Training like a pro: Can Catapult’s amateur football wearable make you a star?

Pro wearable company Catapult Sports now have an amateur version. What can it tell me about my five-a-side game?

by Alan Martin

“We work with the smartest,” the website of Catapult Sports proudly proclaims, before rattling off the digested highlights of 1,500 teams across 30 different sports. I find that mildly reassuring as I strap on the tracker for a journalists’ five-a-side tournament – after all, nobody thought Leicester City were going to be Premier League champions, and they’re big fans of the technology. Maybe I’m bad at football because nobody ever took an interest in my analytics?

Training like a pro: Can Catapult’s amateur football wearable make you a star?

“Leicester City were one of our earliest and most enthusiastic clients,” Catapult chairman Adir Shiffman tells me, two weeks before game night. Although the club’s success was unexpected – they were a 5,000-1 bet at the start of the season – Shiffman explains that “it was indicative of a culture of performance and innovation within the club”.can_catapults_amateur_football_wearable_make_you_a_star

“That’s how I would characterise the teams that use it first – they’re not necessarily the best or the worst or the richest or the poorest,” he explains. “They’re a team that has this internal culture of experimentation and innovation and performance, and they’re typically trying lots of different things. One of the things they do is embrace this technology that happens to be extremely effective.”

As Shiffman puts it: “These elite athletes are the most highly measured and managed human beings on the face of the Earth – more than astronauts.” I could do without that level of scrutiny.

I must say that being constantly analysed isn’t something I particularly relish. Nobody really notices if I guiltily scarf down a midweek takeaway except the most judgemental of Deliveroo drivers, but professional athletes get no such respite. As Shiffman puts it: “These elite athletes are the most highly measured and managed human beings on the face of the Earth – more than astronauts.” I could do without that level of scrutiny.

And yet Catapult Sports is convinced that the amateur side of the game is the next frontier, and so have launched Playertek: a cut-down version of the hardware aimed purely at amateur footballers. And the “amateur” part certainly applies to me, even if the “footballer” part is an awkward fit. It’s not quite as accurate as the model for the big boys, and the data is compiled by an iOS app rather than pored over by data scientists, but as a £199 one-off purchase, it’s not crazily out of reach for an enthusiast.

Fever pitch

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Shiffman tells me that the pro version tracks 1,000 data points per second, although these all relate to physical attributes, rather than ball skills. Things such as shot power would have to be measured through ball analytics, which is beyond the company’s reach. All the same, literally nobody has ever taken this much interest in the way I behave before, and after this performance, they’re unlikely to bother again. After strapping the wearable into what looks suspiciously like a sports bra, me and my rainbow coalition of sports journalists from Alphr, Wareable and TechRadar take to the field. Unfortunately, to use the term of the moment, it’s a coalition of chaos and we promptly lose 3-1 in our first game.

I sync the Playertek wearable with the app, and the early feedback isn’t great. My performance is around 6% as good as an actual footballer. Thankfully my teammates have similar numbers, meaning that if you add us all together we’re around a third of a single player. I can live with that: after all, a third can encompass the feet, and still have enough change for the heart and head, so what else do I need?

Playertek lets you compare your performance with friends and players around the world, and even picks a team of the week based on global performances. While I’m nowhere near getting that honour, a pleasant surprise is buried in the mix: in my first match, I covered the most ground in the mini league – 1.5km to be exact – which isn’t too shabby when I spent the first half in goal. No wonder I feel like it’s bedtime: I may only be a fraction of a professional footballer, but I have enthusiasm. can_catapults_amateur_football_wearable_make_you_a_star_-_1

Fortunately, that kind of stuff – heart, soul, enthusiasm – is picked up in the professional version. Well, sort of. “Players will say that data doesn’t take into account heart,” Shiffman explains. “My answer to that is to first make fun of them: ‘what you’re saying medically is that it doesn’t take into account repeat high-intensity efforts, and actually it does do that.’

My performance is around 6% as good as an actual footballer. Thankfully my teammates have similar numbers, meaning that if you add us all together we’re around a third of a single player

“But if I wasn’t being facetious, I’d say that their actual point is valid. This isn’t a replacement for the art of coaching or the art of management or the heart of a player. It augments it using science, and I don’t see that there’s a day when AI will replace that. I’m not a believer in that. I think human beings have got a pretty sophisticated brain, and there’s something that is magical about a great player or manager that is not easily replicated using computers and data.”

But coaches can’t always see everything. “There’s an NBA team called the Toronto Raptors up in Canada, and one of the things they discovered was that most of the movements in basketball are backwards and lateral,” Shiffman explains. “But all of their training movements were forward-propulsion movements. They totally changed their entire training structure based on the information that fed through from this.”

A broadcasting revolution?

