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Digitization and sport: the new dream team?

4th July 2018

Photo: Halo Sports

Training alone is no longer enough. Regardless of whether you are a professional or a leisure player. The use of modern technology increases performance and also prevents the risk of injuries.

By Agnieszka Walorska

Higher, further, faster, better - this does not only apply to the current soccer World Cup. Athletes have always tried to improve their performance with both permitted and prohibited means. Thanks to the omnipresent sensors and the unprecedented possibilities of data acquisition and analysis, professional athletes and coaches, but also amateur athletes, have received new solutions to train specific aspects and track progress immediately.

In general, there has been a large growth in popular sport for several years, which runs parallel to the trend towards healthy nutrition and a good work-life balance. 10.1 million people in Germany regularly visit a fitness studio, three million more than seven years ago. The focus on physical activity is also reflected in the growth in sales of fitness trackers by 46 percent since 2013. IHS Technology predicts US $ 2.8 billion in global sales for 2019.

Everyday professional life

Digital technologies such as fitness trackers from Polar or Whoop have already become part of everyday life for competitive athletes. A survey of soccer clubs in the 1st and 2nd Bundesliga shows that over 85 percent use GPS sports watches to record data on the distance traveled, speed and heart rate. In addition, light barriers are used to improve coordination and reaction, as well as intelligent club software to evaluate the data.

More and more sports clubs are also relying on comprehensive monitoring of their athletes. This includes checking blood values ​​and sleep behavior or analyzing body composition (bioimpedance). This is not only intended to achieve optimum training, but also to minimize the risk of injury. With predictive analytics, algorithms warn athletes or coaches of fatigue or poor concentration even before an injury occurs.

Use of technology

Wearable trackers have already made their way into competitions. The US baseball league MLB allows selected devices for league games. Players are allowed to wear a shirt with sensors that record data on breathing rate, posture, speed and activity level.

However, data tracking is just one way technology is used in sports. In the USA, the Olympic ski jumping team, among others, uses neural stimulation. Using the Halo Sport, intelligent headphones, the motor cortex is stimulated with electrical impulses during the warm-up phase. Then the brain should have increased neural plasticity for an hour and be more receptive to training impulses. This is intended to train muscle building and muscle memory more effectively.

In addition, the use of virtual reality technologies is already common in the NFL, NBA and NHL to simulate game situations in training. In Europe, the DFB is considered a VR pioneer. The German national team uses VR glasses to specifically simulate penalty situations for field players and goalkeepers.

Training method

Overall, the DFB is very technology-savvy. In cooperation with SAP, game and training data is collected, evaluated and processed. Important game situations, opposing teams with their strengths, weaknesses and tactics as well as individual players with their shooting behavior when taking penalties are stored in databases. Another innovative training method from Germany is the use of the footbonaut. In a square room, balls are passed to the soccer player from different directions by ball machines. The player has to realize in a short time from which direction the balls are coming and shoot them into alternating goal gates. Cameras record all movements so that coach and player receive detailed statistics about the hit rate or the time between receiving the ball and shooting.

The Institute for Applied Training Sciences in Leipzig is particularly active in the digitization of sport. It has developed a multimedia database that judo fighters can access via smartphones to prepare for competitions and find out about possible opponents. The institute also creates 3-D scans of ski jumpers in order to improve posture when approaching.

Digital aids have also become established in popular sports to measure and optimize training units, recovery and sleep phases or diet.

App time

With Runtastic, one of the first sports apps for smartphones came onto the market in 2009, which initially appealed to runners, hikers and cyclists. In the meantime, the manufacturer has expanded its range to include sports watches and fitness scales for other disciplines. On a platform, users can share their progress and successes with others and access exercise videos or nutrition plans. The app is now used by over 130 million people and was taken over by Adidas in 2015 for 220 million euros.

Strava, MyfitnessPal or Freeletics are just a few popular applications on the new SportTech market, which covers pretty much every aspect of sport, from equipment to communities to coaching.

New times

The applications are usually equipped with interfaces to which wearables dock in order to provide data on exercise, sleep and eating behavior. Xiaomi, Apple, Garmin and Fitbit are currently leading the wearable market worldwide.

Photo: Dragon Images - Shutterstock

Since Fitbit started in 2007, followed by Jawbone, Garmin and the Apple Watch, the wearable market has grown steadily. In 2017, around 1.55 million fitness trackers were sold in Germany alone, and they have long since shaken off the image of clunky devices that immediately expose the user as a tech nerd. The wearables come in countless colors and variants and fit into the fashion trends in the form of ear studs or necklaces as lifestyle accessories. As a lifestyle accessory that is, however, equipped with numerous sensors.

Not just all-rounders

In addition, there is a wide range of sport-specific wearables and apps that focus on individual aspects of sports. For basketball, for example, there are numerous gadgets such as smart sleeves or balls to specifically train throwing precision or dribbling movements.

The range of functions extends beyond the pure performance aspect and also affects areas such as security. In addition to integrated lights and a call system, the smart bicycle helmet from Livall also includes an SOS function that automatically sends an emergency call as soon as the helmet registers an accident. In the Strava app, athletes can also share their training routes or location data via GPS.

Increase in performance

However, the digital possibilities do not only bring advantages. The further the digitalization of sport advances, the greater the danger of transparent athletes. Athletes track their body and performance data in order to stay competitive and at the same time expose themselves to the risk of being monitored by their sports clubs or coaches. It is only a matter of time before fitness trackers and sensors that can be stuck to the skin are a thing of the past and permanent solutions such as implantable chips and smart tattoos are used instead to monitor performance, heart rate, blood pressure, blood oxygen levels, hydration levels and glucose levels measure around the clock. Forms of this control thought could be observed in the run-up to the 2018 Winter Olympics. There the demand was made to oblige Olympic participants to have implants in order to analyze their blood values ​​for possible doping offenses.

With the increasing cost reduction through genome analyzes by 23andMe or Ancestry, genetics is also finding its way into the field of sports. Suppliers and athletes alike allow users to upload their DNA analyzes and have tailor-made training and nutrition plans created that take their individual genetic makeup into account. Is it only a matter of time before such a feature turns into compulsion and results in even stricter admission restrictions for professional sports than already?


Data protectionists also speak out against 24/7 control mechanisms. Imke Sommer, State Commissioner for Data Protection and Freedom of Information in Bremen, points out that data tracking equates to performance checks which, according to the case law of the Federal Labor Court, should not be complete: "It must be clear, now a test is done and then there is none."

For amateur athletes, too, new risks arise when they entrust their intimate fitness data to companies and servers in the cloud. According to a BITKOM survey from 2016, 39 percent of consumers see a risk when using wearables that the data could be re-used by third parties.

An incident with the Strava sports network underscores the fact that the data is explosive that is not immediately apparent at first glance. Strava offers users the option of uploading training data (training performance and routes) to the platform and sharing them with other users. In November 2017, Strava published a map on which all previous user activities were visualized. Using this visualization, military analysts were able to identify hidden military bases, for example, in Syria and Afghanistan, and read routes and camp structures.

The digitization of sport is in full swing. Not only the few professional athletes benefit from innovative products and training methods, every amateur athlete also has access to a multitude of new possibilities. At the same time, the development brings with it new challenges that should not be ignored.

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