How wearable sensors could strike out injuries in US pro sports

Tapping into wearable tech is helping to extend careers of top stars
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Perhaps more than any other sport in the United States, baseball bleeds nostalgia. Its enduring traditions of red brick ballparks, hotdog stands and uniforms barely befitting an athletic contest, are one of the last unfettered images of true Americana. As such any change, especially technological, comes slowly and reluctantly.

However, revolution only ever comes when the need is most dire. And, from Little League to the Majors, America's Pastime is currently plagued with an injury epidemic habitually robbing the game its most talented performers.

The so-called "Tommy John" surgery, named after the first pitcher to undergo the procedure on the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) on the inside elbow, is keeping some of the best pitchers off the mound for an entire calendar year.

In 2015, 25 Major League Baseball (MLB) and a total of 104 professional pitchers had the surgery, per BaseballHeatMaps. Marquee talents like Yu Darvish, Homer Bailey and Zack Wheeler succumbed to what's being called "the new reality," and a perverse right of passage for young pitchers.

But there is hope, in the form of wearable technology.

For the first time a wearable has been approved for use in Major League Baseball games, in the hope of combatting this plague. It's a change that no-one watching the game will notice, but potentially it'll save careers.

The lightweight Motus Baseball is a third generation sensor worn inside a compression sleeve. It features a 3-axis accelerometer and a 3-axis gyrometer, measuring the strain on the elbow joint every time a pitcher throws the ball. The data is reported back to an app via Bluetooth for real-time analysis.

"These are very powerful sensors that can measure the explosive measurements of a pitch," Motus CTO Ben Hansen told Wareable. "Together, we fuse that data to calculate the torques on the elbow, the forces on the elbow and the kinematics of a throw on the forearm."

Despite the celebrated analytical overhaul depicted in Moneyball, today a pitcher's daily work is still judged a 'pitch count,' a blanketed metric that fails to consider individual physiology.

Motus says the data its sensor provides can be used to replace the pitch count with a workload limit as the sensor can identify the strain created by each and every pitch. Modifying the workload immediately combats two of the biggest causes of UCL injuries.

"One of the biggest causes of UCL injury is pitching with fatigue, the other is overuse," Hansen says. "The problems pitchers run into are when they sustain really high periods of workload or very vast changes in workload. The app is able to recognise that and help give pitchers recommendations on how much they should be throwing."

How wearable sensors could strike out injuries in US pro sports

Motus had already been working with 27 of the 30 MLB teams, but the approval for in game use is huge. The Motus platform is designed for use on every single throw and by removing it on game days, which see the greatest workload for starting pitchers, it had been impossible to get the full picture.

"With workload, in order get the most out of it you wear it everyday," Hansen added. On days, off days, bullpen days, the platform adds up how much you throw and it adds workout data up to that point. This means that on a rest day your workload is going to go down. "It peaks every seven days, on your game days and it humps a little bit for your bullpen session."

The idea is that coaches and managers will be able to determine when to pull a pitcher from the game. Is the workload too high? It's time to call the bullpen. If the workload remains low, they can stay in the game for one more hitter.

Significantly, the sensor worn by pros is also available as an affordable consumer product, making it an essential purchase for parents and junior league coaches who may be overworking their teens in that vicarious pursuit of greatness. Incredibly, there has been a 300% increase in TJ surgeries in 17-18 age groups and 19-20 age groups.

"These pitchers are throwing so much in travel baseball in tournaments all year round, specialising in a single sport, so their overuse is off the charts. These guys are also throwing harder than ever before."

Hansen says there's little chance of Tommy John surgeries being wiped out, but by combatting the root causes and re-evaluating , the epidemic can be at least halted.

How wearable sensors could strike out injuries in US pro sports

With injury prevention comes performance optimisation, comes longer-healthier careers. The next step? More sensors.

The MLB has also approved use of the Zephyr Bioharness, a compact sensor monitoring heart-rate, speed distance and RR Interval. Place one inside a compression shirt and you look a bit like Iron Man.

"We just launched Motus Pro for our clients. It hasn't been approved for in-game use yet, but that's what's coming next," Hansen added. The Motus Pro upgrade is a network of five sensors, which all communicate with each other, allowing a full lab-style body analysis on the field. It also means the team can bring its expertise to more sports, including golf, tennis and any other activity that involves a rotation of the joints.

