High-Tech Sports is Here, but Needs Better Integration
If I were writing about technology in sports five years ago, I would have focused on various innovative measuring devices such as wearable technology, wireless sensors and heads-up displays. But the world moves fast, and technology even faster. Today, bioengineering in sports is not just about measuring the performance of athletes—technology is evolving so rapidly that the collection of data is seamless nowadays—rather, it’s about the system that holds the data together.
For example, after the Vancouver 2010 Olympic Winter Games, the U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association created a dedicated online network to respond to the needs of athletes, coaches and experts. The system receives data from different sources and presents them to athletes and trainers within a complete framework. For instance, a physical trainer working with athletes at the USSA Center of Excellence in Park City, Utah, can perform a set of strength tests and upload the results to a centralized system that can be accessed worldwide. A coach—who may be at an international competition in Finland for example—can access the athlete’s profile online and in real-time review the performance measures. Likewise, dietitians, biomechanists and psychologists can access this online database to determine the athlete’s physical and mental condition, and how that condition can affect performance. The system allows for a holistic approach to determine what future steps need to be taken to enhance athlete performance.
But as useful as this approach has been for USSA, this level of integration is still a rarity in the world of sports. Many organizations continue to look at athletes from one perspective. A dietitian, for example, may evaluate an athlete’s resting metabolic rate, hydration levels and body composition to develop a personalized nutrition plan. On the other hand, a sports psychologist may evaluate an athlete’s mental strengths and inquire about sleep quality before offering suggestions about how to mentally prepare for a big game. Meanwhile, a biomechanist will analyze an athlete’s kinematics and dynamics of motion to prescribe a certain set of adjustments to enhance performance. It is time that we put our experts in a position to simultaneously evaluate athletes as a whole.
Integration is not a novel concept. The auto industry uses computer analysis to diagnose multiple problems at once for more efficient and comprehensive repairs. In fact, some countries require vehicles to undergo frequent check-ups to anticipate future problems. Why do we find this concept so hard to apply to the human body?
Sport organizations need technology fusion—a system that can hold heterogeneous data at once. Fusing the information gathered from sensors, heads-up displays and cameras, will give coaches and athletes the extra advantage to succeed and allow organizations to easily track information for resource allocation, travel planning, training schedules and more.
Despite the many benefits, many organizations still view technology fusion as problematic. The popular debate revolves around whether an organization should develop its own internal system or outsource it. An internal system allows for customization and control over future developments, but requires time and a multidisciplinary IT team. Also, as user needs change over time, a dedicated staff is essential to manage system updates. On the other hand, outsourcing will initially help save on cost and time, but data may be less secure and there could be a need to purchase future customization.
The ideal situation may be a compromise. An organization may opt to purchase a ready-made system with customization capability to respond to evolving user-needs. The sportscotland institute of sport is a perfect example of how this type of system can be implemented. The institute recently adopted a sports-oriented database management system which allows considerable development on site. The system provides experts the flexibility and control they need to change the original system, which would have taken years to develop in-house. This solution allows more time to explore how to further impact performance, while maintaining scientific data at the heart of the decision-making process.
If we want to observe athletes as holistic organisms—rather than a collection of singular parts—organizations should invest more energy and resources into centralizing data in one location. Performance analytics gathered from dietitians, psychologists, physiologists, medical doctors and biomechanists, need to live in a unique spot. These specialists must be given the resources to draw conclusions from all areas of performance analytics. As technology advances, this fusion is becoming a more tangible reality. The field of psychophysiology is one example of how this is likely to play out, because as technology becomes increasingly integrated and holistic, so too will science and scientists. As this evolution continues, it’s likely that athletes will one day see turn to their BioChemoMechanist for guidance.
And just as athletes will gain a much fuller understanding of their sport, engineers and scientists will also gain a fuller understanding of the richness and interrelatedness of the sciences.