I'm sat inside of a room that, when not filled with journalists and bloggers, is inhabited by the playing and coaching staff of Fulham F.C., who make their return to the Premier League after four years spent outside of the top flight. This is the room that manager Slaviša Jokanović will be plotting to combat Pep Guardiola's tiki-taka and Klopp's pressing when the new seasons starts in August.
I'm about to be put through my paces with a training session led by two coaches that have worked with the some of the best players in the game, and who have no intention of taking it lightly on a far-from-elite bunch of players in hot and humid conditions.
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While I sprint between cones and take part in drills designed to work on holding your position and retaining the ball, there's a small, pod-shaped device tucked into the back of a smart compression top tracking everything I do. These kind of systems have been used by professional footballers and athletes in other sports for some time now, but this tracking tech is starting to go mainstream, letting any Sunday League or 5-a-side player get a more detailed look at their match performance.
I'm putting Playr through its paces, the latest wearable tracking device from Catapult Sports, which also brought us the award-winning Playertek system. The $249 setup is pretty similar to Playertek with a sensor-packed tracking pod, a vest to put it inside of and a companion phone app to sync and crunch the tracking data. It's using GPS and accelerometer motion sensors to record information like speed, sprint and distance but the big difference here is the introduction of actionable insights and sports science advice based on that data.
In my case, I'm told to pick up some interval training based on the fact that my training session wasn't too hard, and I'm offered a workout I can do in the gym on an exercise bike. While Playr can't track sleep or track food, it offers advice on nutrition for recovery with the help of input from performance specialists that have worked with the country's elite players.
This time, it's all about the player
While from the outset Playr doesn't sound all that different from the Playertek system Catapult Sports launched last year, Playr's CEO Benoit Simeray is keen to clarify that the two wearable tracking setups are designed for two different footballing worlds - the clue is in the name.
Playr is for aspiring elite players
"Playertek is very much designed with teams and coaches in mind."Simeray tells us. "So that's why Playr had to be a player-centric product. With Playertek, we have 25,000 users today, and 90% have been bought through teams and coaches. A lot of the time the players don't actually have access to the data because the clubs might not want them to.
"For me, Playertek addresses the large semi professional markets, which needs more granular information, a bigger web based dashboard and don't have so much interest for instance in the simplicity of the charging setup we have with Playr. We are going to keep Playertek, and we keep signing big teams, it's a really a good prospect. Playr is for aspiring elite players. Playertek is for the sub-elite - think five divisions down from the Premier League.
Playertek has clearly influenced and shaped the design of Playr, but it was clear from the feedback that Simeray and his team received that Playertek was not a consumer product. But it did use it as a testbed for the more actionable, insightful data that would be at the heart of its new wearable.
"Four or five months ago we started to send smart messages to our users showing them how they compare to pros and the response was phenomenal," he explains. "They had no idea what one metric could provide. There was a confirmation from the users that they really wanted to understand how that data and metrics that is recorded can make difference. They wanted more high level metrics and better interpretation of those metrics."
The coach that lives inside a smart vest
Accurately tracking movements on the pitch with sensors that have been prevalent in wearables for some time now is one challenge, which Catapult Sports says it's managed to get accuracy down to the nearest 100cm. But when you're offering advice on aspects of aspiring footballer's lifestyle off the pitch without the sensors that specifically track that information, it's a whole new ball game altogether.
To shape those smart coaching insights Playr has recruited Matt Reeves, who is currently head of fitness and conditioning for Leicester City FC. Tony Strudwick, former head of performance at Manchester United has also lent his expertise along with Chris Barnes who has worked with a host of clubs (West Brom, Middlesbrough, Brondby) and has over 20 years of experience in the game.
"We have 20+ sports scientists in the business, possibly more, and they each are in experts in different sports," Simeray explains. "These sports scientists work and travel pre-season and mid-season with the pros. We try to deliver professional teams those insights, but it's still very much down to experts talking to experts and providing actionable insights to them. When you get to the broader, wider population, you don't have those sports scientists. It's always been there, it's now about making it more user-friendly, making it digestible."
Simeray talks about the potential of partnerships to bring more in the way of smart coaching to its Playr platform. That could be the addition of mindfulness and mediation similar to the partnership that Headspace already offers for professional players, and it worked on with Team GB for the 2012 Olympics.
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Tony Strudwick was part of Sir Alex Ferguson's backroom staff at Manchester United and worked with the club's academy since 2014. He's worked with some of the best players that have graced the Premier League. Strudwick believes that modern players are more tech savvy than ever and want that information feedback. "We are in the era of self improvement whether you're a Sunday league footballer or an aspiring professional player at 13 or 14 years old," Strudwick tells us.
"It's about empowerment and education. Sports science is about when a player crosses the white line they've done everything to maximise their performance. My mantra at Manchester United was to educate players. Young players need to make smart decisions, so from a young age this is how you need to exercise, train and eat. Player education is a big deal, but you still want that coach connection where you ask the expert and the coach. But you do want smart players."
It's about the right data, not just more
While Strudwick believes that the data currently available to players, coaches and clubs is greater than it has ever been, he does feel there's a need get the balance right, even at the top clubs where the wealth of information needs to be stripped back to make sure those that need it most get the most out of it come match day.
At one point at Man United we had 2,500 data variables a day
"I think we also live in the world where we need to simplify things. You can get lost in data," he said. "I've got a great quote which is, 'we train players, not spreadsheets' and it's kind of mushroomed out of control. At one point at Man United we had 2,500 data variables a day, which was too much. Your distance, speed and your tops speeds for me, I think that's enough. Even at the top level those would be the first things I'd look for."
That being said, Simeray says Catapult Sports is in position to pull out more data if it feels it is beneficial to the player. "Playr is already tracking 1,200 data points," he says. "We can already tap into more data points if we wanted to do. So for instance we can look into sprint direction, is it an attacking sprint or a defensive sprint, how much time do you spend attacking versus defending. We can do many different things with the sensors we already have on board.
"If something like heart rate can help we will consider it. Heart rate could help with calories output, it could help with insights into your exertion, but I don't think it matters as much in football as it does in other sports. It might matter for specific positions, but we work with the best scientists so they know what matters."
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The chief aim for Catapult Sports and its new wearable is to help footballers better prepare themselves for games and performing when it matters. STATSports, its closest rival on the professional tracking scene recently signed a $1.5 billion deal with U.S Soccer to kit players out with its tracking system to create a pool of data to uncover professional footballers in the making that fall under the radar. Surely there's an opportunity for Catapult to do something similar. But the question is, is that something it wants to do?
"Our approach is first we want to make our tech very grassroots connected", says Simeray. "Instead of going for the data approach of signing with a league that is going to push the technology, we are much more about partnering with grassroots teams and to build from the ground up.
"I don't want to lose that authenticity. If there are people already taking this data approach, we'd prefer to partner with them. It's certainly something we'd like to cover, but we'd more likely take the approach of partnering with someone to make it happen."
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