Athletes train their bodies for years to become masters of their sport—to make every jump, hit, and catch appear effortless. Every day, millions of Americans tune in to watch fantastical performances by individuals at the top of their respective fields, in peak physical condition. Yet, while we laud athletic sacrifice in terms of restricted social lives, diet, and family time for the sake of “the game,” we often fail to acknowledge that, despite physical appearances, athletes also sacrifice physical self-care in order to attain—and sustain—the highest levels of elite performance. Injuries are “shaken off,” unreported, or downright ignored by athletes and coaches alike.
Recent research has shown that injury underreporting—particularly “non-visible” injuries such as concussions—is prevalent in athletes as young as high school.[i] Motivations for underreporting are complex, but fear of physician-mandated sidelining, resulting in missed practice and game time, has been identified as a major driver of this phenomenon.[ii] Athletes are thus presented with an intractable dilemma: how to ensure that their bodies are fit for competition, without sacrificing the practice time needed to sustain and hone their specific skill sets? (This question becomes particularly important when their performance is tied to income, or the promise of future income.)
Profile of 4 Sport Technology Innovations and Their Potential Impact on Athlete Health
To address this question, the Washington D.C.-based think tank New America hosted a panel on March 23, 2017 entitled “Can Technology Make Sports Safer?” The panel, hosted by New Yorker staff writer Nicholas Schmidle, profiled four innovative technologies that aim to reduce athlete injury risk and facilitate recovery without forgoing precious practice minutes. The first technology attempts to reduce injury risk during football practice, where players need to learn hard-hitting plays and sustain multiple high-impact tackles as the drill is repeated. The Mobile Virtual Player (or “MVP”) is a motorized tackle dummy that allows players to simulate live tackling without injuring one another in practice. The dummy is fully padded, and can be set to the appropriate playing speed (reaching 20 mph). Controlled by a remote, the MVP can also simulate human motion, allowing players to practice footwork, cutting, blocking, and smart tackling. Practicing against a robotic target reduces injury risk resulting from fatigue that occurs after multiple repetitions. Finally, practicing with the MVP also has the potential to encourage safe tackling during games, as the fundamentals of tackling can be cultivated in a simulated environment without the risk of teammates becoming injured while players develop their skills.
The second technology profiled aims to help coaches and trainers more effectively monitor and identify athlete injuries. Catapult Sports combines wearable sensors and GPS technology to monitor athlete speed and micro-movements, in order to precisely track athlete performance. For example, the OptimEye S5, a monitoring device developed for elite athletes who play outdoor sports, processes 1,000 data points per second. Using this system, coaches are not only able to pinpoint areas for improvement, but also identify potential or emerging injuries, mitigating risks of athlete underreporting. For example, if the coach detects that a player is reacting slightly slower than their average speed, this can indicate a potential injury (such as a hamstring pull that has not yet been reported) or perhaps a psycho-social factor (such as pre-game nerves or other outside stress) that needs to be addressed. Additionally, Catapult’s sensors can help track injury recovery, letting athletic trainers know when an athlete is healthy enough to return to play or if an athlete’s training needs to be modified so as to not place undue stress on the injury.
The third technology discussed on the panel uses virtual reality (VR) to reduce injury risk during practice and support athlete recovery. STRIVR Labs has developed a headset that places athletes in an immersive VR environment simulating the practice field, allowing them to practice strategies, reactions, and repetition without placing additional stress on their bodies. Cameras positioned on the field can capture a play at every angle, and by using STRIVR’s VR goggles athletes can then be re-immersed in that setting once they leave the field. This allows injured athletes to hone their skills while cutting down on strenuous repetitions, preventing them from over-practicing before they return to full health. In certain high-contact sports such as football, drill repetitions during practice can be limited by players’ associations, so this allows for additional practice time while limiting the risk of fatigue-induced injury.
The fourth technology is a shock-absorbing football helmet, designed by University of Michigan mechanical engineers. Current football helmets are designed based on the highest amount of force they can endure. However, Michigan researchers argue that protecting against impulse—the energy that affects an object after it is hit, or how the energy is dissipated through the helmet—is key to creating a helmet that adequately protects against brain injuries. Through a series of simulations, researchers found that the helmet prototype, called “Mitigatium,” reduced the impulse of an impact to a mere 20 percent of the impulse affecting current helmets.
