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Critical Process for the Implementation of Technology in Sport Organizations

Torres-Ronda, Lorena PhD1,2; Schelling, Xavi PhD1

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Strength and Conditioning Journal: December 2017 - Volume 39 - Issue 6 - p 54-59
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0000000000000339
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Abstract

THE EVOLUTION OF TECHNOLOGY

Human evolution has been linked to the evolution of technology since prehistoric times. Since the 1970s, with the invention of the microprocessor, the optical fiber, the Internet, and the cellular phone, technology and the management of information have exponentially evolved. This evolution has mainly occurred because of 3 aspects: (a) the reduction in size of devices routinely developed using nanotechnology, (b) the increase in data processing speed, enabling data reporting in real time, and (c) the reduction of costs, allowing the widespread use of technology. This technological evolution has benefited all imaginable fields, including medicine, biomechanics, and physiology. Just 10 years ago, the measurement of core body temperature required an invasive technique, and today it can be performed using a small pill. There are also wearable patches capable of measuring sweat composition, hydration level, and glucose or lactate levels, sleep monitors the size of a watch, compressive garments with integrated electromyography systems, shoe insoles with integrated load cells, biomechanical analysis systems that no longer require markers, or those using markers have optimized the assessment process, thermographic cameras the size of a compact-camera, portable devices that allow us to analyze the contractile properties of the surface muscles (tensiomyography). There is technology that measures real-time weightlifting speed and its derivatives, smartphone apps to measure force/velocity profiles, portable gas analyzers weighing less than 1 kg, tracking systems (semiautomatic video analysis, accelerometers, global positioning systems [GPS] or Global Navigation Satellite System) that report the type, frequency, and intensity of players' movements, portable virtual reality systems that place the athlete in scenarios designed à la carte. The list is endless and its evolution unpredictable.

Technology is capable of providing real-time data (e.g., GPS, heart rate monitors, shoe insoles, and motion capture systems for biomechanical analysis). This has revolutionized decision-making, training prescription, and injury management. With these technologies, a strength coach can adapt the workloads in every session, add or remove exercises, sets, reps, etc. Based on objective data (e.g., decreases in power or velocity of execution) (7), a sport scientist can give feedback to the coaches. The coaches can rest a player, give the player more minutes in a practice session or during a game, or modify task constraints during an actual practice to achieve certain individual goals for that session. Today, we do not train like we did just 15 years ago, and 15 years from now, we will not train like we do today. Monitoring has dramatically changed and the evolution of technology, and the knowledge it generates, has resulted in a paradigm shift in the world of human performance. However, this paradigm shift helps to improve training methodologies, which on some occasions have not adapted to the pace of technological evolution.

Faced with this new scenario, professionals must have the knowledge and understanding of how to select the most relevant and impactful technology for their organizations. The focus of this article therefore is to detail concerns regarding the implementation of technology in high performance and professional sports, provide a framework that guides organizations and professionals regarding technology implementation, and discuss concerns pertaining to the use of certain technologies for certain purposes for which they are not yet ready.

FIRST STEPS TO IMPLEMENT NEW TECHNOLOGY

One of the first aspects that may help structure our approach to the implementation of new technology is to recognize the level and type of additional knowledge we seek at both the individual and the department levels. This new knowledge can either (a) deepen the understanding of a fundamental aspect of human performance, such as physiology, biomechanics, or psychology (vertical approach) or (b) integrate information from a maximum number of fields related to human performance as possible (but not necessarily each in depth) (horizontal approach) (15). Having one or the other approach will largely determine the operational characteristics of the department, the required technology, and how the information is communicated to players, technical staff, and management.

Another point to consider is the process by which sports organizations identify technology needs that address performance gaps, where a common mistake is to determine the need or solution before identifying the problem. As reported elsewhere (13), assessment needs refers to identifying and prioritizing solutions to address performance gaps, which implies a systematic process of asking questions, comparing answers, and making informed decisions about what to do next to improve performance. Four types of need should be considered: normative need, perceived need, expected need, and relative need (see Ringuet-Riot et al. (13) for a detailed review). Thus, it is critical for organizations to think broadly and systemically, to consider interdisciplinary approaches, and to provide justification for decisions (interest versus influence) (13) (Figure 1).

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Figure 1.:
The process of implementation of technology in sport organizations (I).

Another topic that must be considered is how we will analyze the data collected using the new technology; data analysis can be performed from a linear perspective or from a nonlinear and systemic perspective. If we choose the latter, which has been shown to best describe the real world, we should not limit ourselves to simplified reporting that gives a single value or color to answer a question as complex as the state of the athlete, which, as we know, will be determined not only by their physical-biological status but also by their psychological and social state (1). Accordingly, it is important to know what we can and cannot measure, the interdependence between different measurements, and the relative weight of each variable (known and unknown) on the decision-making process.

