Scott Stinson: In-game GPS lets coaches know who is trying hard, and who is trying to get them fired

Sports teams have been using GPS-based devices to measure the
activity of their players for a few years now, which means it
has been a few years since players first started to cheat the

Richard Byrne, the head of business development at STATSports,
a company that makes such GPS devices and is based in Northern
Ireland, tells a story of an Irish rugby team that started
using the wearables a few seasons ago.

In addition to using the products — basically a vest with the
key electronic parts in a pocket between the shoulder blades —
to measure performance in practice and game situations, teams
can deploy them to monitor the daily activity of their
athletes. How much are they moving around? How much of that is
high intensity? How much sleep are they getting?

So, back to this rugby player. Not thrilled with the prospect
of his team knowing exactly how much he was exercising, he put
the vest on his dog.

And that dog? “He covered a hell of a lot of ground,” Byrne
says with a chuckle.

Just like there is skepticism about the value of any sort of
advanced statistic, there are stories about the growing pains
experienced at the advent of wearable technology. A member of
an NBA front office once described how the team’s
sports-science staff was baffled by the movements of one of
their players until he eventually admitted that he had stuck
the device in his wife’s purse. A former NFL player explained
that, when his fellow linemen discovered that coaches would
complain if the data showed that they didn’t move around a lot
during practice. So they figured out that the best course of
action was to walk around in circles during breaks in play.
Linemen: big, but clever.

Wesley Hoedt, below, and Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Raul Jimenez
clash during their English Premier League soccer match at
Molineux stadium in Wolverhampton, England, Saturday Sept. 29,
Nick Potts/PA via AP

But as much as there will be players who blanch at the
invasiveness of the potential for 24/7 monitoring of their
lives, it’s also true that the use of GPS by more and more
teams will help the athletes as much as it will hurt them. And
the adoption of such systems — for use other than as a virtual
babysitter — is a trend that won’t soon slow.

Byrne, who joined STATSports four years ago when it was a
company of about eight people, has seen it grow to more than
100 employees. It works with dozens of soccer and rugby teams
in Europe, as well as NFL, NBA and MLS teams, and recently
signed a deal with the U.S. soccer federation. Its executives
were also just in Canada as part of a Northern Ireland trade

The reason for the growth is simple: any team that is not using
GPS technology as part of its strength and conditioning regimen
by this point is either being excessively cheap or woefully
ignorant. The devices measure not just the distance covered by
a player during training or a game, but the type of movement
they are performing: speed, acceleration, intensity. That means
team doctors can get an early-warning signal when a player
starts to flag during practice or they can tell if a player is,
for example, trying to return too fast from an injury. Someone
who is only running at 85 per cent of his previous top speed
would be a solid indication of that.

Browns players work out during their first day back at NFL
football training camp Sunday, Aug. 19, 2018 in Berea,
Joshua Gunter/The Plain Dealer via AP

Byrne gives another example of the kind of insight that GPS
data can unlock. Soccer has long measured the distance
travelled by players during games; it’s not uncommon to see a
graphic that shows Player X has run 10 kilometres while you
have been sitting on the couch eating popcorn. But not all
running is equal. A left back could travel 12 kilometres during
a game while a central midfielder moves closer to eight
kilometres. Byrne notes that GPS data often shows, though, that
the midfielder is doing much more high-intensity work:
acceleration, deceleration, bursts of speed and changes of
direction. That left back, meanwhile, could basically be
cruising up and down the wing. A longer run, to be sure, but
more of a canter than a gallop.

A staff with access to that kind of information “will find that
the midfielder is more tired, and has exerted much more
energy,” Byrne says. He’s the guy who should get more recovery
time in training, not the guy who has covered more ground.
“These devices are definitely helping to inform those kinds of
decisions,” Byrne says.

The next frontier will be using GPS for tracking player
movement in a tactical manner on the field of play: seeing who
is plugging passing lanes, who is better at finding open space,
that kind of thing. The prospects in that area are tantalizing
for those who study tactics, although it is still in its
relative infancy. For now, most teams still just use GPS in a
training setting, but the devices are FIFA-approved for game
play. So far in the Premier League, Wolverhampton and Cardiff
City use STATSports vests during regular game action.

The more such devices are used in a game setting, the more
coaches and managers will get a definitive answer as to who is
trying their hardest on the pitch, and who is trying to get
them fired. It could even be the end of the eye test.

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