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“This is some of the most expensive human real estate in the world," said Leslie Saxon, a cardiologist and the executive director of USC's Center for Body Computing.
She was referring to athletes like $72 million-man LeBron James, who famously cramped up in Game 1 of the NBA finals this year. Saxon believes that if James had been training with sensors that could detect his biometrics, he might have predicted the cramping and avoided it (though it would have been tough to predict the failure of the AT&T Center's air conditioner).
"There are early warning systems when you're about to cramp up," Saxon said. "The more you know about your training, the better you'll be."
Biometrics and sensors are quietly making inroads into many sports to detect vital signs while athletes train and even play. Saxon originally set out to prevent dangerous heart conditions from felling elite athletes by predicting when these events would happen. But the study of biometrics is evolving into a tool that can maximize performance, extend careers and even become a revenue stream for athletes. Stats like shooting percentages and RBIs aren't enough—now we're looking inside athletes' bodies, at respiration levels and heart rate BPMs.
Professional and college teams across the U.S. and around the world, including the World Cup winning German soccer team, the Pittsburgh Pirates and dozens of others, are using biometric tracking devices. It goes beyond the "Moneyball" obsession with complex sports analytics to "bio sports stats" that give managers and athletes more insight than ever into performance. And its impact is felt off the field too, letting fans know that, for example, when Pirates outfielder Travis Snider steps up to the plate, his heart rate can climb up to 180 beats.
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The biometric trackers, which run the gamut from small electronic devices that fit in compression shirts to something resembling a stick-on tattoo, can monitor heart rate, breathing, perspiration, lactic acid and other vital signs. They can contain some combination of accelerometer, radio, GPS unit, magnetometer and gyroscope.
With enough data, trainers can predict what will happen to an athlete based on previous events. Trainers of the German national soccer team can tell if a player is getting sick or fatigued if their heart rate remains elevated compared to what it was when they did the same drill previously.
Trainers have also embraced biometrics in sports with high injury rates like rugby, which loses each player for an average of 2 games per season. The New South Wales Waratahs rugby team in Australia, for example, suffered separated shoulders and torn knees that can leave eight players on a 35-player roster on the bench for a typical game. In 2013, 18 players suffered 24 injuries, which cost the club roughly $2.7 million dollars and contributed to a ninth place finish.
Desperate to keep its roster healthy, the team turned to IBM as a technology partner to bring the lessons of cloud analytics to the sweaty struggle of the rugby field. The company used its data expertise to track the Waratahs players' biometrics on the field using tracking units beneath their uniforms for practice and games, and their diet and sleep regimens off it.
From each of the 119 data points that measure everything from force of tackles to calorie counts, IBM then uses predictive analytics to help trainers better understand what's injuring their players. Anecdotal evidence is promising; the team has dominated opposition this season, topping Super Rugby's Australia Conference for the first time in team history with a point differential of more than 200. Moreover, only six players had suffered nine injuries as of playoff time.
"We thought the majority of injuries just happened," said NSW Waratahs Athletic Development Manager Haydn Masters. "Now we know we can prevent them and predict them."
The same biometrics data that can prevent injuries is also some of the most personal data imaginable: a record of an athlete's every heartbeat, their speed, and their ability to withstand blows. USC's Saxon sees enormous possibilities in that data, both for people who want to study it and for the athletes.
"A lot of the issues with athletes is that they become these cultural figures and then when they're done, they're done and they're discarded," Saxon said. "Biometrics is an additional way to compensate the athlete."
The emerging adoption of biometrics promises to not only enhance performance and lengthen careers, but also promises to be an immortal record of bodies in motion in the form of data, giving fans a look at how their favorite athletes' bodies work—and a way to understand how they play the game.