Digital add-ons to coach your talent

Digital add-ons to coach your talent

Digital add-ons to coach your talent

A combo of sensors and apps is helping athletes improve their game. But there are glitches to be overcome, says Josh Dean

The tech world’s current obsession is with wearables - the idea being that you can stuff all manner of technology into increasingly tiny packages. So far, much of the attention has been on watches and glasses. But the same teeny sensors and smartphone brains that power those devices have other applications, too - for instance, in a new wave of smart sports equipment.

In the last year, companies have started to introduce some intriguing sports devices that analyse movement using sensors, in particular multi-axis accelerometers (for measuring linear acceleration) and gyroscopes (for measuring orientation). The point of all these gadgets, in essence, is to put a digital coach into your pocket.

Take the Swingbyte, one of a few of these new devices that I stuffed into my gym bag and lugged over to Chelsea Piers, the sports playground on the far west side of Manhattan, to see if they were useful to a 40-year-old recreational athlete like me.

The Swingbyte is a $150 (Rs 9,399) plastic doodad about the size of a jumbo pack of Juicy Fruit that breaks down your golf swing. When you swing the club, the device sends data by Bluetooth to your tablet or smartphone, where an app collects the data and spits back a pile of information and analysis that means something to people who understand things like face angle and swing path.

I’m not one of those people, and I’m also a terrible golfer, so I invited one of the school’s pros, John Hobbins, to hang out, hit golf balls and look at data.Some of the teaching pros at Chelsea Piers were already using the Swingbyte, Hobbins told me, but mostly for putting, and he was sceptical of its accuracy.

“My take on things like that is that you get what you pay for,” he said, adding that the radar-based swing analysis system used by the Golf Academy, a school at Chelsea Piers, costs $15,000 (Rs 9,39,908).

And my results did not exactly win him over. Most troubling, the Swingbyte’s latch, which seemed to snap snugly onto the club, popped open on many swings and slid down the shaft. That was distracting, and skewed some of the data. The Swingbyte did seem to accurately pick up the club head speed, though, as well as other crucial data points, like the ratio of my backswing to forward swing. And the app was a thing of beauty - slick, clean and easy to use (though also a significant drain on my iPhone’s already terrible battery).

When I reported my issue with the unit’s stability to the company, I was told it was probably just a faulty latch. So the company mailed me a new one, which popped easily into place on my existing Swingbyte. A week later, I tried it out. Problem solved.

Technical difficulties followed me to the basketball court, where I pulled out the 94Fifty, a $300 (Rs 18,798) app-enabled basketball that you can buy at the Apple Store. The 94Fifty is an impressive piece of technology: It is a regulation basketball with a built-in suite of sensors that, like the Swingbyte, transmits data in real time to an app. It also recharges wirelessly.

But we’re talking about a basketball here - a thing that is pounded repeatedly into the ground and then thrown at metal and glass. And unlike golf, where there is a pause between swings, basketball is a relentless game, so the ball must work fast, and for long periods. That’s some crafty engineering.

The founder of 94Fifty, Mike Crowley, says he was inspired by what he (and coaches he spoke to) observed as a “fundamental” change in the way children play the game. Basic skills have diminished, he says. But children tend to trust things with screens, and respond well to digital information, so Crowley made the learning process itself a game, sending real-time feedback to an iPhone or iPad.

The 94Fifty focuses on two primary skills - dribbling and shooting - and the accompanying app, as slick and simple as Swingbyte’s, presents a series of drills and games to work on these. Once data is captured and transmitted (every 100 milliseconds, Crowley said), the user’s skills are compared against a baseline of “good” form taken from tens of thousands of players around the world.

I had the best luck out of the box with the $150 (Rs 9,399) Zepp, a fluorescent-green square that snaps into one of three rubber mounts for golf clubs, tennis rackets and baseball bats.

 Because I had already played golf, and Chelsea Piers does not have tennis courts, I opted for the baseball bauble, which attached easily to the base of a 28-ounce aluminium bat I plucked from the racks of the slow-pitch batting cages that I was sharing with a grade-school birthday party.

As with the other two devices, Zepp’s app was well-designed and nice to look at, with a simple interface and all the swipes and pull-downs we smartphone users are accustomed to. I fired it up and chose “college” as the type of player I aspired to be, because anything less seemed embarrassing. Based on that setting, the app set some baselines and I swung away.

After the first 10 balls, I checked my results. A college player, Zepp says, should have an average bat speed of 80 mph. Mine was 56. My other measurements - the horizontal and vertical angles of my swing, as well as the time the barrel of my bat was in the strike zone - were closer to fine, but then again I was swinging at 35 mph pitches that I probably could have hit with a pool noodle.

Was any of this helpful? The Zepp will probably not get me recruited to any recreational league games anytime soon. But it worked, and easily, and helped make an otherwise repetitive activity a little bit less monotonous.

None of these devices, nor the others coming soon, including a new tennis racket from Babolat called the Play Pure Drive and the Adidas miCoach soccer ball, will replace coaches anytime soon. But they could be used to enhance coaching. Without interpretation, data is just numbers, and even with slick app presentations, it is still hard to parse if you’re not an expert.

For that reason, all three apps allow you to email the results to a coach, or share them via social media, if you just feel like letting others know you can swing a bat (barely) faster than a 12-year-old. Once you know what good form looks and feels like, you can use the devices on your own to develop muscle memory through repetition. An obvious next step for all of these products is to incorporate instruction as well.

My stumbles with both Swingbyte and 94Fifty turned out to be simple and easily fixed, but they hinted at an obvious limitation of pretty much all brand-new technology: It rarely works perfectly well, every time, right out of the gate. So although these off-the-shelf products provide impressive virtual coaching, they’ll obviously get better with time and some effort. Just like your game.

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