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Big Data Sports Tech

Written By Brian Hicks

Posted January 8, 2014

Big data is big business and it’s moving right into the sports world.

When winning is the name of the game, every second and every inch can be the difference between coming out on top and falling short of victory. For some athletes, those seconds and inches mean everything, and for world-class professional athletes, they can mean millions of dollars. Big Data Tennis Racket from Babolat

All those little measurements add up.

Big data solutions compile data sets too big and complex to process using traditional data processing applications. They help capture, store, search, share, transfer, analyze, and be used at the forefront for when and where an athlete needs to improve his or her game most.

Maybe you’re missing the low and inside fastball, or you keep slicing off the tee; big data analysis can pinpoint those problem areas and help an athlete improve that part of their game.

Growing up, sports were my life, and my coaches always said practice made perfect. It was crucial to work on the fundamentals of the game, so when it was game time, I would always be ready to go. Big data is the training tool that helps push athletes over the top during practice, focusing on the little things, so an athlete performs at a high level when it’s time to play for real.

At this year’s consumer electronics show (CES), there was a lot of attention around Babolat and its smart tennis racket. It looks like any other racket on the surface, except it is very different. Babolat’s new innovative racket will track a player’s technique, power, and endurance, and use all the data collected to help maximize a player’s performance.

Sports like running and biking already have tracking apps and high-tech gadgets used to monitor athletic performance, but until now, tennis has been largely void of any connective technology.

And it’s not like big data is a completely new revelation to the world of sports. The legendary Baltimore Orioles manager, Earl Weaver, was using computer simulations back in the 80’s to help his players perform better.

The Racket

But we’ve never seen anything like this before. Babolat’s racket, called the Babolat Play, has the entire tennis world at attention. Not only could it help revolutionize the game, but its user interface is pretty cool looking, too, where it connects directly to your smartphone or tablet, and you can link up with other users and compete with players around the world based on statistics.

Whether you’re a seasoned vet or just starting out, your connective tennis game can be right there at your fingertips for $399.

The way it works: sensors on the handle collect data based on a player’s swing, power, endurance, technique, and ball impact. From there, all of that information is sent to the Babolat Play app, where everything is visually displayed, and a user can dissect his or her game.

Tennis has always been a finesse sport. You play off of feeling and instinct, but as balls zoom and zing back and forth in a match, there has never been any way to track a player’s performance. Traditionally, you may use video to see where a player might be making mistakes, or you have your tennis coach screaming down your neck every time you miss with that forehand. But the Babolat Play looks at every angle, every shot, and magnifies it to be used later; something even the best coach can’t provide. It might even put a few coaches out of business because users can train with Babolat alone.

If you look at the app, a full overview of a player’s game can be displayed, and you can see the evolution of that game from day one. Are improvements being made? What still needs to change? And if you want you can stack your numbers up against anyone else using the app.

Even the number one ranked tennis player in the world and clay court God, Rafael Nadal, is behind Babolat and its new Babolat Play. If it can help him, it can help anybody.

Babolat is currently working with the International Tennis Federation (ITF) to make court rules conducive to the Babolat Play, and as of January 1, 2014, the ITF modified its rules to allow the use of player analysis technologies during official game play.


Beyond Tennis

If we go outside the realm of tennis and we start to look at other sports, this same general technology could lift any athlete’s performance. And we don’t need PEDs to do it. Just think about baseball. The hardest thing in sports is to hit a baseball. I’m not trying to ruffle any feathers here, but it’s true. No other sport allows you to be successful 30 percent of the time and still be considered elite.

The speed of the bat, the angle where the ball makes contact, hand eye coordination, the position of the batter’s hips, his shoulders – it all factors into how well a ball will be struck. And for major leaguers, all that has to be dialed in while a 90+ mile per hour fastball comes straight at you, or you have to look for the curve, or the slider. It’s hard and almost downright impossible sometimes.

If we go back to 2005, MIT was working on a baseball bat that pretty much did the same thing as the Babolat Play tennis racket. It had an accelerometer embedded on the side of a baseball bat that measured acceleration.

Since bat speed is so critical for hitting power, this “smart bat” would record information based on bat speed; data that could be used to help maintain speed and control of a hitter’s swing.

The measurements would send signals to an LED bar display that consisted of 10 LEDs in a row, according to DSpace@MIT. The number of LEDs that light up after a swing is directly proportional to bat acceleration. Whistles were also included at the end of the bat to provide additional feedback – the louder the whistle, the higher the speed of the bat. MIT’s prototype was to sell on the market for roughly $40, and less than half of existing speed radars.

Back then, MIT knew that more data could be incorporated into its bat – digital displays could be recorded onto a computer for further analysis – and that’s where we are today. Babolat has proven that it works.

The Future

MIT’s bat never did catch fire, but just thinking about what Babolat has been able to do, we will undoubtedly see this technology used in baseball, and it will only spread to other sports.

I’m a traditionalist and I’m stubborn. I also don’t like change, but this technology is amazing.

If I had access to tools like this when I was actively playing, I would be all over it. I’m a competitor, and I want to be the best I can be, no matter what it is I do. And I don’t see how it hurts the game in any way. It’s not like instant replay where the entire outcome of a game can be changed with technology. This is simply a learning tool.

As for the investment side of things, like our money, the more we know about the game, the better we perform. We’ll certainly keep an eye on this connective technology and big data as it progresses through the world of sports.

For now, I say, play hard, and play to win, and have fun doing it. After all, it’s just a game, right?