TEAMWORK AND TECHNOLOGY IMPLEMENTATION: INTERDISCIPLINARY AND TRANSDISCIPLINARY

To be successfully implemented, it is necessary to involve the professionals who will apply the technology with the players. Thus, it will be required for all of them to have a good understanding of its use, the protocols, and the most relevant metrics. If the professional staff does not believe in or understand the technology, or the resultant data and its meaning, they will be reluctant to use it and the benefits will not be realized by the player or the team, resulting in a failed implementation.

Consequently, for some time now, it is common to hear about the importance of forming multidisciplinary teams, which refers to working groups involving several experts from different disciplines. More recently, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary concepts have refined this idea. The first, interdisciplinary, refers to a group of professionals with different knowledge and skill sets working together with a common goal and sharing a team identity; the second, transdisciplinary, refers to a group with different disciplines or professions who share competences and that at certain times may be able to interchange tasks between components of the team (11). The multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary, and transdisciplinary teams differ mainly in their organization, leadership, communication, goal settings, and in the decision-making process. Interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teams have been shown to be more efficient, with a better working environment, and with higher satisfaction levels (4,11).

Assuming that at the elite level performance teams comprised several professionals (e.g., player development coaches, strength and conditioning coaches, physiotherapists, doctors, athletic trainers, sports scientists, psychologists, nutritionists, among others) (16), and that technology may affect more than one of those areas of expertise, one should consider involving and overlapping the competences and abilities of each member throughout the training or rehabilitation process based on the staff skill set, the player needs, the rehabilitation or training periodization, and ensuring a proper overlap because an inappropriate one may trigger conflicts. A suitable combination of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary teaming will make the technology implementation process as efficient as possible.

TECHNOLOGY AND TRAINING INDIVIDUALIZATION

A proper training or rehabilitation program focuses on the individual player's needs and prepares him/her to be able to cope with the demands of both training and competition. The training individualization principle is based on the fact that each athlete responds differently to the same type and dose of training (2). The typical method to quantify training is to consider just the loads prescribed by the staff and to assume the state of the athlete based on previous experience without accounting for the actual effect the loads have on the players. Technology can help in objectivizing training individualization, but to maximize its implementation we will need a framework.

Assuming that the total work load is the result of psychological and biological demands (actual load) produced by training and/or competition (prescribed load) (8), which is a function of the individual player's characteristics (10), we must control both types of load to try to get as close as possible to the actual state of our players. The proposal by Impellizzeri et al. (10), widely accepted in our field, splits training or competition loads into external and internal components. The internal load is the physiological and psychological response of the athlete resulting from the external load to which he/she has been exposed (distance traveled, number of jumps, intensity and type of movement, etc.) plus all the stimuli nondirectly related to the external load (e.g., equipment, temperature, humidity, mood, etc.). The technology available today allows elucidation of both types of loading.

Thus, the challenge for technology companies is to provide multiple, integrative, and synchronized sources of information that describe both the external and the internal loads on the athlete in the least invasive manner possible.

THE DARK SIDE (PART 1): VALIDITY, RELIABILITY, AND USEFULNESS

Paraphrasing Pirelli's popular advertisement from the 1990s, with Carl Lewis on an athletic track wearing stylish high-heeled shoes: “Technology is useless without control.” Having the fanciest technology does not inherently imply having the best assessment system.

The lack of validity of some devices, and the lack of transparency of some companies in reporting device validity, still requires that the end user determines the magnitude of the measurement error for each technology. Knowing the measurement error, one can differentiate between the changes in athlete performance resulting from training and those resulting from the measurement error. Although validation studies are becoming more common, the interdevice and intradevice differences resulting from different software versions from the same company (e.g., in GPS or microelectromechanical systems), or the differences between companies that sell the same type of technology, will likely result in differences in the reported outputs. These discrepancies compromise the validity of historical data or lead to erroneous decisions (3). Likewise, the lack of consensus and transparency on the data collection frequency and postcollection data processing (e.g., data filters) applied by companies often compromises the validity, reproducibility, and utility of these technologies.

First, technology must go through a vetting process focused on device validity and reliability, as well as cost-benefit, personal-benefit, and time-benefit ratios. Next, the technology must be properly implemented, which means it must be systematically applied throughout training and competition. If any of these points do not reach a minimum level (e.g., the company validity and/or filtering process is questionable; it is too expensive for what we get from it; it requires human resources that we do not have; or it involves too much time to collect, clean, and/or analyze the data), the technology should not be implemented because doing so we will jeopardize the credibility of the technical staff. The information provided by the technology must be reliable and manageable and must contribute to the decision-making process. Currently, the obsession with being an early adopter of technology and to rapidly implement new technology to gain a competitive advantage over other teams or organizations, combined with the fear of being left behind, often means that this vetting process is not performed. This can lead to a waste of time, money, and potentially misguided training decisions, not to mention that it puts at risk the reputation of the professional staff, and the technology.

