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GPS devices now in use at ETSU to measure performance of athletes

Rex Barber • Dec 13, 2012 at 10:00 PM

Using satellites to measure performance could be the future of athletics, and the training to use this technology is only taking place in this country at East Tennessee State University.

“It is the future,” said Howard Gray, a doctoral student in sport physiology and performance at ETSU who will finish up this semester. He also serves as coaching manager and sport scientist for men’s soccer at ETSU.

Gray was referring to global positioning systems, in particular the Catapult MinimaxX S4 that is being used by sports teams around the world and is now being integrated into the curriculum at ETSU. These devices were developed by Australia-based Catapult Sports, which partnered with ETSU.

A demonstration of this GPS system was arranged Thursday morning for local media with the help of ETSU rugby players.

Ten times a second these GPS devices, typically worn by athletes under their jerseys, use satellites to log where the athletes are located on the field.

“From that you can obviously work out distance, speed, acceleration, change of direction, all of those things,” Gray said.

Also, 100 times a second, the GPS devices can relay impacts, loads on the body, orientation, jumping, landing and other information useful in determining athletic performance.

In the demonstration, the field was Summers-Taylor Stadium, where ETSU’s soccer games are played. As players moved back and forth on the field, the GPS devices relayed their positions and movement to a laptop set up on a table along the sidelines.

Andrew Detiveaux, a sophomore rugby player at ETSU, said wearing the vest that contains the GPS device was similar to wearing any typical compression shirt and provides no extra heat to the body. He did not even notice it was there while playing rugby Thursday morning.

“Honestly, any numbers that you can get on your training that can help you tell you what you’re doing, what you can improve, is more than welcome to any athlete,” he said.

The satellites will not pick up a tackle but some of the other mechanisms in the devices will read the presence of high forces at work on the athletes through a complex algorithm.

“So with that you can look at the demands of the games, look at the demands of training and better plan training, games, for improved performance,” Gray said.

Gray said major sports teams around the world are already incorporating this technology into training. There are some teams using these devices in the United States, though.

Gray does not think price is inhibiting teams from implementing GPS devices, rather the lack of anyone with the knowledge to operate them and to analyze the complex wealth of data the devices generate.

Everyone who does know how to operate the equipment and then read and interpret the data into something useful for coaches and players is from Australia or Europe, Gray said. So teams here who have adopted the GPS devices have hired people from those continents to work them.

“So what we’re trying to do here (at ETSU) is put it into our curriculum so that our students are very well equipped coming out ... (and) familiar with this system,” he said. “It’ll make them very employable. There is nowhere else in this country that’s integrating it like this.”

The system provides a wealth of information but it also requires a wealth of knowledge, especially in math and physics, to operate. For instance, the tackle detection algorithms use a lot of advanced mathematics to calculate.

Ethan Owens, a sport scientist for Catapult who graduated from the master’s program in sport science at ETSU a year ago, said because of the knowledge base, science, technology, engineering and math skills are all very important for anyone using the GPS system. These STEM courses are being heavily pushed in education at all levels right now.

Owens said the partnership with ETSU and Catapult came about because of the sport science and coaching education program at the university. No other school in North America has such a program.

“It’s a really great opportunity for ETSU,” Owens said.

In Australia, where the technology has been in use longer, it has changed the face of Australian football, Owens said.

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