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The NFL wants to predict injuries before they happen. Here’s how

For the athletes who compete at the highest levels of sport, preventing injury can sometimes seem impossible. And in most cases, it is.

When you put two dozen of the country’s most elite players — with adrenaline pumping through their veins — in a 100-yard playground where they’re told to bump, push, and tackle one another in pursuit of glory, things are bound to get boisterous. Bones break, tendons snap, and heads collide.

Off the field, however, a burgeoning industry of injury-prevention technology is infiltrating practice arenas and locker rooms. Its mission is not necessarily to “prevent” injury, ironically, but to learn from the human body’s clues when it’s weak and wounded in hopes to mitigate damaging events from happening again.

In the last decade, many professional athletes and teams have adopted the regular use of wearables, force plates, and radio-frequency identification sensors to better gauge what types of movement affect a player’s performance and risk of potential injury.

Force plates and smart scales

Sparta Science smart scales.
Sparta Science

As a rugby and football player, Phil Wagner got injured a lot. And to his own dismay, these repeated injuries are what forced him to stop playing altogether.

“I think the most painful part was really emotionally, when you really commit to something and the outcome doesn’t change,” he said. “I really committed myself to prevention, to rehab, but injuries kept happening and I was just so frustrated.”

So frustrated in fact he decided to go to medical school and apply the same methodology doctors use to diagnose disease to create better injury prevention techniques.

“I thought, ‘How can we look at movement differently and come up with a much better system that improves the outcomes?’” he said.

In 2016, Wagner founded Sparta Science — and its force plate technology and analytics software is now used by professional sports teams across the country, like the Baltimore Ravens and the Cleveland Browns.

The technology works like this: Users do simple movements (like a jump or a plank) on the plate for less than 90 seconds. From just one scan, Sparta’s ultra-sensitive force plates can capture up to six million data points, analyzing everything from an athlete’s body weight, movement-response variability, muscular entropy, balance, and force impact with the ground.

“A lot of injuries happen because of how you interact with the ground, either the center of pressure in your feet are in the wrong place, or you start a movement too fast, or the movement takes too long,” Wagner said. “So the timing of that movement really is an indicator of how well you’re going to perform.”

Take for example an offensive lineman. With every snap of the ball, an offensive lineman has to do a squat. Mimicking these movements on the force plate during training would likely show that the player is over-developed in their knees and glutes and shouldn’t be over-training those muscles, but instead focus on strengthening the hamstrings, where most injuries occur for that position.

An athlete uses a Sparta Science smart scale & force plate.
Sparta Science

It took Wagner over a decade to develop the machine learning technology and software to not only be able to recognize certain bodily metrics but to sort through and organize the treasure trove of data it was collecting.

“The biggest part is trying to evaluate what isn’t necessary,” Wagner said. “We are all limited by time — time that the athlete has to be assessed, time the practitioner has to explain what the movement is, and ultimately time that the athlete has to address the needs for them to move better.”

Wearables

whoop fitness tracker
Whoop/Twitter

Bobby Stroupe tells his athletes they need to create a game plan for their bodies the same way they create a game plan for the field.

“The really good ones are good at removing their emotions and looking at their week as a checklist,” Stroupe said. “Every Monday after Sunday, there’s mental gymnastics. For example, if you took on this many hits yesterday, you need to get soft tissue work done on these areas proactively, or if you sprinted this many yards, you need to make sure you don’t have any hamstring tension going into practice.”

Stroupe is a professional performance trainer with over two decades of experience and coach to the biggest names in the MLB and NFL, including Kansas City Chiefs quarterback and Super Bowl champion, Patrick Mahomes. Technology hasn’t always been a big part of his coaching practice, mostly because in the past when he was starting out it was costly.

But now Stroupe has implemented wearables, such as Whoop’s fitness tracker, into his everyday routine to help his athletes monitor injury risk.

“Injury prevention is a tough concept,” Stroupe said about the claims popular wearables make about their products. “Reducing high-risk injuries is a better way to put it, because what I am looking for is trends over time.”

Whoop’s wearable sits on an athlete’s wrist 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. From there, it collects data, like heart rate, strain, and sleep patterns. Think of it as a slightly more souped-up Fitbit

The corresponding app charts the data into visualizations broken down by category. There’s no interactive touchscreen, either. That’s what Stroupe likes about Whoop — its simple interface, which he says is easy enough for the athletes themselves to consume, as well as its focus on recovery and identification of stress indicators. He uses this data to start conversations with his players to help them identify and eliminate recovery roadblocks.

“You don’t wanna alert an athlete or make them feel like that they can’t perform on a certain day because they got a bad recovery score,” Stroupe said.

But he’s not convinced technology holds the key to the betterment of athleticism overall because for peak performance to be achieved, the use of technology for injury prevention also requires a delicate blend of interpersonal skills.

“A lot of times when you have technology, sometimes you become so obsessed with the information, you forget that the game is actually played by people,” he said.

RFID sensors

A man sets up RFID technology in the Ravens stadium.
Zebra Technologies

Inside the shoulder pads of every NFL player lie two highly sensitive, nickel-sized radio-frequency identification sensors, or RFID tags for short. Even the ball has one. As do the referees and yardsticks. And all of these tags communicate with one another and send mountains of real-time information every second to the many receiver boxes placed strategically inside every NFL stadium across the country.

This is how you get precision-quality, next-generation statistics beamed into your television or smart device when watching a game. It’s all done through a century-old technology, too — radio waves — retrofitted for the times. And the information RFID gathers is available to not only the players and the teams but the public, too.

RFID technology is particularly good at cataloging things like speed, distance, location, and acceleration in real-time, and in relation to other objects. But Zebra Technologies (the NFL’s official on-field player-tracking provider), also utilizes RFID to help teams track and prevent future injuries.

“What we are seeing in the National Football League is that there are teams that are super users and they’ve built a culture where data analytics is part of the recipe for success,” said Adam Petrus, the regional manager of operations for Zebra. “So smart teams look at their formations and their line ups and make sure when they’re doing drills that they’re making sure there is some equity, so they can balance out the impact on the body.”

One of the ways Zebra’s technology helps professional teams analyze injury risk is by marrying the data gathered by RFID and video playback the NFL is known for.

“There are definitely coaches out there that can spot when somebody’s tired,” Petrus said. “But the data provides a sound answer and proof point. With the data, they can see if a player, during a warm-up ran an extra 100 more yards than anyone else, or if someone hit their max acceleration rate.”

Zebra’s RFID dashboard also provides coaches with live monitoring during practice as well as heat mapping and real-time data reports to help measure performance points like player exertion and load.

RFID’s impact on the NFL has been significant. Before the 2019 season, the league permanently changed the kick-off rule based on data RFID technology collected the previous year, which provided details about the injury risk of high-velocity collisions that occurred during kick-off.

“This was a direct correlation to what we were seeing across all 32 clubs in games throughout the previous season,” Petrus said. “Concussions and collisions were occurring because these guys were getting a seven-yard advantage to build speed and make a tackle.”

But do injuries have to occur before they can be prevented in the future?

Petrus doesn’t believe so, but understands the nature of the game can result in emotional highs and unavoidable mistakes. He sees the future of injury prevention technology not as a save-all for sports, but to be used as a tool.

“Data and RFID provide an opportunity to look deeper into another layer of player performance,” he said. “The biggest aspect of data collection is injury prevention.”

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