If the first stage of the vetting process has been satisfactorily accomplished, there are 2 additional questions that we should ask to ourselves: (a) is the information provided by this technology new and relevant to our program? and (b) what is the most appropriate system to process and manage the information? Having duplicate information systems or having an inefficient data management process will ruin our chances of using the technology even if it is valid, reliable, efficient, and systematically applied. As William of Okham (XIII-XIV) stated and Aaron Coutts paraphrased in 2014: “More things should not be used than are necessary” (5). An optimal assessment system covers all our needs and allows us to design an individualized athlete training program. Furthermore, it does so with the minimum amount of technology, requires the lowest economic investment, and results in the greatest optimization of time and human resources.

Last, we must always keep in mind why we want to implement a certain technology. Supposedly, the answer is because we want to have greater knowledge of the athlete, understand how he/she feels, and how he/she is coping with the workloads. That is, technology should not be the focus; the players should always be the focus. Technology is just one more tool to optimize what we prescribe. Many times, the simple fact of asking the athlete how he/she feels makes the prescription easier (9,19). Once we have this subjective information, we can then refine our understanding of the athlete using data derived from technology, which may provide us with more objective and integrative information.

THE DARK SIDE (PART 2): DATA MANAGEMENT

The amount of data generated globally is growing exponentially and seems to have no limit. In 2013, SINTEF, one of Europe's largest independent research organizations (SINTEF ICT, Microsystems and Nanotechnology), reported that “more data has been created in the past two years than in the entire previous history of the human race” (ScienceDaily, May 22, 2013 (17)) and that “by the year 2020, about 1.7 megabytes of new information will be created every second for every human being on the planet” (Forbes, September 30, 2015 (6)). Surprisingly, thanks to improvements in storage and data processing, 99.5% of all such global data have been analyzed in one form or another (MIT Technology Review, May 3, 2013 (18)). The question, however, is obvious: how much of the data we collect from our players is used and analyzed in a meaningful way?

Data management involves several different phases: (a) collection, (b) storage, (c) analysis and interpretation, and (d) reporting. As described in the section on validity and reliability, when collecting data, we must ensure its quality, control the data collection conditions, and process the data by separating the signal from the noise and minimizing the measurement error (3,12). Because of the endless list of technological devices and monitoring methods, there is a need for a common space in which to store data and information from all devices and assessments so that it can be analyzed in an integrative way either in situ or a posteriori. Many new companies offer products that allow data warehousing. From a practical point of view, these databases must allow the incorporation of new data types as new devices are implemented. They should allow for easy data loading and downloading, and they must clearly report how data are processed and analyzed when generating reports. The statistical analysis performed will determine how the athlete flagging system functions. The objective of the athlete flagging system is to facilitate interpretation of data analysis results and to highlight relevant athlete risks and benefits. The flagging system should highlight a problem with an athlete in real-time or quasi-real-time and minimize false positives and false negatives (14). It is not the aim of this text to advocate for one statistical procedure over another, but a critical investigation of available options is necessary to build a robust athlete assessment system. Finally, the collected information must be delivered in an efficient, concise, and clear way to those who manage workloads and make decisions, as well as to the individual players, each of whom have very different backgrounds. As such, reports should be tailored to and address the objectives of each report recipient. Understanding the context, the questions to be answered, and the intended recipient are key factors to designing a report that will be more or less technical or visual and to deliver the most relevant and actionable data in an effective way. If we ultimately fail to communicate the results effectively, the device vetting process, the systematic technology implementation, the data storage, and the data analysis will have been for naught because we will not have contributed to the decision-making process nor demonstrated the usefulness of the collected data to the player (Figure 2).

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Figure 2.:
The process of implementation of technology in sport organizations (II): from the analysis of the context until the review of the process.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Unquestionably, the use of technology presents a great opportunity to obtain data in real time using devices that are less invasive, lighter, more precise, smaller, safer, and cheaper. However, technology implementation is also a challenge. It is imperative that we understand the usefulness, specificity, validity, and reliability of the instruments that we want to implement. We must keep in mind that if we are going to base a large part of our decision-making process on the information we collect using these devices, we better make sure they work. Our credibility with coworkers, managers, and players is at stake.

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

The authors want to thank Dr. Daniel P. Nicolella for his help on the final edits of this article.

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Keywords:

innovation; monitoring; tracking; validity

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