"We're going to open up a new paradigm of workloads beyond the elbow. That's really where the future is going - taking sensors and ubiquitously putting them on different parts of the body at high data rates. I think we're going to see more and more of this high-end data embedded into apparel."

Whoop there it is

How wearable sensors could strike out injuries in US pro sports

(Picture credit: ESPN)

While baseball is already embracing wearables as a potential saviour, the National Basketball Association has ejected them from the game… at least for now.

Cleveland Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellevadova was recently banned from wearing the Whoop strap for elite athletes, a new wearable at the forefront of a new school of thought on performance optimisation.

"I think what you're seeing now is a shift where it's not just about working out really heavily, but how you're recovering from exercise," said Whoop's CEO Will Ahmed, who is in talks with the NBA about reinstating the band.

"That's really the untold story for athletes. What's the effect of the other 20 hours a day when you're not exercising? How can you optimise that time for your body?"

As you can imagine, the Whoop isn't your average off-the-shelf wristband. Its array of five sensors take lab-quality readings 100 times per second, collecting an incredible 150-megabytes of data on an athlete per day.

It measures heart rate, variable heart rate, skin conductivity, ambient temperature, and motion for two purposes; calculating the strain placed on the body and the body's subsequent recovery from that strain.

How wearable sensors could strike out injuries in US pro sports

When the strain score is high, wearers are encouraged to take it easy. When the 0-100 recovery score peaks athletes are encouraged "not to waste high recovery," and to "take advantage of your body's readiness to excel."

In calculating this Recovery Score, there's a gigantic focus on sleep. Wearers are informed of the recommended hours of sleep required for optimum recovery. It's a metric athletes are using in their personal lives and teams are using when making travel arrangements for road games.

"We consider sleep tracking just really fundamental to how you understand performance and how you think about optimising performance," Boston-based Ahmed added.

"We're the first platform to tell athletes when to go to bed. We can actually tell you how much sleep you'll need and, on average, our athletes are getting 41 minutes more sleep a night."

Regardless of whether you're an NBA fan or not, it has been hard to avoid one of the major sports stories of 2016; the retirement of all-time great Kobe Bryant. Despite a 60-point showing in his final game, the five-time NBA Champion, 17-time All-Star and two-time league MVP, quite literally limped to the finish line. A ruptured Achilles suffered in 2013 robbed him of his trademark pace, explosiveness and leaping ability. He was never the same, but it needn't have been that way.

"Look at Kobe's Achilles injury," Ahmed tells us. "It came during a 10-day stretch when he was averaging 47 (of 48) minutes a night. There's no question he was just over trained. The team was more concerned with winning the games under their nose as they were with the longevity of his health.

How wearable sensors could strike out injuries in US pro sports

"I think what Whoop can do is help coaches and athletes understand what happens when you over train."

Ahmen said athletes across pro sports (including the BPL) and at Olympic level are experiencing a "Eureka moment," after wearing Whoop, which counts LeBron James and Michael Phelps among its most illustrious users.

The potential results could be longer, healthier careers as athletes are able to avoid injury caused by too much strain and are peaking at play-off time rather than running on fumes.

"The best ability is availability," Ahmed added. "If you have an MVP or a star player who is injured, over-trained and fatigued or on the bench, that person isn't really valuable for you."

"Players will have much longer careers in 3-5 years than players now or a decade earlier with so much focus on the rest and recovery side. I think this whole new age of continuously understanding the body will trump Moneyball in terms of what it's able to do to change athletes careers and what it's able to do to change outcomes of games.

"You'll see key athletes sitting out games more often and you'll see athletes peaking for the playoffs with much more regularity. The teams that really adopt a core investment in this science will have a dramatically lower injury rate."

There are a number of issues to be discussed before Whoop's benefits on the training court, in the gym and even in the bed can be utilised legally in an NBA game. In a sport where hands and arms are flying around in close proximity, safety is a concern. Not only that but the safety of the data is also a concern.

"I think we're going to work closely with all of the leagues to educate them on what Whoop is monitoring, the safety of the product and the privacy associated with it to ultimately help leagues make more informed decisions about how they want to allow during games."

While the NBA and MLB appear to be making strides towards protecting the health of its players through wearable technology, there are other interests in play.

