South African rugby union team, Steval Pumas, has teamed up with sports wearable and analytics experts, Catapult Sports, to monitor player performance and improve safety.
The deal was signed at the start of this year and will see Catapult supply Steval Pumas with 30 of its Optimeye X4 wearable units. These will provide important data on player wellbeing and, in some sports, performance.
The coaching staff at Steval Pumas will also be able to access live player data during training, as well as Catapult’s OpenField technology, which allows coaches to investigate trends and patterns, rather than just compiling reports.
Terms of the deal were not disclosed, however, Internet of Business caught up with Karl Hogan, global head of league & data partnerships at Catapult Sports to learn more.
“X4 is a GPS wearable device; it has an accelerometer, magnetometer and gyroscope integrated into the device, so essentially, we can track players across what we class as locomotive and inertial measures,” Hogan said.
Locomotive measures reference a player’s movement, distance, speed; while inertial measures use the accelerometer, magnetometer and gyroscope to look at things like micromovements, accelerations, decelerations, changes of direction and, importantly in rugby, impact.
The wearable device sits between player’s shoulder blades because this is closest to antennas for the best satellite signal, and also, according to Hogan, because shoulders protect the players from the wearable device.
Alongside the Optimeye X4 wearable, coaches also have access to Catapult Sports’ trademark player load algorithm.
“Our player load algorithm looks at the external load that the body goes under, so when you take contact or when you change direction or make a side movement as a fake, we quantify what that means in terms of the individual player’s external load. So when you add all that up over a game, we give a very simplistic score for what is a complex algorithm, and that allows a performance, strength and condition coach to quantify the level of physical exertion a player has been through during training or a match,” Hogan said.
He believes this is one of the most critical aspects of the technology, and is a strong draw for the sports industry.
These alrgorithms are provided by what Catapult calls OpenField. During a game or training session, player data is streamed live or post-game onto Catapult’s cloud infrastructure and from that infrastructure Catapult’s OpenField software platform.
This “provides the algorithms and the display to be able to say, ‘OK this player is in a red zone or green zone’ in terms of their player load or key metrics that a team would look at, so what might be important to a full-back in rugby union would definitely be different to a hooker,” Hogan said.
“This helps [teams] to set KPIs and expectations around training sessions. You can determine a physical outcome from a session in terms of total player load or the number of tackles that players go through, and we can quantify that to say did the players achieve that? OpenField is that analytics layer that allows you to see that information.”
Preparing for success
The Catapult partnership has already played a role in preparing the Steval Pumas for their warm-up matches (starting with a game against the Lions in Witbank next Saturday) and the SuperSport Rugby Challenge, the secondary domestic rugby union competition in South Africa, kicking off in April.
Steval Pumas are part of the Mpumalanga province and primarily play in the Currie Cup, South Africa’s premier domestic rugby union competition.
“We had been looking for certain variables that could help us in terms of performance and these units have given us everything we need. They are more accurate, user-friendly and versatile than anything we’ve ever used before,” said Steval Pumas’ strength and conditioning coach Tobias van Niekerk in a statement.
Rob Arkell, also a strength and conditioning coach for the Steval Pumas, said “The technology not only allows us to improve player performance, but also keep players within the safe zone in terms of their workload. The more we use it, the more benefits we’re discovering.”
Spotlight on safety
As the spotlight on player welfare in rugby union has intensified in recent years, Mpumalanga Rugby Union CEO Pieter Burger, in charge of rugby for the province, said that incorporation of technology has become an integral part of player management and training.
“We are happy to partner with Catapult on this venture, as they are current proven leaders of the industry. We are confident that using their systems will be hugely beneficial for the advancement of our rugby players and the union’s overall competitiveness,” Burger said.
One area that Catapult’s wearable doesn’t necessarily look after is head injuries, a significant problem in rugby union in recent years.
“It’s a very complex area,” Hogan told IoB. “We can look at different forces that the body takes, [but] we can’t quantify the specific force on a specific area. That’s the realm of specific headgear.
However, Hogan suggests that even if you can’t look the actual movement of a head injury, you could use the data look at how quickly a player was accelerating into a tackle, and whether the other player was pulling out.
“We’ve have instances in Aussie Rules, where they’ve used data to evidence base a player actually pulling out of a tackle so that when there’s a hearing about a bad tackle, they used data to say look there was a decelerating here which was unlike a normal tackle,” he said.
So, in more mature markets, like Australian Rules Football, this kind of data could affect whether or not a player receives a ban.
“I can see in the future where this type of technology is used primarily for health and safety purposes and also for refereeing decisions as well at some stage in the future but as we stand right now it’s very much a health and safety benefit and also tactical usage,” Hogan said.
If teams are using this data for safety, how long will it be before it’s used tactically?
“In a very mature market like Aussie Rules, they will look at live player load and they will take people off based on what that player load score looks like and give them rest because there’s constant interchanges, so the nature of the sport allows you to quantify someone’s physical performance and how much they’ve exerted and bring them off and have tactical rest periods,” Hogan said.
Football is a more complex sport in the sense of physical endeavours because of the nature of the sport. “If you’re playing counter-attacking football it depends how many counter attacks you have to the physical exertion that a team might go through. And if you’re playing Arsenal compared to Bolton, I think it’s a different physicality that’s needed there, and therefore as long as you have that game context and your tactical content then I see no reason why this won’t become more prevalent in games.”
“At present, football is collecting data from game day to quantify the demands of the match and during training they will periodise their training to make sure that the intensity and volume that they do on a day by day basis allows that player to be physically ready against that benchmark that they record on a gameday to basically perform to their best.”
Hogan also highlighted certain restrictions, such as sports not allowing live-data and live-video in the dugout, which is certainly true of football. The idea behind this is to prevent tactical and technical advantages being sought out by the people that can afford the best technology, Hogan suggests.
Looking to the immediate future, Hogan said: “I think fundamentally using [Optimeye X4] consistently will help you achieve better physical performance. If used appropriately you should see reductions in soft tissue injury risks, which is a big part of why teams invest.”
“And what’s next is tactical decisions. Wearable information aligned to video for coaches and performance directors to make tactical decisions that are based on the physicality of the sport and the physicality of their team is probably where it will migrate to.”
“Rugby union is one of the most advanced sports in terms of technology globally, they’re already making tactical decisions based on what we would call event-based data. We expect this to be part and parcel of tactical decisions within the next 12 months,” Hogan finished.
Catapult’s work goes beyond the rugby union field. The company supplies wearable technology to more than 1,000 elite sports teams worldwide, including football giants Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, 2016 NFL Super Bowl Champions the Denver Broncos, Golden State Warriors NBA team, and most recently with Argentina’s entire La Liga Basketball league. The company is also seeing traction in sports with smaller participation rates, such as netball and handball.