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Wearable technology the new big thing among sports teams

Posted by Zuri Berry, Boston.com Staff  February 28, 2014 02:24 PM

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Power brokers in the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball, and soccer are all present for this week’s MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference at the Hynes Convention Center.

Among the topics of emphasis so far for the two-day conference has been wearable technology and how the technology and data being poured into each respective sport is helping to determine an athlete’s peak performance as well as health and safety.

Basically, an article is either inserted or attached on player uniforms to measure heart rate, explosiveness, or simply movement.

Take for instance Zebra Technologies International, which has a display set up at the conference to promote it’s service to teams. The Illinois based company just got in the sports tech business a little more than a year ago and currently has two NFL clients and numerous college football teams. (They won’t disclose who these clients are citing competitive disadvantage.) Zebra inserts little stickers onto players to measure the force of each activity, helping to better define player movement, hits, and, essentially, trauma.

“In college, what’s really fascinating about using wearable technologies on players is there is a lot of emphasis on health and safety,” said Jill Stelfox, vice president and general manager for Location Solutions at Zebra. “So if you’re a linebacker, I think traditionally what we want is big guys on that front line. Well that comes with a lot of force. So force is mass and speed. So the bigger you are, the more force you bring and the more force is brought on you. When you look at health and safety in linemen, for example on injuries, we can tell you on every play what the force is on any given player.”

NFL teams, using this kind of advanced technology, can better learn whether a player has suffered an injury or may even be experiencing the symptoms of a concussion.

“And the interesting thing about concussions is certainly we all know one good hit can cause a concussion,” Stelfox said. “But so can 10 medium hits. It’s the succession of movement that can cause the concussion. So we won’t say you have one, but we can say look, this is an indicator.”

For adidas, their MiCoach wearable technology (also on display) is more geared to determining the optimal player explosiveness. MLS teams like the New England Revolution use MiCoach, which is like a battery cell inserted into the top back portion of a player’s kit.

The problem, as Max Reckers of adidas points out, is that sometimes this kind of technology can be used as a hammer on players.

“If you’re using the tool like a stick, and you hit him with it, you will lose him,” Reckers said.

The goal, Stelfox explains, is to give coaches, trainers, and doctors better information.

“The one thing that we definitely know is that this movement of IOT [internet of things] in sports, it’s here and it’s here to stay,” Stelfox said. “It’s not going to replace the gut feeling of coaches, it’s going to add to it. It’s just more information to make better decisions.”

Matt Hasselbeck, the backup Indianapolis Colts quarterback and graduate of Boston College who attended as a speaker, said there could be some fan experience to be had in wearable technology too.

“It would be great to see the heart rate for a kicker like Adam Vinatieri, or Andrew Luck, or a rookie,” Hasselbeck said. “I would love that.”

This kind of data, maybe not in-game, could be the future.

News, analysis and commentary from Boston.com's staff writers and contributors, including Zuri Berry and Erik Frenz.

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