This tech Catapulted Leicester and Real Madrid to glory
As Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy lifted the Premier League trophy and Cristiano Ronaldo won the Champions League with Real Madrid, they both had one thing in common.
It was called Catapult and its story dates back to a dismal performance at the 1976 Olympic Games in Montreal, where Australian athletes failed to pick up a single gold medal.
Capitulation led to the formation of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) in 1981, a training organisation for promising young sportsmen and women.
In the early 1990s, it teamed up with researchers Shaun Holthouse and Igor van de Griendt, whose solution was an unprecedented use of micro-technology.
Eventually, in the run-up to the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, they began developing wearable sensors, measuring every aspect of athletes’ physical performance. Australia picked up 17 gold medals in Greece – a record haul.
The unique approach to analytics and evidence-based sport science led Holthouse and van de Griendt to establish Catapult.
And now the wearable technology firm is changing the way players all over the world train, win and write their names into the record books.
Brand manager Michael Clarkson explained the concept at BusinessCloud’s tech in sport breakfast, held in partnership with Pro-Manchester.
“We’re a global leader in wearable tech, and analytics in sport. We work with over 1,000 teams, from Golden State Warriors, to Leicester City and Real Madrid,” he said. “You’ll have seen in a lot of sports, like rugby union or football.
“Jamie Vardy, off the back of every game last season, we were very lucky that he had a Catapult vest over the top of his training jersey. Inside that vest is a unit that sits between the shoulder blades.
“Catapult generally takes GPS, but much more than that. They can access GPS satellites to create positional information.
“But also in the devices are sensors, which measure forces, a gyroscope which tracks rotation or orientation of the body, and a magnetometer, which is a digital compass essentially, so we can understand which way the player is facing. And we bring all of this together.
“In isolation the data has some value, but together creates 1,000 data points per second, per player.
“Once you’ve got that, with some smart people and some smart software, that’s when you get really rich data.”
In Premier League football, wearable tech such has Catapult has only recently been allowed during games, although data is still banned from being applied in real time.
Vests currently match training schedules to the exact game conditions – when an athlete is expected to perform at his or her highest level.
Clarkson used cricket as an example: “Testing an athlete in a competitive environment is difficult to do. Not only in a lab, but on the competitive field we need them to wear something.
“For example, those instances where you’ve got test batsmen playing in South Africa, and they have to bat for hours on end, if not days on end, as they score 250 runs, the player can wear the unit which captures everything they do physically.
“That means you can now profile exactly what a 250 knock looks like, and then you can prepare training for that. Next time you come to bat, you’ll be physically prepared for that to happen.
“By profiling what stress the players were under fatigue-wise, physically, we can them map that for training sessions. Basically, you’re replicating the stimulus that happens in a game.
“Rather than batting for two hours straight working on just technique, you can work on physical stress – like sprints – beforehand.”
Among its clients, Catapult lists 28 championship-winning teams – from the Paris St Germain superstars to NFL Super Bowl winners Denver Broncos.
Players are kept in peak condition in 35 different events the world over in sports as diverse as bandy, which Clarkson describes as “a Swedish game like ice hockey mixed with football”.
Much of Leicester’s Premier League success over the 2015/16 season was attributed to the number of players it managed to keep injury-free. And the Foxes are just one of Catapult’s huge client list.
Clarkson explained what role wearable technology can play in protecting sports stars: “Reducing the risk of injury is individualised. If we all took the exact same training session, we’d all respond to it very differently in a physical sense.
“For example, the day before a game each player in that session will have an optimised zone, and using the data you’ll try and ensure that’s hit.
“Now in league football, and other sports, it’s just becoming part of the kit. Players walk into the training ground, walk into the changing room, and beside the training gear and the boots, they’ve now got a Catapult vest to wear either under or over their jersey.
“Players have even forgotten about the vest and just taken it home, so the sports scientists look at the data and see the trace all the way to their house. It happens more often than you think.”
Sport is in the midst of a tech frenzy and its future could lead coaches and analysts away from data calculation and put them into the heads of their players.
Catapult Group recently signed its own £47.39m transfer deal to acquire privately-owned Boston-based US firm XOS Technologies.
Clarkson highlighted one product that adds 3D virtual reality footage to the tech-savvy coach’s repertoire.
“This summer we bought two different businesses. One of them is called XOS specialises in video solutions,” he said. “It’s not that well known in Europe, but in the US is heavily embedded the NFL.
“One of their products is ThunderVR. Essentially, it allows you to take a quarterback during a game, and video from their perspective. Then afterwards come in, put on the headset and replay each set.”
In a tantalising glimpse of the future, he added: “It puts the coach in the seat of that player and then you start to understand his exact movements.”