players and injuries are often minimized or prevented as a result. When fully integrated, this process creates a higher level of trust between player and team, which is the key to creating a winning culture and building a stronger organization.
In a future powered by data-driven decision-making and a culture of transparency and trust, everyone wins. Teams and general managers will appreciate having a more holistic and reliable view of which players are available to play, which is invaluable for roster construction, trades and signing decisions. Players will control more of their own career trajectory — in better understanding their bodies, they can take action to prevent injury and maximize the few short years they have to play and earn at the highest level, even when moving between teams.
And for fans, if players are on the field, court or ice rather than in the training room, we get to watch more of the world’s best athletes competing at the highest level. The future is here, and there’s never been a better time to use it.
Dr. Phil Wagner, M.D., is the founder and CEO of Sparta Science.
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