Blood, sweat & sports tech: Grit, ingenuity and innovations boosting player performance

New Zealanders love sport, and more than anything, they love excelling at it. A mix of good ol’ Kiwi ingenuity and grit in the sports arena has created an industry rich in innovation designed to improve player performance. Caitlin Salter laces up to investigate.

Arthur Lydiard, a pocket dynamo of a man, was already a celebrated track and field coach when he introduced the world to jogging.

Lydiard kicked a smoking habit and began running seriously in the late 1930s.

Over the next decade he modified his coaching techniques and began producing champions – first Murray Halberg and Bill Baillie, then Barry Magee, Peter Snell, John Davies, and dozens of others. They won Olympic and Empire Games medals and set world records.

Lydiard’s innovative coaching methods were initially scoffed at. His runners trained so hard that sceptics said Lydiard would burn them out, but instead they kept improving until the track and field world realised he was on to something.

Amazingly, though he was a pioneering and revolutionary athletics coach, that wasn’t his most significant contribution to running.

In 1961, Lydiard organised a world first – the Auckland Jogging Club – and introduced thousands to the method of building up physical fitness by gradually increasing stamina.

He helped set up all sorts of jogging groups – weekend runners, people recovering from cardiac surgery, women looking to regain fitness after childbirth, serious competitive runners, veterans, juniors. The jogging boom swept New Zealand.

Superstar American track and field coach Bill Bowerman visited New Zealand soon after and was so taken by Lydiard’s training philosophes that he took them back to the United States. He also introduced jogging on a mass scale to the United States.

The jogging movement has had a major impact on health worldwide and its genesis can be traced back to Lydiard – just one example of a pioneering New Zealander who laid a path for the rest of the world. And New Zealand hasn’t stopped innovating in sport since.

In the past two decades, the sports technology industry has grown worldwide with the biggest markets being the United States and Europe. But it is New Zealand that is really outperforming its size, producing products and services that have taken off around the world – just like jogging.

New Zealand Trade and Enterprise customer director Charles Haddrell says while some companies are flying under the radar, sports technology is growing fast. “New Zealand has a reasonably good competitive advantage because we’re so sports focused,” he says.

Haddrell works with companies like Performance Lab, which has pioneered the use of wearable sensors since 1987 and is now a developer of proprietary algorithms and software platforms for fitness and health applications.

Because New Zealand is a small test-bed for this new niche of products, any developing company has to have an eye on the export potential.

NZTE customer manager Erika Kuoch holds sports technology clients in her F700 portfolio, for companies that are fast growing. “There is an enormous market internationally,” she says. “About 60 million tracking devices will be purchased globally this year.”

Onehunga-based company StretchSense produces soft sensor technology for measuring human body motion. StretchSense won the sports and fitness category of the Wearable Technologies Innovation World Cup 14/15 and now has about 100 customers, generally large corporates, in 16 countries.

Dunedin-based company The Tarn Group put its product Siliconcoach – a tool for coaches to film an athlete’s technique – out into the international market with great results. Siliconcoach is now used in 40 countries, particularly cricket and rugby nations.

The biggest industry shift in the past 10 years has been getting products out of the lab and on to the court and field. The VX Sport system enables users to monitor their game and training sessions, and provides detailed analysis and comparison with past sessions.

VX Sport chief executive Richard Snow says the reason sports technology is growing in New Zealand is partially because of the small market. “Being a New Zealand-based company means we are able to talk to elite coaches and academics relatively easily and engage in discussions,” he says.

Sports technology in New Zealand is largely focused on preserving the welfare of the athlete, he says. “The welfare of players has always been a focus of New Zealand’s coaches, and our technology creates a transparency for athletes and accountability for their welfare.”

The core export markets are the United States, United Kingdom and Australia, but a lot of innovation comes from the southern hemisphere. New Zealand is too small to sustain its own innovation, which is why products rely on access to the international market, Snow says.

Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand (SPRINZ) co-director John Cronin says there is a lot happening in the sports technology space in New Zealand. “[The industry] is gaining momentum,” he says. “There are a huge number of existing and startup companies in this space in New Zealand.”

And the industry is still growing. The wearable technology sector alone is forecast to grow into a US$70 billion market by 2025.

An important part of leading research in this area is making sure the products and services are what the sports require. “You have to ensure the technology helps rather than hinders what athletes do,” Cronin says. “We focus on working out what advantages us and what important information we need to collect to drive improvements.”

The institute is working on a variety of projects, including smart textiles and respiratory devices. Jono Neville has recently joined forces with Cronin to make waves in sports technology in New Zealand.

Neville says sports technology is one of the fastest growing industries in the country because New Zealanders love sports. “There has always been a strong drive for sports, and people are passionate about it so they want to improve it,” he says.

Though there has been a push for technology at an elite level in New Zealand, the start-up market is also growing. “There are a lot of companies right on the market-edge of being ready to become commercial companies. That is creating some great opportunities that are quite unique to New Zealand.”

The question of technology playing too much of a part in sports will always be asked, Neville says. “The drive to look at performance enhancement, rather than performance feedback, will have to be closely watched.”

Roy Nates, a mechanical and engineering lecturer at Auckland University of Technology, says the academic side of the industry is starting to make a name for itself. “We are bringing science and engineering into the sports world and New Zealand is really punching above its weight,” he says. “A lot of sports in New Zealand are underfunded and that means a lot of the development of sports technology and equipment is happening on a small basis.”