Potential Impact of These Technologies on Healthcare and Community Health
In addition to making practice safer for athletes, there is great potential for these technologies to have a positive impact on healthcare delivery. Catapult’s wearable sensors allow for the detection of minute deterioration or improvement in athlete performance, and can potentially be used to track recovery and the effects of therapy among patients who have experienced an accident or a traumatic event. It can also be used to track the progressive effects of certain chronic conditions on patient health and mobility.
Virtual reality has already been incorporated into certain aspects of clinical care: Behavioral Associates, a mental health provider located in Manhattan, uses virtual reality to help treat patients suffering from flight anxiety. By incorporating STIVR’s capacity to translate high-definition gameplay footage into VR, physical therapists may be able to create simulated scenarios, encouraging patients to practice specific exercises that facilitate their recovery.
While it may not seem obvious how a tackle robot can support patient care, its capacity to move like an athlete’s opponent means that it could have a large potential impact on sports medicine research. In the future, it would be amazing to see the MVPs integrate with AI technology to predict and react to an athlete’s movements. These “smart” MVPs could potentially be used in research hospitals to reconstruct injury scenarios, allowing researchers to gauge strength of tackle, angle of impact, and how a player would go to the ground—this could aid both diagnostics and product safety testing, such as simulation testing for the Mitigatium helmet.
Perhaps the biggest impact that these technologies could have on community health is their potential to reduce youth injury risk while still allowing children and young adults to enjoy the healthy benefits of sport, such as physical activity, learning through play, and developing good sportsmanship. According to the panel, most injuries among high school and college athletes occur during practice. Studies have also shown that high school and collegiate athletes have already developed an attitude of “playing through” an injury, sometimes despite previous educational interventions about the impact of concussions.[iii] As panelists noted, “your toughest players are the ones who underreport” and coaches and players alike struggle with how to practice safely without making themselves “weak” against an opponent. Technological innovations such as the MVPs and Mitigatium helmets make high-contact sports safer, reducing youth injury risk by promoting safer game behaviors without fundamentally changing the game itself. Also, Catapult’s wearable sensors can allow coaches to notice small changes and start a conversation with their players about what may be affecting their ability to practice that day—be it situations on or off the field—even with the “tough” players who may be hesitant to admit that they are struggling. Finally, STRIVR’s goggles would help young athletes feel that just because they are injured, they are not “sidelined” from being involved with their team.
However, many of these technologies have a high price tag, making it difficult for them to impact the young, developing minds who need the most protection. While the innovations profiled here have seen early adoption among NFL, Rugby, NCAA Division I, and elite European soccer teams, they are still unaffordable for many high school athletic departments, community recreation groups, AAU, or other youth leagues. Innovation, then, needs to take place in both the technological and business spaces. Creative business models and partnerships to bring the price point of these products to a level affordable for these groups would have a significant impact on youth safety, health, and development through sports.
[i] Register-Mihalik, J. K., Guskiewicz, K. M., McLeod, T. C. V., Linnan, L. A., Mueller, F. O., & Marshall, S. W. (2013). Knowledge, Attitude, and Concussion-Reporting Behaviors Among High School Athletes: A Preliminary Study. Journal of Athletic Training, 48(5), 645–653.; McDonald, T., Burghart, MA, Nazir, N. (2016). Underreporting of Concussions and Concussion-Like Symptoms in Female High School Athletes. Journal of Trauma Nursing, 23(5), 241-6.
[ii] Kerr, Z. Y., Register-Mihalik, J. K., Kroshus, E., Baugh, C. M., & Marshall, S. W. (2016). Motivations associated with non-disclosure of self-reported concussions in former collegiate athletes. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(1), 220–225.
[iii] Kurowski B., Pomerantz WJ., Schaiper C., Gittelman MA.(2014). Factors that influence concussion knowledge and self-reported attitudes in high school athletes. Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery, 77(3 Suppl 1), S12-7.; Asken, B. M., McCrea, M. A., Clugston, J. R., Snyder, A. R., Houck, Z. M., & Bauer, R. M. (2016). “Playing Through It”: Delayed Reporting and Removal From Athletic Activity After Concussion Predicts Prolonged Recovery. Journal of Athletic Training, 51(4), 329–335.