With all other things equal, does the pitcher whose Motus data proves they can handle a heavier workload receive a better contract? Likewise, when it shows a pitcher is more susceptible to a UCL strain, will that big deal pass him by?

Likewise, with Whoop, does its sleep tracking tech threaten the privacy and job security of athletes who are out partying when the data tells them they should be sleeping? When it shows recovery time is slowing, will that player be punished monetarily when the mileage gets too high?

Former NFL receiver for the Cleveland Browns Andrew Hawkins famously said contract negotiations may be slightly different when wearable tech pervades through sports. "They'll just slide the paper over. You'll look at it, get up and walk out. It will be pretty challenging to dispute," he said.

And Brian Kopp of Catapult Sports told ESPN Inside Track last year: "It's going to be a big issue. How are you going to figure out what the front office can use, and what athletes have access to? Hopefully both sides know the benefits. Teams aren't looking to get rid of guys. They want them to help win."

Whoop's Will Ahmed says the power lies wholly with the athletes it works with. Data is handed over to coaches and the team on a voluntary basis. "We collect 150mb of data on an athlete per day," he says. "We believe the athlete owns the data and needs to be empowered to be comfortable with that data and understand how they want to share it."

Out on the football field

How wearable sensors could strike out injuries in US pro sports

The National Football League has an even greater problem than Tommy John: Concussion. Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) is a degenerative brain condition caused by head trauma. Last month the NFL briefly acknowledged the link, before quickly ordering a retraction.

Read this: How the NFL is embracing wearable tech

As a result of the concussion epidemic, former players are winning huge legal settlements, current players are retiring in their prime and future players are… well, there may not be any because parents are choosing safer sports.

As the brain is much more complex than, say, the elbow joint, developing a connected wearable to tackle the problem presents a challenge. The league is offering grants to tech that can limit head trauma, but progress towards actionable systems is slower than a defensive tackle playing wide receiver.

While some NFL franchises are making use of the Whoop strap to measure strain and recovery, only one item of wearable tech is, however, permitted during games. Its concern is not concussions, but fan engagement. Zebra Technologies' RFID sensors can track position, speed, acceleration and distance. That data is transmitted to fans, via the Xbox One and Windows 10 app and handed to broadcasters.

How wearable sensors could strike out injuries in US pro sports

Zebra made its name with similar systems for dairy cows in order to predict milk production and enhance revenue… Ironic given the NFL has often regarded its athletes like livestock.

The RFID sensors do offer data to coaches for post-game analysis and can assist with injury prevention and player health.

Back to injuries and while it may not be on the NFL's radar yet, a Scottish startup looks to be onto something. Sansible Wearable's LiveSkin sensors can measure the force of how hard rugby players and American footballers are hitting and being hit. All data is fed right back to a mobile app in real time.

It can be useful in helping players prevent injuries and also when coming back from them. Are they tackling too hard or not hard enough? Are they hitting at the wrong angle? Are they using a prudent amount of force in their recovery?

LiveSkin measures compression force, both the exerted and incoming force, making it more accurate than systems that calculate force by acceleration according to CEO Jack Ng. The sensors can be placed under the shoulder pads – usually the first point of contact in a tackle – and potentially inside a football helmet. Although there are many other variables to consider, such as the angle and location of hits, it may be someday be an aid in the fight against head trauma.

Because one thing is for sure; the NFL needs help or future generations of pro athletes in the US may be comprised of baseball, basketball and… whisper it… soccer players.

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Chris Smith


Chris has more than decade of experience writing for the UK's foremost technology publications including TechRadar, T3 and more.

 A freelance journalist based near Miami, Florida, Chris has written for Wareable since its inception in 2014. From reviews of the latest fitness devices, and in-depth features on bleeding-edge wearable devices, to future-gazing interviews with some of the industry's brightest minds, Chris covers the lot. He also writes about sport for The Guardian and is the author of many technology guide books, while also dabbling in film, music, beer, travel and political commentary.

When he's isn't smashing away at the keys of his MacBook, Chris can be found at his favourite craft breweries, dangling his rod in the warm waters of the Florida Keys, or exploring the Shropshire countryside.

You can follow his on Twitter but beware, it's mostly sporting and political hot takes, occasionally interspersed with tech-based tweets.

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