17 September 2015

RETHINKING SPORTS TECHNOLOGY: PSYCHE OVER SCIENCE 

Daniel Gallan

Every day, scientific breakthroughs change the world we live in and the only way to stay ahead of the competition is to stay ahead of the ever steepening curve. Elite sport is a cutthroat and competitive environment where only the best survive. As a result, sports technology is proving to be the difference in many close contests. CONQA Sport speaks to Mounir Zok, the Senior Sports Technologist at the Unites States Olympic Committee (USOC), and finds out that it is still the human element that ensures success in a world hurtling towards to the future.

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the opening game of the 2015 National Football League season. The NFL are strong supporters of using technology to help athletes and coaches make important decisions on the field and improve performance. Image supplied by Action Images/ Mark L. Baer

New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady (12) throws the ball against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the opening game of the 2015 National Football League season. The NFL are strong supporters of using technology to help athletes and coaches make important decisions on the field and improve performance. Image supplied by Action Images/ Mark L. Baer

The Jetsons was an animated sitcom that first aired in 1962 and ran for 75 episodes before it’s finale in 1987. The series was set in the year 2000 where the creators of the show envisioned a utopian future where mankind used space-age technologies such as robots, holograms, and flying cars to improve everyday life. The cartoon followed in the footsteps of events such as the World’s Fair and whimsical notions like the Kitchen of Tomorrow. Humans have always been fascinated with what the future holds.

According to Moore’s Law, every 12 to 18 months computers double their capabilities and so do the information technologies that use them. What that means is that for the length of three back to back European football seasons, humanity is doubling its technological abilities. In 10 years’ time we will be a thousand times more advanced than we are now and on that curve we will be a quadrillion (one thousand million million; 10 to the power of 15) times more advanced by the year 2065.

Futurist and scientist, Raymond Kurzweil, predicts that humanity will reach technological singularity and create artificial general intelligence (strong AI) sometime around the year 2045. Perhaps the whimsical fantasies of the Jetsons were only 45 years premature.

With this in mind, we spoke to Mounir Zok, the Senior Sports Technologist at the Unites States Olympic Committee (USOC). Like the creators of the Jetsons, we had futuristic dreams of streamline suits, shoes that would help sprinters run faster, or special breathing contraptions that improved endurance and stamina.

Of course, sport is moving parallel to the rest of humanity and there are technological advancements every day. Elite cycling, Formula 1, and a host of other sporting codes are constantly changing the game with new technologies that both improve performance, such as featherweight bicycles and KERS (Kinetic Energy Recovery System), and divide opinion, such as goal line technology in football or hawk-eye in cricket. But that is not why our interview with Zok left an impression. What stood out was his answer when questioned on what the athlete of the future will look like.

“The athlete of the future is a more aware athlete, just as the coach of tomorrow is a more aware coach,” he said. But that’s not really what we were after. We had visions of Cathy Freeman in a one-piece suit at the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney. We wanted to hear about the 2050 RoboCup where scientists are hoping to pit robots against humans in a football match, advanced GPS tracking devices, or about the National Football League’s (NFL) virtual reality helmets that quarterbacks have started using to recreate in-game situations during training.

Zok brought us down to earth and reminded us that technology is merely a tool that is used to enhance the performances of both athletes and coaches.

“Technology is moving at light speed right now but that doesn't mean the core principles of athletic competition have changed,” says Zok. “In Olympic sports, and indeed most sports, new technology is just a better tool that athletes and coaches use to make informed decisions; it helps them better understand their bodies and what they are capable of under certain conditions.”

Billy Beane’s “Moneyball” success with the Oakland A’s in Major League Baseball was perhaps the first time the use of technology and data analysis entered mainstream consciousness in the sports world. Many wondered if technology, and the ease with which it allows players and coaches to analyse performances, would ever replace gut-feel coaches and the instincts that come with experience. Zok is adamant that this will never happen.

