How Football Teams are using MedTech To Gain Competitive Advantages

Photo of a footballer with the ball at their feet

Europe is currently consumed with football fever as the pandemic delayed Euro 2020 tournament continues. So it only seemed right to take a look this week on the blog at the relationship between football and the world of medical technology.

I’ll be examining how the two have come together in two keys areas:

  • Recovery & Rehabilitation
  • Helping To Pick The Team

Let’s kick off (sorry first and last bad football pun I promise).

#1 Recovery and Rehabilitation

Injuries happen all the time in football, with some causing players to miss one game and others which can rule a player out for years. Clubs can’t afford for players to be off the field for prolonged periods so are always looking for ways to reduce their rehabilitation time.

The connection between football and sport-science isn’t a new one. Going back to the 1970’s, Everton first started working alongside sports scientists to help them overcome an ongoing injury crisis.

Nowadays with the amount of money involved in the game, the range of treatments for players continues to evolve and this level of financial clout is driving innovation in MedTech and digital health. Below are a few examples of how technology is being used to aid player recovery.

Cardioverter Defibrillator

Let’s start with the most recent one and it’s one I’m sure you’ve either seen or read about in the past few weeks. During the Denmark vs Finland match on day 2 of the tournament, Danish midfielder Christian Eriksen collapsed on the pitch. The player suffered a cardiac arrest and following extensive on-field treatment was stabilised and taken to hospital to the relief of the world watching the match.

He has since been fitted with an implantable cardioverter defibrillator which is connected to the heart and “sends electrical pulses to regulate abnormal heart rhythms, especially those that could be dangerous and cause a cardiac arrest.” This is the same device Dutch footballer Daley Blind had fitted a few years ago and has since made a full return to action, and is playing in this year’s Euro 2020 tournament.

Cryotherapy

One step up from an ice bath is to use a cryotherapy chamber in which a player is subjected to extreme cold temperatures in order to recover faster. It does this by using the cold to reduce inflammation by constricting blood vessels.

Cryotherapy Chamber

According to Courted, “Your core body temperature lowers, creating a shock to many of your body’s systems which kickstarts natural responses that help your muscles, immune system and your overall athletic performance.”

 

MRI Scans

The results from MRI scans are vital for modern football clubs as it allows their medical teams to make a detailed diagnosis and create a treatment plan off the back of it.

They have proven particularly helpful on certain injuries like torn ACL’s which in the past were in locations that medical staff struggled to scan effectively.

Protective Headgear

The most famous example of protective headgear being used in football is ex Chelsea and Arsenal goalkeeper Petr Cech.

Cech fractured his skull in 2006 during a Chelsea game against Reading which led to him having two pieces of his skull replaced with metal plates. Upon his return and until his retirement he wore a protective scrum cap (common in rugby pictured below) which allowed him to continue playing at the highest level and remain completely safe.

Protective headwear

Insoles

For many players the use of insoles in their boots has made a massive impact on their performance. They might not be as glamorous as a cryotherapy chamber but they are just as essential as they are used to correctly align a players running style, which puts less pressure on certain parts of the legs and helps reduce occurrences of common injuries like shin splints, which can put a player on the side lines for a long time.

#2 Helping To Pick The Team

The next area I’ll look at is how MedTech is being used as a tool to report on past performances and help determine which players could perform better in certain situations.

The first piece of equipment I’ll start with is a GPS vest. You’ve probably seen players wearing these under their shirts. They are used to track players and provide individual data on their accelerations, deceleration, miles covered in a game and so on. This can be used to make data based decisions rather than gut-instinct ones. For example if stats show a player’s acceleration rates tend to decrease towards the end of a game then the manager knows that as the game progresses certain players effectiveness will be dropping and should be substituted.

This data will also be used by medical staff to see if the player is putting too much stress on themselves with how they run e.g do they need to change their running style so they can slow down in a different way so there’s less strain on their knees.

Player data was at the forefront of the news during the first lockdown when players had to train in isolation. Their data was used to provide individual training schedules to ensure they were maintaining their conditioning. Players are also issued with individual plans upon their return from summer breaks to help get them back match-fit after too much indulgence on holiday.

Some clubs are highly data-driven, for example Leeds United. Since Marco Bielsa took over every aspect of a players fitness and performance is analysed using the latest technologies to ensure continuous improvements. The results speak for themselves as he was able to take a mid-table Championship team and turn them into a top-half Premier League team by optimising the way they trained, their diet, sleeping patterns and so on.

Speaking from the analytics team at Leeds, Tom Robinson said, “If you’re a Leeds United player now, you have to be interested in it, otherwise, you’re not going to get the best out of yourself or fit into the process here.”

But could clubs end up drowning in big data with so much being recorded?

With a packed fixture list clubs don’t have the time to spend hours poring over the data so condensing findings and reporting fast is key. Robinson continues, “there are short windows to get data, feed it back to coaches and then to move on. If we can turn an hour’s work into 15 minutes of work, it’s better for everyone. That’s been a key focus for us.”

Another club harnessing player data is Arsenal. They have 15 specialists working for them and use an optimal tracking system which gives them detailed information about ‘what’s happening in every second of a game and training. Analysts use the technology to assess every phase of play – in possession, out of possession, in transition – and compare what actually happens to what the team’s intention was in each instance to give a scientific assessment of the performance.’ (source: Daily Mail)

 

Conclusion

So whilst it’s clear the positive impact medical technology and sports science has had on football, will we ever be in a situation where a manager could be replaced with a data analyst? Could Hal 9000 or R2-D2 replace Pep Guardiola in the dugout and start calling the shots?

It seems highly unlikely due to football being a sport built upon such highly charged emotions.

I’ll finish up with a quote from Arsène Wenger, former Arsenal manager and considered one of the most innovative coaches in modern football. I think it perfectly sums up how the balance in the relationship between data and human gut instinct will always work in football.

“Analysts have taken on a very prominent role and are involved in matches right from half-time, making it possible to understand the game better, and to have objective criteria for analysing the match, whereas previously everything had been left to the subjectivity of the manager. Nevertheless, the manager remains the sole decision maker.”

“Statistics and science must be a part of performance analysis, but they need to be used in combination with a deep knowledge of the game. The latest studies show that players are demoralised by too great a use of statistics, no doubt because they feel their individuality is lost in the process.”

Taken from the 2020 autobiography ‘My Life in Red and White’ by Arsène Wenger.

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