We got a little reminder last week that sports and medical science are gradually evolving in ways that will help teams better understand fatigue, training and perhaps one day injury prevention. Late last week, STATS LLC, the company that sells high-tech tracking camera systems now in 10 NBA arenas, announced a partnership with the U.K.-based Apollo Medical Information Systems, a tech company that sorts fitness data for soccer teams in Europe (including Manchester United) and the New York Knicks in the NBA.
The partnership will not result in the creation of any new data, a reminder of how slow and difficult the learning process is when it comes to the murky area of injury prevention and athlete health. It will merely allow teams that purchase the service to store more data — all of its fitness and training data, really — in one sortable database.
STATS supplies the camera system, known as SportVU, that I’ve written about several times. The system involves a set of cameras that track every moment on the court, of ball, players and referees, so that the 10 teams who have purchased the system can measure everything from how far a player runs in a typical game to Kevin Durant’s shooting percentage on shots he takes from a particular spot after one dribble.
Apollo is an input system for medical data related to a player’s practice routine and training regimens. Almost every waking hour in a player’s life is somehow devoted to body maintenance. They lift weights. They ride the exercise bike after practice. They do various stretching exercises, get a massage and consume a certain number of calories. They also practice, and during those practices, teams have players wear heart monitors, GPS devices and accelerometers, devices which measure a player’s speed and force as he runs and jumps. All these activities get recorded, and until recently, all that data went into different places.
Teams have gotten better at putting all that information together and having different key personnel — trainers, strength coaches, doctors — remain in constant communication. Apollo, and their database for all this information, has aided that development. Now, a coach can see everything a player has done off the court over a given time span. Have they been practicing too much? Do they need to scale back activities “X “and “Y” after ramping up “Activity Z”?
The idea behind the STATS/Apollo partnership is to essentially combine that practice/medical data with the information the camera system records in games, according to Brian Kopp and Paul Robbins, two STATS officials leading the project. The cameras can’t provide a perfect measure of player fatigue and energy output, but they can spit out some important tidbits — how far a player ran, whether the vertical leap on his jumper declined more than usual in a few recent fourth quarters, etc. Toss all of this information together in one place, and training staffs that have it might be able to tailor workouts and practice routines more precisely.
Here’s an example: The camera system can measure the speed at which a player runs at any given moment in a game, and how long they maintain a particular speed. The system divides running speed into five levels: “max,” “sprint,” “run,” “jog,” and “walk.” Early in the regular season, a key starter on one of the subscribing teams* suffered a major injury, and the team replaced him with a relatively unknown role player. Over the next few games, the camera system picked up something interesting: the remaining four starters were in the “max” and “sprint” areas for a much higher percentage of game time than normal, Robbins says. The STATS folks and the team’s training staff wondered if perhaps the other four starters were exerting more on the court to compensate for the loss of the injured player, and they began to discuss ways they could address this — cutting practice time further, reducing minutes and or changing a player’s workout regimen in some way.
* The 10 subscribing teams: San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Boston, Houston, Golden State, Washington, Minnesota, New York, Toronto, Milwaukee.
If the team also has access to Apollo’s practice data — or similar data from another source — they could make these kinds of decisions faster and perhaps more accurately.
Here’s another one: The camera system also shows that Kevin Love is moving at “sprint” or “max” levels more often than any other player in the league, Robbins and Kopp say. The guy is always going hard, basically. You can see this just watching Minnesota games, but the camera system quantified it and gave the team a way to compare Love’s output in this sense with that of other players. The numbers were so stark early in the season that the Wolves became concerned Love was playing too hard — that he would wear himself out, Robbins says.
That’s interesting, isn’t it? We want players giving maximum effort all the time, but what if there really is such a thing as a star player exerting too much effort — at least in the regular season?
Robbins says that isn’t really the case — that Love’s manic energy is fine, even in the long haul, provided the team’s training staff understands it and tailors his practice, training and diet routines to fit his on-court tendencies.
The more data teams have, the more able they are to do something like that. Again: A partnership like this isn’t a magic bullet, and it won’t necessarily provide teams that already use the STATS camera system with any information they don’t already have. And none of this means we are any closer to being able to tell with any scientific accuracy that a particular player is more or less likely to get hurt — given similar fatigue, body type and training circumstances — than any other player.
But providing easy ways to sort data is an important and basic step in making that data work for teams. Those that find smart ways to use available information at cost are going to earn small competitive advantages, and a few such advantages will ultimately translate on the court.