“Good coaching is a mixture of art and science,” he says. “Coaches and athletes have always tried to use cutting-edge technology to make better decisions. Technology for technology’s sake never works. Everything the coaches or athletes do requires it to be a function of one of the objectives that they are trying to achieve.”

USOC uses a human-centred design approach when it comes to new technology. Coaches and athletes are included in every stage of development and whatever ends up in their hands is driven by them. Before an end product is used, an array or working prototypes would have already been relegated to the scrapheap.

That is why no stone is left unturned when an organisation like USOC searches for the next big thing in sports technology. They pay close attention to other sectors, such as healthcare, agricultural, telecommunications, and motor industries, and regularly attend conferences and seminars where inspiration might be found. Any parallel that can be drawn with elite sport is explored. Who knows, the secret to the next gold medal could be found in the latest smart phone.

Goal-line technology has taken out a lot of the guesswork for football officials. Using technologies long used in tennis and cricket, football referees are able to make split second decisions that could have major impacts both on and off the field. Image supplied by Action Images/ Stefanie Loos

Goal-line technology has taken out a lot of the guesswork for football officials. Using technologies long used in tennis and cricket, football referees are able to make split second decisions that could have major impacts both on and off the field. Image supplied by Action Images/ Stefanie Loos

“My first role is to help the athletes and coaches dig deeper and understand what exactly they are trying to achieve. Are they trying to get faster, stronger, or fitter? Is it about improving leg speed? Is it about improving the body’s movement? The hardest part is asking the right question. Once you have the right question, you can then move towards finding the answer.”

Understanding that technology is simply a tool, and that the correct mindset and application is still required in order to use it successfully, is reassuring. Many sports around the world tend to reward the teams and individuals that spend the most amount of money.

If the best technologies and the benefits they bring were only available to those with financial muscle, Olympic committees from poor nations would be left behind; not exactly in keeping with the Olympic ideal of fairness and the true spirit of competition. Zok, who it must be said, comes from one of the best funded organisations, does not see this being an issue moving forward. He sees a disparity emerging, not between organisations who spend more and those who can’t, but between those who use the technology available to them effectively, and those who blindly follow technological trends and are not clear in their objectives.

“Today, in 2015, you don’t need economic resources to work well with technology,” Zok reassures us. “What you need to do today is be very careful about identifying what your goal is, as there are so many products out there and different variables that you have to be aware of.”

Variables such as the culture surrounding the sport, geographic location, the physical parameters of the sport, the needs of the particular athlete; there will never be a one-size-fits-all solution with sports technology. At USOC, individuals, even in team sports, have technology catered with them and for them to achieve their specific goals.

By using very short cycles in technology development and adopting lean start-up principles, USOC has been able to create a fluid model that allows mistakes to be made, but ensures there are no “could-haves” or “should-haves” come competition time.

With wearable technology becoming lighter, smaller, and less intrusive to the athlete, and with coaches and managers able to collect data during competition, technology is helping athletes understand their bodies better and are therefore able to make decisions that impact their performance in the slightest way. A foot adjusted a few centimetres in a cricket bowling action can have a profound impact on a match. A rugby union loose forward’s understanding that his back is too high when making a tackle can turn an average player into a great one.

Athletes and coaches are constantly improving and what we considered the ceiling a mere 5 years ago in terms of performance has already been surpassed. As records keep tumbling, and marginal gains are sought, it is reassuring to know that technology will never propel anyone to greatness that would ordinarily be ordinary.

“I always tell my team at USOC that we are helping the best get better by helping them become better at what they’re best at,” says Zok, the self-proclaimed “luckiest man” in sports technology. “Technology will never be the answer, but for those who know which question to ask, it can help them find the right path to take.”

With the Rio Games less than a year away, the scientists at USOC will be hard at work trying to gain that extra 1% in performance for their athletes and coaches. For an organisation that deals in 4 year cycles, Zok and his team are exploring every avenue to success.

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