The Roadmap to Sports Performance

Author / Randolph Barker II

5-7 minute read

Are you a person with a SmartPhone, who has used said SmartPhone to get directions and navigate yourself from one place to another? If you said no…consider me very impressed. Chances are you said yes, which means at some point in your life you have relied upon GPS technology, aka the “Global Positioning System”. GPS relies on a network of satellites to pinpoint a person’s individual location, and can use this information to determine time and distance to a desired location. When in motion, this same technology can be used to calculate speed and time to destination.

Distance? Time? Speed? These metrics seem like pretty useful pieces of information when trying to get from Point A to Point B. Like say…in a sprint. Or change of direction. Or running a route.

If you’re a big fan of sports then you’ve probably heard at least some mention of GPS data in the last couple years. Part of the deluge of sports and performance data that is now available comes from GPS. If you’re a sports coach, strength and conditioning coach, or any sort of performance or game analyst then I’m sure you know GPS is being used but I’m willing to bet you don’t know how.

GPS In Sport

The use of GPS data in sport is relatively new, starting seriously in 2006 with the  Australian Football League, and has only more recently moved into other sports such as rugby, soccer, hockey, baseball, basketball, and American football, among others. The tech is able to tell you how far an athlete travels in a match or practice, when they accelerate and for how long, as well as their top speed. Of course, some GPS sensors are better than others at determining this data, and most of the companies behind GPS in sport have different ways to compile and report this data for their customers. But, I’m not here to debate which sensor and system is best; my goal is to educate you on what GPS is and its useful applications.

Data: Only As Good As How You Use It

It’s not uncommon to find folks who think more data can be the solution to everything. Have a question, throw some data at it. Want to improve something, time to go to the data tree and pick some data. But a crucial component sometimes forgotten, or more often misunderstood, is that data is only valuable and useful when it tells you something you care about and is actionable. So, we need to be sure to ask the right questions. Or, if you’re a strength and conditioning coach/performance analyst, understand what questions the sport staff is really asking of you and what is of value to them and the players. 

That means we need context. A classic anecdote of the misapplication of GPS data to performance goes like this. A rugby union coach noticed his players covered six to eight kilometers on average in a match, so he started implementing long slow runs as “conditioning” during training to make his team “more fit.” The result is exactly what you’d guess: his team became slower and less fit as the season went on, injuries piled up, and the team did not do well. There’s ample evidence that an aerobic base is beneficial to sports performance, even in sports that are largely considered “anaerobic”, but that doesn’t mean just because you cover that much distance in a match it’s all covered in the same way. This is why the updates to GPS sensors are so exciting, especially if you’re a nerd like me! The increased accuracy of the sensor’s position, as well as the increased sensitivity of the accelerometer, provide useful context around not just how much distance is covered, but HOW that distance is covered.

Say you just convinced your AD or head coach to buy GPS sensors. Chances are good the sports staff think GPS can help them gain an edge, and as the strength and conditioning coach you’re now in charge of the units and the data they produce. If that is the case then I would recommend starting with questions that sound like this: Are our athletes fit enough to play hard the whole game? Are they fast enough to play the way we want to? How hard do we need to make practice to make sure they can perform well on key plays, even if they happen later in the match? Can we find a way to get a little more fit as the season goes on and reduce injury potential?

Just Tell Me What To Measure

The short answer? It depends on the question you’re trying to answer. Assuming you know what the sport staff is after, or what information the head coach is really looking for, GPS can be very insightful. Nearly all GPS sensors can tell you the same basic information, here are a few key examples:

Total Distance Covered – how much distance an athlete covered while wearing the sensor.

High Speed Distance – total amount of distance covered above a specific speed.

Speed Zones – different brackets of speed, useful for determining an intense period of play.

Accelerations and Decelerations – the number of times an athlete accelerates and decelerates, typically dependent on how sensitive the GPS sensor is to changes in speed and position.

Speed – how fast a player is moving.

High Metabolic Load – a calculation that accounts for total distance covered, high speed distance above a specific speed, and accelerations and decelerations that meet certain criteria. This is often used as a way to summarize how hard the athlete worked, and can be used to more accurately calculate how many Calories an athlete burned in a session.

Now what?

Now that you have a basic understanding of the type of data that GPS can provide and the importance of context, you (hopefully) have a better idea of the types of questions this data can answer. And, almost more importantly, an understanding of what questions this data CANNOT answer. 

Want to put this newfound understanding of the powers of GPS to the test, but don’t know where to begin? Check out the programs offered right here at Power Athlete. Whether you’re a crunched for time in the gym, just starting your fitness and performance journey, or a seasoned athlete looking for an edge, they’ve got a program for you. And the beauty? If you already have a GPS receiver (aka a SmartPhone or SmartWatch), you can use the data from it on any of our programs to start truly Empowering Your Performance.

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PODCAST: PA Radio Episode 542 – Turning Working Out Into Training Through Tech

PODCAST: PA Radio Episode 407 – Strength Speed and the Future of Sport w/ Dr. Tim Suchomel

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SOURCES

Aughey R. J. (2011). Applications of GPS technologies to field sports. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 6(3), 295–310. https://doi.org/10.1123/ijspp.6.3.295

Herda, T.J. and Cramer, J.T. (2016). Bioenergetics of Exercise and Training. In Haff, G.G. and Triplett, N.T. (Eds.), Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning (pp. 43-63). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

AUTHOR

Randolph Barker II

RK is the head programmer and strength and conditioning coach for Evolution Wellness in Austin, TX. He grew up playing multiple sports and swam competitively throughout highschool until a shoulder injury sent him to physical therapy for an extended time where he became passionate about human movement and performance. RK earned his Bachelor of Science degree in Kinesiology from West Point, where he also conducted original research and graduated with honors. While in the Army he also earned his Master of Science in Exercise Science with an emphasis on Fitness and Performance from Liberty University and used the knowledge and expertise gained to improve the fitness, survivability, and lethality of the Combat Medics he led. RK also earned the distinction of becoming part of the small community of Power Athlete Block One coaches and is passionate about helping young athletes prepare for the demands of sport at all levels and ensuring any and all military members and first responders are prepared for the demands of their professions.

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