David Gray, head strength and conditioning coach of the Hurricanes rugby franchise, says the aim of using technology in training is to maximise performance. “No two players respond exactly the same to training stimulus so we need to know what works and what doesn’t,” Gray says.

The Super Rugby team uses a wide combination of different technologies: VX Sport GPS, Firstbeat’s Heart Rate Monitoring, a gym-based system called Gym Aware that tracks velocity.

“All this technology allows us to be more specific in the training we prescribe, monitor performance improvement and therefore assess the effectiveness of training,” Gray says.

By assessing his own situation and using himself as a test subject, Arthur Lydiard created a movement that is still flourishing today. His global success was a precursor of New Zealand’s modern ambitions in the sports world, whether they be on the court and field or in the lab.

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FANZONE

Sports fans’ experiences are being improved by developing technology like never before. We take a look at some of the sports technology designed to keep fans in the game.

Camera technology

Camera technology has dramatically improved the way fans see sport. High-quality camera-equipped sports arenas are making sure fans don’t miss a minute. Audiences at stadiums and at home now expect the coverage of big-ticket games to be covered from all angles, all the time. Many sports leagues are using 3D video, capturing 360-degree views, giving fans the ability to watch from inside the action. GoPros have become a must-have sporting accessory for pros right down to amateurs, particularly utilised by thrill-seeking downhill sports such as mountain biking and snowboarding to record rides.

Digital stadiums

Stadiums around the world are pushing to improve their technology to counter changing demographics, lure fans away from their televisions and boost revenues. Adding connectively to stadiums, from adding Wi-Fi to adding services and apps, have the aim of improving the fan experience at venues. The Barclays Center – home to the Brooklyn Nets – is consider the most connected stadium in the world with free Wi-Fi and an in-house team app, which shows instant replays and different camera angles on mobile phones. Fans can also order drinks and food from their seats.  

Action analysis

Hawk Eye cameras are now widely used in cricket, tennis, soccer and hurling for visually tracking the ball and displaying a record of its statistical path. The system was originally implemented in 2001 for making the television broadcast more interactive. In cricket, the Snickometer is used to graphically analyse sound and video and show the noise frequency to find out whether the ball touches the bat. A Hot Spot infra-red imaging system is also used to determine where the ball has struck, turning fans at home into the third-umpire.

Graphics and Animation

No longer do home sports fans expect to sit in front of the television and get a single-camera view of the game. Graphics and animations can now make the most ignorant fan an expert in the state of play.  Sports graphics started with sailing and the America’s Cup about 25 years ago, revolutionising the way sailing fans watched the sport.  Animation company Virtual Eye Sports is a major player in the sports graphics game, producing graphics and animations for cricket, golf, sailing, motorsports and snow sports. Technology includes graphics showing fielding positions in cricket, and providing 3D tracks and driving lines in Formula One.

Social media

The role of social media in sports has altered the sports landscape significantly. Athletes share information and brands advertise from multiple social platforms, engaging with fans from all corners of the world. Social media has also changed sports reporting. Fans now post information about games online while they are still in action, making sports reports filed to mainstream media at the end of the game obsolete. Not only can athletes communicate with their fans in an intimate way, they can also curate their personal brands – turning more athletes into celebrities.

eSports

Technology is not only changing how we watch sports, it has also created a sport out of itself.  A new sporting world, eSports, is a form of sports where the primary aspects are facilitated by electronic systems. Most often eSports take the form of multiplayer video game competitions. Tournaments like the League of Legends World Championship see professional players compete against each other.  Organised online and offline competitions have been part of video game culture since it began, but participation and spectatorship has surged in popularity since the late 2000s.

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NIKE INNOVATOR ON HIS NEXT SPORT TECHNOLOGY

Dr Erez Morag is a former innovation expert at Nike and the founder of Acceler8 Performance, where he is focused on devising ways of translating innovative sport science into innovative training routines to enhance high-speed decision making. We asked him about what’s next in performance enhancing sports technology.

Dr Erez Morag.

Technologically-enabled analytics of athletes has drastically changed not only the way athletes train but the way they play. Where do you see that heading?

I worked most of my life in biomechanics and then I realised that the way the body moves is influenced by what you see. In the last four-and-a-half years, I’ve got more and more involved in cognitive training, especially high speed decision training and game vision training. I think this area of cognitive training is the next breakthrough in sports.

What if you can improve an athlete's eye reaction time and peripheral vision? They're going to see things just a few milliseconds earlier. That will allow them to anticipate the next move better than they could have done before they had their eye reaction time improved. Once they anticipate better, they can get into the ball – whether it's soccer, basketball, tennis – in a better body position. When they do that, you can hit the ball, shoot the ball, strike the ball with greater accuracy. And if you're getting to the ball with better posture, you can potentially decrease your chance of injury. And technology can play a large role in that area.

Part of your training regime involves use of Nike strobe eyewear. How do strobe glasses improve performance?

The eyewear takes away some of the visual information. It blinks, taking away some of the athlete's vision so they have to complete the picture in their mind. They see part of the picture and need to complete it, which trains their anticipation. There are scientific studies showing that working with that technology improves your anticipation timing. That's what I'm working on – the methodology to gain anticipation and to retain those gains.