The ‘quantified athlete’ has come a long way since Angela Ruggiero’s playing days. “I used to wear a clunky heartrate monitor under my equipment but these days you could wear a sticker and see the same results,” she tells Performance.
Ruggiero is a US Olympic ice hockey champion who, as Co-Founder and Managing Director of The Sports Innovation Lab, sits at what she describes as the “nexus between sport and technology”. The company was launched in January 2017 by Ruggiero; former NFL linebacker Isaiah Kacyvenski, whom Ruggiero met at Harvard; and Joshua Walker, the former VP of Research at Forrester Research and Entrepreneur-in-Residence at General Catalyst. Through a combination of research and tapping into a network of expert global advisors and innovators from USOC to MIT, The Sports Innovation Lab identifies and evaluates technology products for its digital research platform.
Like Kacyvenski, Ruggiero rose to sporting prominence just as sports tech was making major inroads at elite level. She has, through her subsequent work at the International Olympic Committee [IOC], seen the field grow exponentially. The Sports Innovation Lab predicts that there will be in excess of 1.3 billion ‘quantified athlete’ devices across the world in 2021. Plenty of choice, perhaps, but Ruggiero understands that it is not always easy to cut through the white noise.
“We observed that there was no one providing objective, third-party information about what’s next in the sports industry,” she continues. Ruggiero won four Olympic medals, including gold in 1998, and, with 256 games under her belt, has represented her country more than any other American. Her distinguished playing career saw her inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2015 but she has long possessed the entrepreneurial streak that inspired her latest move: as a youngster she would make 75 cents on every dollar selling packs of bubble gum, while some decades later, in the summer of 2006, she survived ten episodes with Donald Trump on series six of The Apprentice.
“We realised there was an opportunity to help the sports industry to define innovation in an analytical way. We look at the companies and the trends that are emerging; we want to help everyone from investors in sports teams, to leagues, or even a tech brand that’s looking to get into sports.” This aspiration saw The Sports Innovation Lab launch its Scout platform in June 2017, which is designed to help sports organisations get a firmer grip on the quantified athlete.
Talking to Performance a month after that launch, Ruggiero and Kacyvenski ran the rule over the sports tech trends they have unearthed.
- The quantified athlete = the quantified self
What an athlete uses to stay at their peak today could well be used by friends and family in years to come. Brian Reilly, the Director of Product at The Sports Innovation Lab, says: “What’s used in the quantified athlete is going to be used in the quantified self.” As he explains, “the tech used in the quantified athlete is going to develop with great velocity and volume because the incentive scheme is there and the market is unregulated, unlike in the healthcare industry. You’re going to see these devices and technologies cut their teeth in elite sports, which will then spill over into regulated healthcare.” It is a theme that Ruggiero addressed in her June 2017 blogpost at blog.sportsilab.com.
She wrote: ‘Investors also understand that these devices will slowly migrate into the mass market with much higher volume, with elite sports as just the right market to test these products for the rest of us.’ As Kacyvenski, who is also a Managing Director at The Sports Innovation Labs, tells us: “Sport is a lens to a bigger and broader market; it’s a testing ground. I like to say that the quantified athlete is really an extension of the quantified self.
2. Look out for increased third-party integration
The days of one device for this and another for that appear to be numbered due to a combination of time constraints on decision-makers and the ever-changing nature of performance staffs. “I spent 16 years on the US national team before becoming an administrator at USOC and the IOC,” Ruggiero tells Performance with regards to the former. “There are massive decisions being made daily by organisations, boards, and by your coaches on behalf of the athlete.” Like Kacyvenski, Ruggiero sees the space through the filter of a former athlete, but she also sees the challenges in her role as Vice-Chair of the IOC Athlete’s Commission and as a member of the IIHF Athlete’s Commission. And it is not just time-poor personnel in need of ever more efficient data analysis. “Needs are evolving,” Reilly tells Performance. “Strength and conditioning coaches are now taking on the role of sports scientists in their organisations. They’re not dedicating all their time to it, but they’re starting to use tools that do that.” Says Kacyvenski: “Every single company you see on our platform is an open system. There’s closed systems that exist, obviously, but our feedback from a variety of different industry experts is that people want to look at those open platforms as the base for massive data aggregation, instead of being limited to one or two hardware pieces. The core of it is being able to put decision frameworks together where no decision frameworks exist.”
“Strength and conditioning coaches are now taking on the role of sports scientists in their organisations. They’re not dedicating all their time to it, but they’re starting to use tools that do that.”
3. Athletes will increasingly become their own data collectors
As technology is increasingly used to collect data away from the training field or the arena, athletes will be able to take an ever more active role in their own wellbeing. “I really thought my body was my business when I played and I tried to be that quantified athlete,” says Kacyvenski, who played for the Seattle Seahawks and the St. Louis Rams between 2000 and 2006. “I tried to take the guesswork out of how I trained and performed and how I could feel my best when I needed to feel my best. It’s not just the two hours you are playing or training; and the more accurate collection of data for longer periods of time is only going to help.” As with Ruggiero, data was beginning to develop during his playing days. “That’s where I was going myself, whether that was coming from the top or the bottom,” he continues. “Sport has such a head start around aggregating data for personalised pieces.” Upon retirement, his interest had been suitably piqued; he completed his MBA at Harvard Business School in 2011 he began to invest and become an advisor to companies in tech, sports, biotech and sports medicine amongst others. One notable role saw him join electronics start-up MC10 and their quest to optimise physiological data collection outside controlled settings, such as those presented by the world of sport. “Data collection is still in its infancy but sports is going to set the stage for a variety of different pieces, including the mindset of how people can play an active role in their own life and not just wait for something to go wrong. Again, this will be at elite athlete level but this will trickle down anyway. Different, measurable data points can be used to create positive feedback loops. You take different data points – sleep, hydration, energy expenditure – and using all of these together to create a plan of when you feel your best.”
4. But there is still a lack of hardware development
It’s not all serene progress. For all the undoubted developments in software, hardware is still lagging behind. As Ruggiero says, “form factor is a big piece that companies aren’t really addressing”. This has perplexed Kacyvenski for some time: “The lack of innovative wearables has severely hampered the accuracy of data points coming in. You’re going to see a wake-up call in a variety of ways and more market consolidation, but the accuracy of data needs to get better so that there are more meaningful metrics.” Ruggiero adds: “We’re focusing more on the companies that are innovating and adapting their form factor, with data coming off their wrists as opposed to something that’s sitting on their chest.” Yet even wrist-based wearables are not where she sees the industry heading: “Everyone is designing another wrist-worn device and we’ll embrace that for now but we’ll be looking to carry out product evaluations on the next generation rather than current generation products.”