4 ways in which technological innovation enhances athletic performance

  • Technological innovation has practically changed sport itself
  • Wearables are monitoring, managing and improving performance
  • Sports genetics: exploring how genes influence athletic performance
  • Data analytics maximises marginal gains, adding up to significant improvements
  • Virtual reality enables athletes to practice in ‘real’ conditions
  • All’s fair in love and… sports, or is it?

In an age where athletes have access to increasingly sophisticated technology and more advanced training techniques than ever before, sport is becoming an entirely new ballgame. While the true essence of sport still lies in the talent and perseverance of athletes, it is often no longer sufficient. Modern technologies can help them up their game.

Technological innovation has practically changed sport itself

The way technology has impacted sport is incredible. In today’s connected world, the use of wearable technology, big data analytics, social media and sensor technology have revolutionised the way sports are played, analysed and improved. Through various modern advances and apps, pro athletes can gain greater insight into their performance, improve training methods and elevate their skills.

Technological innovation has not only changed the way we interact with sport, it has practically changed sport itself. Technology gathers data about every second of every game which is then analysed to create new strategies and increase athletic performance. In swimming, cycling, Formula-1 racing and athletics, professional timer services now make every thousandth of a second count. Sports fields are monitored by no less than sixteen cameras so that officials and coaches can follow exactly what happens.

In this article, we’ll look at four ways in which technology is playing an increasingly significant role in boosting talent, managing health and improving coaching and training.

1. Wearables are monitoring, managing and improving performance

Soon, wearables will be as important to athletes as their designer athletic shoes – if not more so. To collect information for analysis, they track everything from the athlete’s heart rate to body chemistry. Data is important for coaches whose aim it is to improve their athlete’s or their team’s performance, but it also plays a key role in minimising injuries.

Specialised wearables for boxers, basketball players or volleyball players who do lots of rope jumping during their training help them measure and improve their performance. They also send out alerts when an athlete is reaching levels of exhaustion that could potentially lead to injuries. X2 Biosystems is developing two types of sensors that monitor the distribution and buildup of impact forces that rattle the brain, potentially leading to head trauma in sports like martial arts. One of the wearables sticks to the area behind the ear while the other one is fitted to the upper teeth where it is worn as a type of mouthguard. The company’s aim is to use the collected data to create a device that can inform an athlete when it’s time to get off the field or stop training to prevent injuries.

While athletes transmitting their data through the ether may seem futuristic, for an industry that always strives to give (professional) athletes a competitive edge through better gear, these types of wearables are really just the next evolutionary step. As the industry moves away from hard plastic wrist wearables, the next-gen smart sports gear will be even smaller and more lightweight. Think flexible bandages or smart stick-on tattoos with sensing fibres woven into the material. HexoSkin, for instance, recently developed a shirt with sensors woven into the fabric that measure things like respiration, heart rate, speed, number of steps and calories burned.

 Side view of a male athlete in a running position with red shapes spread across his body
Soon, wearables will be as important to athletes as their designer athletic shoes – if not more so.

2. Sports genetics: exploring how genes influence athletic performance

And then there’s genetics. What if science could tell you what kind of sports you should explore, based on your genes? What if your coach – with the help of a genetic counselor – could advise you on your ideal workout or training to prevent injury? Or what to eat to meet your specific nutritional requirements?

As technology continues to evolve, the role of genetic testing in sports seems to be on the increase as well. Scientists have discovered that there are genetic markers that can tell you how your body will respond to intense exercise or weight training. As we gain a better understanding of the genetic factors responsible for certain health conditions, physicians, academics and sports coaches are increasingly wondering to what extent DNA can provide insight into athletic potential or help minimise the risk of injuries. Can we use genetics to guide young people toward the sport in which they are likely to be (most) successful? And is it ethical to do so?

What we do know is that it is not likely that a single gene (or group of genes) is solely responsible for someone’s athletic talents. A genetic profile that favours explosive, fast twitch muscle fibres is not the only thing an athlete needs to compete in the 100-metre sprint at the Olympics. For that you also need the right lung capacity and specific muscle and bone profiles, among many other things. And of course diet, environment and culture, perseverance and psychological resilience also play a pivotal role in an athlete’s success. Understanding how all these different factors interact can help coaches put together training regimes to help an athlete maximise performance.

3. Data analytics maximises marginal gains, adding up to significant improvements

Coaches are interested in marginal gains. Accomplishing even a 0.001% improvement in any area of an athlete’s performance could mean an advantage, no matter how slight it may seem, because adding up these advantages could mean much more significant improvements. Analysing the millions upon millions of data points gathered by wearables and sensors means athletes and sports teams can see even the smallest failures or successes in a performance. With data analytics, every little thing an athlete does can be studied, assessed and broken down into its individual elements. The conditions that led to these failures or successes can then either be removed or recreated to improve future performance.

Sports scientists at Kitman Labs have developed the ‘Kitman Labs System’. It makes use of machine learning algorithms that turn abstract data into real-time actionable insights to calculate individual athlete risk profiles. This can help reduce injuries and optimise performance. With the use of an app, coaches can determine how high each player’s injury risk is, so that they can make informed decisions on who plays and who gets taken out of the game. Kitman Labs advises teams in the US baseball, basketball and football leagues, which in the past two years has already lead to a 30% reduction in sports injuries. Tech giants like SAP and IBM are also getting in on the sports data analytics action, although their target market is mainly amateur athletes – the demographic where most sports injuries happen.

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4. Virtual reality enables athletes to practice in ‘real’ conditions

Repetition is the oldest and still the best way to improve technique. Thanks to virtual reality, however, it is no longer necessary to be physically present on a basketball court or a soccer field to practice and improve your skills. VR enables an athlete to train in ‘real’ conditions – by hooking up to a VR system. The data collected during these virtual training sessions can be used to compare results and improve performance. Virtual reality enables the athlete to have a better vision of the game, anticipate the actions of his opponent, improve his techniques, increase endurance and shave fractions of seconds off the clock. All from the comfort of their home.

Up until recently, coaches used video footage to train and prepare for matches and study athletic performance, but VR offers unprecedented analysis methods and enables athletes to visualise games – on the virtual representation of the field – before playing them. Using 3D simulators, athletes can see various tactical options and face their opponents before the actual game or competition takes place. The technology also helps with simulating the mental and emotional pressure of competitions or experiencing the sensation of a jump that an athlete hasn’t tried before. With virtual reality, he can literally see and experience it with his own eyes.

Augmented reality – where a layer of information is projected over what is visible in the real world – combined with smart algorithms, could in the future be used to provide players on the field with live information about an opponent’s possible next move, based on historical game data.

View through a VR headset showing athletes on the field
Up until recently, coaches used video footage to train and prepare for matches and study athletic performance, but VR offers unprecedented analysis methods and enables athletes to visualise games – on the virtual representation of the field – before playing them.

All’s fair in love and… sports, or is it?

The impact of technology on sports cannot be specifically measured, but some technological innovations do raise questions about fairness. Are we still comparing apples with apples? Is it right to compare the speed of an athlete wearing high-tech running shoes to one without? Is the use of technology to improve performance any different compared to the use of doping or steroids? Whether we like it or not, technology will continue to enhance athlete performance. And at some point we will have to put specific rules and regulations in place about which enhancements are allowed – whether it’s a piece of tech or a genetics-based training regimen.

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This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

This article is written by Richard van Hooijdonk

Trendwatcher, futurist and international keynote speaker Richard van Hooijdonk takes you to an inspiring future that will dramatically change the way we live, work and do business.

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