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Such observations are assisted by another Catapult acquisition: last year, the company purchased a video-analytics business called XOS Digital for $60 million. Shiffman describes the two as “integrated, but different” – although as a coaching aid, the two go hand in hand because the GPS data from the wearable can be fed into the video footage for automatic timestamping of key events.

“There are algorithms for specifically for fast bowlers, and some which are specific to goalkeepers.”

With around half the business devoted to business analytics, providing live data for TV audiences would seem like a natural fit, but Shiffman isn’t 100% convinced – at least not for the time being. “People often misunderstand what is interesting to consumers,” he begins. “Broadcasters ask ‘can you show speed or can you show heart rate?’ And of course we can, but once you figure out that everyone in broad times is roughly the same speed, and that heart rate is uncorrelatable to on-field events…” – he pauses before clarifying – “I mean it is, but not in a way that’s interesting to viewers.” These analytical stories will be a big part of football broadcasts in future: “ubiquitous in five years, but not in two,” he predicts.

While the consumer version is advertised primarily as a football wearable, the professional version is used across 30 different sports. On paper, the requirements for an attacking left-back and a professional golfer seem completely different, so how much customisation is going on here? “I would say 80-85% of the metrics are identical between athletes, but there are algorithms for specifically for fast bowlers, and some which are specific to goalkeepers,” explains Shiffman. Goalkeepers are assessed for leap, distance covered and how quickly they can get back up on their feet, apparently.can_catapults_amateur_football_wearable_make_you_a_star_-_6

Because of this diversity, Catapult Sports employs around 70 sports scientists. “Nobody understands American sports other than an American, right?” jokes Shiffman. “And if you try and have your analytics people on soccer outside of Europe or South America, your credibility is going to erode pretty quickly.”

“If you try and have your analytics people on soccer outside of Europe or South America, your credibility is going to erode pretty quickly.”

Shiffman himself is a doctor by training, and clearly one of the elements he’s most proud of is Playertek’s utility in the prevention of soft-tissue injury through detection. Catapult Sports first burst on the scene thanks to an endorsement from Florida State University football coach Jimbo Fisher, who credited their 2014 win to the fact that Catapult had reduced soft-tissue injuries by 88%

Gaming and gamesmanship

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It occurs to me that this data could be useful for a whole bunch of other avenues. Has Shiffman considered providing player data for video games? “You can imagine that we have an ability to very precisely replicate the movement ‘fingerprints’ of individual players in individual circumstances, so certainly we see an opportunity for making these computer games more realistic with this data. But the caveat with all this stuff we do is that we always want to make sure our customers – professional teams – are supportive and enthusiastic about our use of their data.”

“With all this stuff we do is that we always want to make sure our customers – professional teams – are supportive and enthusiastic about our use of their data.”

And what about gambling? Again, his response is to put current clients first, before thinking about theoretical ones. “We get asked quite frequently from sports betting for this data for reasons you can imagine. The question is not ‘can we’ or ‘can we not’, the question we ask is ‘would our customers be happy if we told them we were doing that?’ In a lot of places the answer is ‘absolutely not’.” he explains.

But if teams would be unhappy with their opponents getting their data, surely there would be an incentive to get other people’s. Is Shiffman worried that this data is potentially open to hacking by rival clubs? “That feels very unlikely,” he says. “That would be a development that would be much bigger than a mechanical issue. I hope not. I’ve not seen any evidence of it, nobody talks about it… the culture of most of the teams I interact with would more than frown on it, but you know: anything’s possible, right?” That’s strangely reassuring to hear in an industry where most clubs can comfortably write off a £50,000-per-year wearable subscription as pocket change.can_catapults_amateur_football_wearable_make_you_a_star_-_5

AFC Tech Journalists’ final match was more of the same, but despite some build-up play that could be mistaken for an extremely low-budget Nike commercial (if you squinted), we ended up losing 5-1

But if Shiffman is right, it’s not the big money world of professional sport that will cement Catapult’s place in the sports wearable market: it’s the amateur world. This calculation is twofold: first, just because someone is an amateur, that doesn’t mean they don’t want to improve. Second, by definition there will always be more amateurs in the world than professionals. “People love to know and understand their performance, and compete against their friends,” explains Shiffman. “And I think that what we’ll find over the next few years is that our offering for amateurs will get more focus and more interest.”

He’s right about the element of competition. As I leave the field, players are comparing their in-game statistics, and laughing at how their performance inevitably tailed off in the second half. AFC Tech Journalists’ final match was more of the same, but despite some build-up play that could be mistaken for an extremely low-budget Nike commercial (if you squinted), we ended up losing 5-1, and the dream was over. Pluck and heart, certainly, but not much else.

But hey, at least we had a wearable to tell us precisely where we went wrong.

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