GPS: Tracking the way to victory

In recent years clubs have been permitted to use GPS software in matches on top of the data they already gained from training. This seemed an obvious but extremely prolonged step in the direction of more technology in football. Catapult are one of the handful of GPS providers used by football clubs and Boden Westover of the company spoke to the Beautiful Science about the industry’s growth in sport and specifically how football has benefitted from GPS.

Catapult was founded in Australia at the turn of the millennium and has grown in influence across an array of sports since then, despite a lot of sources stating that the company formed as late as 2006. Westover explained how Catapult began their journey to leading the GPS field which currently sees their equipment used by over 1,000 teams in various sports all over the world: “We invented the technology before the 2000 Sydney Olympics, but it was only used by the Australian Olympic team at the time. Our first commercial product was actually used in rowing, then we grew locally in Australian football, and then football in the UK was next. So Catapult has been used pretty extensively in football since around 2008 and we now have around 290 football teams using the technology globally.”

Despite this notable growth over the first decade of the 21st century the core of Catapult’s products that are implemented by sports teams have not changed significantly according to Westover, but the systems themselves have: “Our underlying wearable technology hasn’t changed too much since introducing it to the market, but the real innovation has been in the evolution of our software and analytics platform.

“Our technology captures unbelievable amounts of data, so we’re starting to use data science and machine learning to make everything we capture more sport- and position-specific. This will ensure all information obtained with our technology is as specific as possible to the athlete or coaching viewing the data.”

GPS practices have built on from the initial use of heart rate monitoring in training. Through combining this monitoring and the tracking in players movement and speed at which they move, coaches are provided with a much more accurate assessment of the intensity that their players are working at. From this they can ensure players are not overworking or call out players that need to work harder. Being able to quantify this with data has been a massive leap forward for professional football. As Westover explained there are huge gains from using GPS:

Our technology has traditionally helped change football in three key ways: by mitigating the risk of injury for an elite athlete by using data to better understand what they physically do on the pitch, quantifying the readiness for competition based on benchmark data, and objectifying the return to play process following injury. Without hard data on an athlete’s volume, intensity and explosiveness while competing, there is no way to know how prepared or overtrained they are.”

Whilst club’s are now allowed to put GPS trackers on their players during games, Westover explained that the uptake on this had not been all that forthcoming: “The biggest feedback we’re hearing right now is player preference. In training players are more susceptible to fitness and coaching feedback and experimentation, and will wear equipment that is perceived to make them better. When it comes to matches, though, players are superstitious and want to be completely comfortable with what they’re wearing and their entire environment.”

Unfortunately from the scientific point of view when it comes to the crux of the matter the player will more often than not still have the final say, unless a club has an extremely proactive manager who instructs players that they must wear trackers in matches if they are going to play in his team. Westover explained in detail how GPS’s value was not just for the player:

The value is different depending on the audience. For the players they get assurance that they’re being provided the best opportunity to succeed based on objective data that will keep them in their performance sweet spot. A sports scientist needs quantification in order to do their job so they can use data to know the training periodisation model is on track. Lastly coaches want validation that their staff are doing the right things from a physical preparation standpoint.”

If producing collaboration from within a club is challenging, the task of winning over the sport as a whole from the stand point of the technology provider such as Catapult is far greater. Westover suggests that it is key to remember that innovations such as GPS should be used to drive for improved performance and results in matches. This can often be forgotten or overshadowed.

Looking to the future, Westover sees Catapult’s systems becoming more refined and even more effective: “We think everything is going to become more sport-specific, with a clear integration with tactical and event data so there is complete context for what happens on the pitch.”

GPS has broken down the conservative barriers for change within football and should be seen as a model to follow for future technological innovations that look to add a new dimension to the coaching of the sport we all know and love.



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