The Golden State Warriors just broke the seemingly untouchable regular season wins record of the 1995-1996 Chicago Bulls and are beginning their quest for back-to-back NBA championships. That’s a far cry from 2010, when they were sold to new ownership and were one of the worst-performing teams in the NBA.
Obviously, this drastic turnaround would not be possible without their game-changing superstar Stephen Curry, his partner-in-crime Klay Thompson, and emotional leader Draymond Green, as well as the rest of the players on a deep and talented roster. However, in addition to raw talent, outstanding health has been a key to success. How has Golden State avoided the injury bug? They are one of a growing number of NBA teams using cutting edge digital technology to aid sports performance.
In the 2014-2015 NBA season, the Warriors reached the peak of basketball glory, winning the NBA championship for the first time in 40 years. During the championship run, according to an ESPN study, the Warriors had fewer minutes lost to injury than any other team. While some good fortune is involved anytime a team finishes the season unscathed, members of the Warriors squad do not see the health they have enjoyed as mere coincidence. Wingman Andre Iguodala stated, “All those [technologies] played a role in our team being rested going into the Finals, no one being hurt all year, which you could say helped us win a championship”.
Over the course of an 82 game season wear and tear, overuse, fatigue and stress all push an athlete’s body to its limit. Yet it seemed the Warriors always knew exactly when and how much rest players needed to avoid injury and play with more energy in critical fourth quarters. Ultimately, it comes down to the masterful handling of head coach Steve Kerr, but he was aided through data collected and analyzed by digital technology, in particular wearables, which allowed the team to perform biomechanical analysis of players that was never before possible.
While wearables are banned in games, many NBA teams make heavy use of the technology in practice. So what wearable technology is available to teams? A widely popular one is a monitoring device from Catapult Sports. The device is small enough to fit in the lining of players’ compression shirts and utilizes a GPS system to track movement, an accelerometer to measure starts and stops, a gyroscope to quantify rotational motion, a magnetometer to gauge direction and a microprocessor to allow data to be monitored in real time. Another device from Omegaweave involves attaching electrodes to a players face to monitor heart rate variability. Zephyr Performance Systems has created a harness that measures training intensity by tracking data on heart rate, breathing rate, core temperature and more. Zebra Technologies offers electronic “stickers” that measure force and impact on players’ bodies, which will hopefully aid in concussion prevention. These are just a few examples of the ever-growing number of companies making plays in the biomechanical analysis space.
All of this amazing technology has made hordes of new data about players available. It is of paramount importance to be able to aggregate, quantify and display data to players and coaches in a way that allows them to understand and act on the information being pulled in. It is an exciting field that presents challenges and possibilities from both an analytics and design standpoint.
One of the pioneers in this space is Lightwave, who teamed up with Degree to create Degree MotionSense Lab. The aim is to analyze all the data that is collected during a workout. The Lab recently released a video series featuring Curry called, “Stephen Curry: Every Move Counts” which showcases some of the ways in which Curry’s performance in practice can be tracked.
The software pulls information in from wearables (i.e. a heart rate tracker or an accelerometer), and can actually compare that to external data such as a decibel measure of breathing rate. All this is crunched together and displayed in real time, allowing athletes and coaches to monitor stress and fatigue levels, make adjustments and gain a holistic view of athlete performance under different conditions. Teams are using this data in order to understand exactly how athletes’ bodies are holding up, and if they are reaching levels of fatigue and overuse that will make them much more prone to injury.
While the sample impact of bioanalytics on athlete injuries is small, it has had encouraging results. Encouraging enough that the number of teams using Catapult jumped from 2 in 2012 (the Spurs and Mavericks), to 11 last season, to 19 this season. When it comes to the hypercompetitive world of professional sports, the difference in technology used between teams is minimal, but even a small difference can be enough to push a team over the edge. And as with all advantages, teams look to close that gap, which is why the Warriors success is undoubtedly causing other teams to invest in bioanalytics if they haven’t already. However for the time being, as the team located in the Bay Area, with a front office full of former tech leaders, it appears the Warriors have gained the technological edge.
Image: The Big Lead