As wearables get more prevalent and popular, we're starting to see a move from general fitness devices, like the Apple Watch or various Fitbits, into more specific niches. Kids' trackers, for example, are starting to gain more traction, with Qualcomm honing in on this growing area of tech.
Professional sports wearables are another. Sports teams want wearables to help improve their players' performances, but what exactly do professional athletes want from a wearable device?
It turns out the answer is far too nuanced for a blanket statement. The one thing that every athlete has in common, though, the one thing that pushes them to achieve the greatest goals in their sport, is the same thing that dictates what they want from a wearable: competition.
The aura of competition
"The athlete really, at the end of the day, is driven by this aura of competition," says Dr Phil Wagner, founder of sports data company Sparta Science. "They really want to know two things: Am I getting better? Meaning 'Am I healthier or am I stronger or more resilient?' And the second thing they want to know is 'Am I better than my peers?'"
Wagner would know. He's a former high school and college football player who injured multiple body parts, and he found himself surprised by how much guesswork was involved in trying to figure out how to treat and prevent his injuries. When he became a strength and conditioning coach for colleges and pro teams, he saw that his experience was mirrored elsewhere.
So he went to medical school to see how doctors approached disease, and founded Sparta Science, which uses a pressure plate that players perform an athletic move on. The movement signature is captured and standardised, then compared to those of other athletes their age and within their sport. Sparta's software takes that data and lets athletes know what they do well, what they don't do well, what their injury risks are, and what are the best ways to prevent them in the future.
Before using Sparta's tech, the University of San Francisco was paying $450,000 in insurance claims every year, which Wagner says is average for a college of that size. That number went down to $200,000 after using Sparta's tech. A couple of years later, and after a couple more years of using the technology, USF is now paying around $46,000 in insurance claims.
Sparta has two approaches to business. It works with individual athletes, giving them workout plans based on their pressure plate data, and with larger organisations, licensing out their technology so that teams can use it. Clients include teams like the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Cavaliers, Kansas State, the University of Texas and San Jose Earthquakes.
In each case, what separates Sparta from the competition is a focus on what the player wants from the data. Ron Shinault, head athletic trainer for the Earthquakes, tells Wareable that what athletes want the most is the ability to compare their data to previous training sessions, games and even other players – harking back to Wagner's aura of competition. They want something accurate and comfortable, but after that, what they want is down to the specific athlete. There are no blanket statements in sports data.
The athlete really, at the end of the day, is driven by this aura of competition
"People have tried to separate out performance into different areas, but the reality is that it's an individual decision," Wagner says. "Some athletes need more recovery, some athletes need more performance. There are certain athletes on a team that don't need to perform at a higher level, they just need to perform that way every day. There are others that need to perform at a higher level and need more of a performance approach."
Accuracy may be the most underappreciated part of a sports wearable. Similar to how you or I are likely to give up on Alexa or Siri if they keep mishearing us, athletes can easily give up on data-driven performance improvements.
"The data that's being collected [on some wearables] is so unreliable that, as a result, a lot of the changes that the athlete sees within themselves and against their peers is so inconsistent that it's trouble to maintain engagement because a lack of trust starts to evolve," Wagner explains. "And that lack of trust is pervasive. So a lot of people that don't have experience in sports don't understand the level or urgency that exists and they also don't understand the level of irrationality that exists in sports."
Wearables with the assist
Once athletes find a device that does provide them with consistent, reliable data, they're unlikely to want to give that up. No one knows this better than Whoop, a wearable maker that has seen NBA players like LA Clipper DeAndre Jordan and Milwaukee Buck Matthew Dellavedova risk fines to wear the Whoop Strap on the court, where it's banned.
Whoop CEO Will Ahmed tells Wareable that seeing players willing to incur fines is a sign that the company's data is valuable to the players. Other signs might include the big deal it recently signed with the NFL Players Association, which will allow athletes to control and profit from their wearable data, and Major League Baseball. Oh, and probably the fact that the NBA itself sees the kind of data Whoop collects from its Strap as valuable. So valuable that the league doesn't want athletes using it during contract negotiations, which is the reason the NBA banned wearables from games in the first place.
Because wearables have the potential to be used during games, unlike something more advanced like Sparta's pressure plate, they also have the potential to be used as a negotiating tool. In this way, they can help make athletes wealthier in addition to being healthier. Ahmed says this is something the NFL PA wanted, because if it didn't want players having the ability to profit off their health data, it wouldn't have agreed to a contract with Whoop.
The other benefit of having a device on you all the time is that it can keep track of things other devices can't, like travelling and sleeping. Ahmed says athletes like finding out that they need to travel a day or two before the game in order for them to be fully recovered and able to perform. In fact, Whoop's recovery analysis – which uses a 0–100 scale to tell an athlete how ready they are – is one of the stickiest features the company has, Ahmed says.
Whoop also likes using the wearable data and overlaying it with in-game performance data to tell athletes how their recovery affects their performance specifically. "For example, if an athlete has a higher recovery they're more likely to have a higher free throw percentage or field goal performance or less turnovers," Ahmed says. So if they're not fully recovered, an athlete knows how they might perform worse and adjust.
Other wearables provide data that can help athletes in other sports. For example, Jens Voigt, Fitbit ambassador and former professional cyclist, tells Wareable that he uses his Fitbit to measure heart rate against cycling power output. If a cyclist knows they can push 400 watts with a heart rate of 190, they know how they can optimise themselves.
"You still want to be able to push 400 watts, but maybe at 170 heart rate," Voigt says. "The fitter you get, the lower your heart rate is, the easier it gets for you to reach that power output because you know what your heart rate was at this certain watts at the start of the season."
Another important piece of data, especially for a cyclist, is water logging. Voigt says he pairs his smart water bottle with Fitbit's platform to keep track of how much water he drinks, because cyclists can go through a lot of water during a race. "Just a normal day, nice weather, let's say you do 200km flat, you probably drink at least 6–7 litres," he explains.
While Fitbits are more general sports devices, the company has slowly begun making inroads in the professional world. For instance, it recently agreed to a deal with the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves. The Timberwolves will display the Fitbit logo on their jerseys and Fitbit will provide the T-Wolves with software and hardware for players and other employees to use to keep track of their fitness.
Teamwork makes the dream work
Technology moves fast, and in the past couple of years we've seen simple step trackers gain the ability to track sleep, heart rate, VO2 Max and more. In the coming years, it's highly likely our wearables will gain the ability to capture even more data.
But what athletes want more than anything is for that data to tell them how they're getting better. "The ability to comprehend or educate the users on that information has not been evolving as fast as the technology itself," Wagner says.
In the meantime athletes and companies like Whoop, Fitbit and Sparta are all having open dialogues, with athletes requesting more features and more ways to find out how they're improving – or how they can improve. Voigt says he tells Fitbit he wants more devices that are waterproof – and he says the company is working on it. More than anything, he wants something that can track lactic acid buildup.
"Some days you have a good day or bad day, your training plan is written do 400 watts for five minutes at 180 heart rate and you just couldn't get there," Voigt says. "You push really, really hard to reach 180 heart rate. But if you had knowledge about your lactic acid maybe your body that day is just not ready to do it and you need to recover a little more."
What do athletes want from their data? Many things, but most importantly, whatever will make them better.
How we test