FIFA, ICC Cricket World Cup, Olympics, Grand Slams, Formula 1– the list goes on and on. So many disciplines, so many rules, so many styles of performance, so many genetics performing at the same time. This is reason enough for a data scientist to get super excited. And rightfully excited they are. Sports at the international level doesn’t just bring out the best of the human condition, it also brings out the best of human technology that promises a spectacular performance. To bring this performance, the key metrics mentioned above serve as the foundation upon which companies such as Nike, Reebok, Adidas & Puma, to name a few, build their top of the line sports apparel and accessories. Sports Analytics (SA), as the term has come to be known, has become critical for companies aiming to be the best in the business of delivering world class performances. But how does SA work? We’ll take up two sports I love talking about to understand the role of SA namely swimming and running
One of the world’s best swimming apparel brands, Speedo, brought out its latest line of swimwear for competitive swimming namely the LZR Racer. Taking help from NASA, sports institutes and swimmers the world over, Speedo managed to deliver a swimsuit that was not only a perfect specimen of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Human Intelligence (HI) but it also set records at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Legendary swimmer Michael Phelps won his Olympic Gold Medals wearing the aforementioned suit. The team at Speedo, spent close to 55,000 man hours trying to make the radical suit. To achieve their target, the R&D team spent considerable time with experts from the world of swimming, kinesiology, biomechanics and even conjured up 3-D models of the kind of forces that the human body would have to overcome when swimming against the clock at competitive events. They were ultimately able to come out with a suit that not only proved to be a breakthrough at the Olympics, it also served as the model upon which other brands began to model their own designs.
Another independent research team from the University of Regina in Canada used accelerometers to conduct swimming biomechanics research and performance analysis. Accelerometers are motion sensors that are used by smartphone and automobile companies to enable screen rotation and build airbag units respectively. The accelerometers are accurate enough to detect the drag and speed recorded by each swimmer doing different kinds of swimming styles namely butterfly, backstroke, breaststroke and freestyle.
The world of competitive running too isn’t far from using analytics in their sports apparel. Nike, for instance, worked closely with Kenyan long distance runner Eliud Kipchoge to break the sub-2 hour marathon world record. Observing the athlete’s stance, body dynamics and speed, Nike and Kipchoge were able to set a new record of completing the 2018 Berlin Marathon in 2:01:39 seconds! This was just a couple seconds of breaching the coveted 2 hour mark. Not content with just this, Nike has also launched the Nike+Running application for iOS and Android users. The app, through its detailed run schedules and event calendars, not only helps runners of all levels and ages to set personal bests, it also helps lets the user see real time data of his/her performance on solo or competitor runs. One enthusiastic person used the app to write an enviable piece of intricate code as well!
As technology and human willpower keep progressing, the limits to sports and records will be redefined from time to time. These are interesting times for sports indeed!