M2M or PED? Can connected sensors help athletes perform at peak levels over greater intervals of time?

Robert Metzler

HelmetA couple weeks ago ESPN reported on the potential role that, what it calls “GPS technology,” could play in extending the NFL season to 18 games. The Worldwide Leader of course needed an applicable hook for its sport viewing readers—hence centering on the expanded NFL season—but it is our contention they buried the lead.

Of far more interest is the implied capability of connected sensors to serve as a veritable “engine control unit” (“ECU”) for the world’s most conditioned athletes. Taking what the medical and training community knows about body function and recovery, and applying that to an individual’s established benchmarks for athletic performance, sensors can be deployed to collect ongoing data on player movement during training, practice and games – metrics such as running speed, player-to-player contact, force and friction between player and playing surface, etc. Not only do trainers and coaches gain direct visibility how much wear a player’s body absorbs over a given time period, but they can also detect very subtle changes in the player’s on-field performance that may not be apparent to the naked eye.

Changes such as less push-off force, slower arm speed, hindered bat speed, restricted lateral movement, being not as quick to change direction, and so on. All of these may very slight reductions, but they are nevertheless indicative of the overall conditioning picture and, more importantly, could predict injury down the line.

It’s certainly well documented that engineers are working to devise connected football helmets that can detect concussions, but this is a much more intriguing development that speaks to keeping athletes in peak condition over greater stretches of time, and avoiding the wear-and-tear injuries that take their toll on team performance. It basically takes speculation out of player maintenance—replacing instincts with empirical data—the same way a Formula One racecar is able to transmit moment-to-moment mechanical information to the race crew.

And by all indications, it works! This year’s BCS champion Florida State Seminoles put a form of this technology in place two years ago and the team says its players’ soft-tissue injuries from overuse have dropped by 88 percent in that time.

"[It] has allowed us to take a lot of the guesswork out of how tired the team is, where your [muscle] pulls, your tears [are coming from]," said coach Jimbo Fisher said. "We've been able to apply that and use it full time and gain that information. It's on my desk the first thing when I walk in every day. How we practice, the adjustments I make individually ... I think it's been very critical to our development and our consistency at keeping guys on the field."

Perhaps a better PED is merely a matter of finding the point where overuse will start diminishing performance, and using that line of demarcation to let the body start getting stronger and faster by healing itself.

There is still blind spot for ballistic injuries to be sure, including concussions. It is one thing to detect when a concussion-level collision has occurred, but quite another to alter the field of play to prevent them. There isn't much that can be done to soften the blow when two elite athletes crash into each other at full tilt.

But as fans, sometimes all we want is for our home-town heroes to perform at their peak for every game, and ironically even more so at the end of a long and intense season when, if we’re lucky, they’ve made the playoffs. With advances in M2M sensors in the training arsenal, perhaps they’ll be better equipped to do so more often.

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