As all sports have become increasingly data-driven, motion capture technology has become a logical extension of the interest in and acceptance of performance analytics. Indeed, it is hard to find a sport that’s not using motion capture technology in some capacity today – and football is definitely not an exception.
In fact, elite football typifies one of the main drivers for the adoption of motion capture in sport – preventing player injury. For top level clubs, the cost of injured players is phenomenal. Just looking at data for the English Premier League in the month of January 2020 shows that 95 reported injuries cost clubs a collective £16.5 million ($20.5 million – source: PremierInjuries.com).
As such, more and more clubs are turning to motion capture as an extension of their sport science and medical programmes to better understand the strains on players during training and to look for clues that might help prevent serious injuries.
While this work obviously has huge potential benefits for players, coaches and fans alike – no one wins when players are injured – we are still just scratching the surface of what motion capture can do for football.
Motion capture technology also has the potential to play a much bigger role in enhancing the performance and technique of players and helping improve coaching throughout the whole football pyramid – including grassroots football.
Barriers to progress
Sports scientists and technology vendors have worked hard to embed motion capture techniques within training programs. The progress of this work can be seen in the fact that FIFA has conducted its own assessments to create more detailed licensing and usage rules for incorporating motion tracking technology in football training regimens.
However, for all this progress, access to athletes and funding remain perpetual barriers to expanding the use of motion capture in football and other sports. As an example, Vicon works with Ajax. Initially access to players was tightly controlled – largely restricted to injured players, or the reserve and junior teams – with limited windows in which to capture tracking data. However, as the benefits of the tracking data have become visible to the coaching team, so access is increasing – albeit slowly.
While this obviously represents progress, it is nonetheless still far from ideal. It means that typically players will only have their most meaningful engagements with motion capture programs after they are already injured.
Increasing integration with coaching techniques
To tackle this issue, we are seeing the development of new motion capture systems that focus on minimising setup time, increasing the levels of automation in the data processing, and generally making the process of capturing tracking data as quick and painless as possible. This will enable more data to be captured more easily and give coaches better information to make decisions with.
The key to these developments is the use of wearable ‘inertial’ sensors. These inertial tracking devices differ from the widely used GPS sensors. GPS trackers treat the body as one ‘mass’, and therefore can only really provide coarse distance and velocity data on players.
This information only has limited utility – ideally athletes need to see the exact detail of where they can make performance gains during training, in the same way a Formula 1 driver would use telemetry to gain lap time. This is what inertial sensors can deliver – providing data on player movements down to the joint level so that players and coaches can get direct feedback on the detail of their movement and where improvements or corrections can be made in their technique and training intensity.
Not only do inertial sensors give you this extra information, they also tick all of the boxes in terms of cost and ease of use. For example, data can be transmitted directly to smartphones or tablets, where intuitive apps can seamlessly integrate the data with video of players – enabling coaches and players to conduct real-time analysis of a wide range of actions and movements despite not being experts in either motion capture or biomechanics.
This ability to have data immediately available in the field is incredibly powerful for coaches and players – showing players how they are performing in the moment.
Used in this way, the technology can help coaches and players understand the how and why of technique and pinpoint the minutiae of what makes ‘perfect technique’ and where improvements need to be made. It also allows coaches to understand the ‘loads’ players are experiencing – to help them manage fatigue and other risk factors. By giving coaches more information on how a player is performing a certain task the coach can see if that performance differs from an athlete’s usual workload. If a coach sees those differences then they are able to understand if there’s a potential risk of injury and immediately stop the drill if so. In future it may even be possible to deliver this feedback on loads automatically to the athlete via alerts and vibrations from the sensor itself.
Maximising the potential of motion capture for football
With the advances in technology that we see today – including the miniaturisation of wearable sensors, more intuitive apps and real-time wireless data uploads from sensors – it will become easier and easier for coaches to build motion tracking analysis into their training sessions. The annual pre-season baseline capture session will become a well-established part of player management, with more regular and more in-depth ongoing assessments to intelligently manage player load and injury prevention. For elite teams and programs, the sports biomechanist will become a senior part of coaching setups.
The lower cost and ease of use of wearable sensors will also make it increasingly viable for this technology to be adopted by teams further down the pyramid – perhaps even at the grassroots level – enabling every player to benefit from the insights and injury prevention techniques that motion tracking enables.
As coaches and players become more accustomed to using motion capture technology – thanks to the wider use of tablet- or smartphone-based app solutions – so it will play a bigger and bigger role in their training and rehab regimens, especially for at-home capture during a time where there’s a need to carry out socially distant training practices. With ever-more measurable programs for cultivating specific technique enhancements and player welfare management strategies so motion capture will become part of the fabric of the sport, helping players and teams achieve their goals and reach new heights.