Technology is all about us. In fact, as each day passes, technology advances. With these advances we should expect better performances, at least in a sporting sense.
As the upcoming 6-Nations Rugby tournament gets under way we take a close-up of the presence of technology in the preparation and monitoring of players.
To start with, let’s consider Dr Sherylle Calder’s role as a vision specialist with the England Rugby squad for the forthcoming 6-Nations period. Recent articles highlight her intention to bring awareness of how technology in the form of the mobile phone may be limiting the visual perception and fitness of the player.
Technology it seems can thus be positive in terms of facilitating better monitoring and preparation of players, but it can also be negative in terms of its impact on performance as Calder highlights with the overuse of personal smartphone time or screen time by players.
In this series of articles, we will highlight some key technologies that are used in player preparation and team performance analysis. This might help you in deciding if such technology has a place within your programme.
Everyone is, by now, familiar with the small gadget that is fitted to the underside of the jersey between the shoulder blades of the player. The tracking unit is about the size of 2 AA batteries and houses all the technologies such as accelerometry and nowadays gyroscope technology.
Figure 1. GPS unit located between shoulderblades of jersey is subsequently placed in docking station, and metrics are downloaded.
GPS is used not only by international teams but by all professional teams, and now by club and school teams as they all seek to gain a competitive advantage. Up to about 2 years ago the data contained in the units were subsequently downloaded in a docking station post match and then the coach and players were briefed on their performance.
Nowadays technology allows a player’s performance to be recorded and reported immediately during match-play. Such information tells the team coaches and players key performance ‘metrics’ such as the total distance covered by a player in match-play, the number of accelerations and decelerations and the impact during any given contact or tackle. These and many more performance metrics are then used by the team coaches to track and plan the workload during match play. Should a player show a reduction in these metrics or workrate then the coach may decide to substitute that player. Note also that many players want to be back as quickly as possible on to their feet following tackling or rucking and yes, the GPS unit will tell the coach and the player how quickly the player is getting back to his feet so that he can now be more involved and engaged in the action. For those who want a more detailed overview of GPS technology in international rugby check out www.the42.ie/gps-technology-rugby-1113025-Oct2013/
First to use GPS
Would you believe that one of the first uses of GPS in team sports was to track the workload of Rugby Union referees? In doing so, in 2001/2002 a group of researchers from Japan reported the overall distance covered by Rugby Union referees using GPS units that resembled the old mobile phones. The authors interestingly noted that soccer referees covered a greater overall distance during match-play compared to Rugby Union referees (4,639 metres v 3,739 metres, respectively). Also back in the early 2000’s we completed several studies using GPS to track the performance of key officials – all with a view to helping them become better at their role.
One of the first Rugby Union teams to effectively use GPS technology for team match performance and training performance was an Irish provincial team in the season 2007/2008. The company that delivered this service was also an Irish owned one – Statsports – founded by Alan Clarke and based in Dundalk. Thus for almost 10 years, Statsports, have provided GPS technology to some of the Irish provinces and to the national teams.
The use of this smart technology has, it may be argued, played a key role in the advance of Irish Rugby and has also supported Irish rugby to be a real international competitive force.
We certainly give GPS technology a big thumbs up in terms of its positive impact in team sport. In fact its potential to better manage a player’s performance and indeed assist in reducing injury risk has yet to be fully exploited.
Other technologies in Rugby Union
Other technologies that are worth commenting on relate to those used in monitoring a player’s adaptation to training and also in monitoring a player’s return to baseline following match play. Leading professional teams now have an array of technologies built into the daily conditioning routine. For example, some use force plates which are often embedded into the platform within the strength and conditioning facility. The use of recent advances in force plates technology such as the dual plate from ForceDecks which is illustrated in Figure 2 below. This allows the coach and scientist to assess how much force each leg is generating as they push off the ground or jump.
Figure 2. Forcedecks being used to assess jump performance in youth players.
This data helps the coach or scientist to decide if the normal balance in leg strength and power of the player has changed due to, for example, fatigue following intense training or match-play. It can thus be used as an indicator of fatigue, overall balance between left and right limbs, training adaptation and readiness to return to train or play. Previously, teams used jump mat technology to determine the leg power or jump height of players. This simple technology is now being replaced with more sensitive instruments capable of measuring the rate of force development and other important metrics that track a player’s recovery and strength, power and speed development.
In my next blog post, I will also describe some other technologies that allow us to plan day-to-day training for the rugby player.