Professional sports organizers and athletes are becoming increasingly attentive to the health risks of certain sports—especially high-impact and contact sports. Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs), cardiovascular problems, and other health issues can immediately (and sometimes irreversibly) change an athlete’s life forever. If these issues are detected proactively, in the middle of a high-intensity event, health experts can step in and hopefully mitigate the negative effects.
To aid in proactive detection, athletes, coaches, and other professionals are turning to wearable devices for help. But how exactly do they work, and what are the positive effects?
The Effects of Improved Athlete Safety
Most athletes understand the risks they face when entering the ring, the field, or the court. But it’s also important for us to collectively minimize those risks as much as possible. Improved athlete safety is obviously beneficial at the individual level; each employee with a wearable device has a lower risk of death and injury. But the positive effects extend far beyond that individual level.
- Lifetime athlete performance. Athletes who suffer fewer injuries and have better per-match outcomes will be able to sustain much longer, more fulfilling careers. Athletes won’t feel pressured or forced into retirement, and will therefore be able to entertain fans for a much longer period of time.
- Participation and fandom. Higher levels of safety in professional sports will encourage more people to get involved with sports; there will be more willing athletes, and therefore a larger talent pool to choose from. Additionally, fans will appreciate the higher safety rates, and may be more willing to participate in the future.
- Insurance company benefits. Health insurance companies can also benefit from wearable technology. The costs of treating sports-related injuries can be enormous, but if you identify and treat potential problems before they grow worse, those costs are sharply reduced. This leads to less financial impact on the health insurance companies themselves, and lower rates for everyone paying for insurance.
- Secondary metrics. Sports fans love to see statistics from their favorite athletes, so why not take things to another level? On the surface, fans may be able to see the heart rate of their favorite athlete spike when he sprints toward a goal. And if you collect and combine multiple data points, you can analyze things like sprint speed, jump height, and explosiveness with much greater accuracy.
Wearable Devices and Key Metrics
There are many types of wearable devices available for athletes in the modern era, including watches, compression shirts, headbands, and more. Typically, these devices measure signature metrics, including:
- Heart rate.
- Breathing rate.
- Heart rate variance.
Immediately, you can see some of the health implications for measuring these metrics. If an athlete’s heart rate begins to fluctuate wildly, or if it grows unexpectedly fast, someone can step in and pull them out of the game for further monitoring. Similarly, if an athlete suffers a direct impact (like a tackle on the football field), you can immediately measure it to see whether it was as destructive as it seemed.
This also opens the door to several secondary and tertiary metrics, some of which allow for more accurate health-related measurements, and some of which directly monitor athlete performance. For example, you can measure things like jump height, air time, and peak force.
If these wearable devices can greatly improve athlete safety while having a ton of secondary positive effects for the sports industry, why aren’t all athletes of all sports using them?
Unfortunately, there are still several hurdles to overcome.
- Interference and player willingness. While most athletic wearable devices are designed to be minimally invasive, some are naturally bound to impact athletic performance. The shirts, vests, bands, and other items might be less comfortable than typical attire, and may cause athletic performance to suffer. Even if that isn’t the case, athletes may believe it’s the case, and may refuse to wear them.
- Cost. Wearable devices are designed and produced with cost effectiveness in mind. However, the most advanced wearable technologies are still in the earliest stages of development, and are sometimes cost prohibitive—especially if you’re interested in outfitting an entire team. Even so, most major sports teams should have room for this in their budgets.
- Reliability and insights. Not all wearable devices will be perfectly reliable in the metrics they measure. Even if they are, our data analytics and medical insights may not be good enough to perfectly predict the most serious health issues.
Still, wearable devices are already making a positive impact on the world of professional sports, helping athletes reduce their chance of injury even in the most extreme sports. It will be some time before wearable devices become a universal feature of sports around the world, but that seems like the eventual goal.