Year-in-Review, Pt. 2: Athletes Invested in Tech; Tech Responded by Giving Athletes Smart(er) Phones, Apps, Straps, Robots and Peace of Mind

Sport Techie

December 28, 2021

Some of the most important athletic performances in 2021 took place in private—but not out of view of the sensors and cameras that adorn the wearables, smartphones and connected fitness devices that have proliferated living rooms, garages, bedrooms and anywhere there’s space and willpower.

Brands and startups alike continued flooding the market and homes with machines, gadgets, apps and apparel that not only helped fitness enthusiasts conduct convenient, socially-distant workouts but allowed them to do so with feedback—whether through an AI coach, a gamified competition, a skeletal avatar or a data point.

The democratization of fitness and tech proliferated many realms, extending into better guidance for female athletes, more mental health support for youth and college athletes, sophisticated instruction for speed training and a more interactive experience at the bowling lanes.

Also of note in SportTechie’s coverage of athlete performance this past year: cutting edge genetic tests for injury prevention, the NFL-led efforts to improve head health and a performance coach’s remarkable achievement engineering an injury-free professional baseball season.

Here’s a roundup of the most interesting and important athlete performance stories that SportTechie covered in 2021:

*Connected Home Fitness

LeBron James joined Serena Williams, Stephen Curry and Drew Brees as an investor in Tonal. Usain Bolt, Allyson Felix, Andre De Grasse and Angelique Kerber all became Peloton ambassadors. Colin Kaepernick is an advisor and spokesman for Egatta. Dak Prescott and Dr. James Andrews invested in OxeFit. Aaron Rodgers invested in Hydrow. Shaquille O’Neal backed Maxpro.

Jay Z, Novak Djokovic and Odell Beckham Jr. put money into CLMBR. Jay Z also teamed with Adrian Gonzalez to invest in LIT Method. John Tavares and Jordan Clarkson are among the leading faces of Lululemon, which owns Mirror. Slinger Bag added Tommy Haas. FightCamp has financial backing from Mike Tyson and Floyd Mayweather.

Covid, of course, accelerated consumer demand for connected fitness products, and brands have rushed to align themselves with star investors and ambassadors to stake a claim in what’s quickly become a crowded marketplace. New companies such as FlexIt, Krew, Liteboxer and many more are raising investments and beginning to reach the masses.

Peloton is best known for its bike but has been adding gamified fitness programs and a strength training product while reportedly developing a wearable heart rate monitor. Tonal released live workouts with real-time data feedback. Helping further guide users to exercise with proper technique is connected coaching company Asensei, which has released (app)arel and (app)erture—smart clothing and computer vision technologies—that power its AI coaching engine. Those are just a sampling of the new features hitting the market in a category that’s likely to get even more attention during the winter months with the new Omicron variant circulating.

*All you need is a smartphone

Mustard and ProPlayAI provide baseball biomechanics analysis from a smartphone. SportsBox AI can now do that for golf. SwingVision provides a wide range of tennis ball and player tracking data, just as HomeCourt can do with basketball. Soccer apps such as Chelsea FC’s Perfect Play and Kevin De Bruyne-backed Balln analyze players’ training, while Gloria and Tonsser aid in scouting. Apps like Physimax can do injury screenings—all from the camera that’s already in everyone’s pocket.

*Injury-free baseball season

The long grind of a professional baseball season makes it a sport of attrition. Muscle, tendon and ligament injuries are common, especially among pitchers. Yet, under the four-year stewardship of performance coach Gary McCoy, Taiwan’s Chinatrust Brothers reduced their soft-tissue injuries from an average of 32 per year down to zero in 2019.

*Genetics of injuries

Some athletes always have been more injury-prone than others, but now there is research pinpointing genetics as an underlying condition that explains why. Stuart Kim, a former Stanford genetics professor, has identified specific genetic markers that indicate who is prone to certain types of injuries—stress fractures, ACL tears and concussions, among them—and started AxGen to make those such tests available to athletes.

*Women’s health

The ways that female physiology differs from men are more profound than most have realized. What once was a neglected field of research is now finally growing, with companies that use wearable, biomarkers and data science—such as Orreco, Oura and Whoop—all emphasizing this focus to help women train more efficiently and effectively.

*Mental health

Arguably the No. 1 story in mainstream sports this year was athletes’ mental health, headlined by withdrawals from tennis Grand Slams and the Tokyo Olympics by Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles, respectively. That has shined a spotlight on the need for better support at all levels of sport, and two entrepreneurs—Ivan Tchatchouwo of The Zone and Annie Flamsteed of InspireTek—are among those who have created apps to help with college and youth athletes.

*Speed can be taught

Not everyone will get fast, but just about everyone can get faster. That’s a key message behind the Universal Speed Rating, a ranking and training platform developed by elite speed coach Les Spellman in conjunction with a number of other experts such as French biomechanics professor J.B. Morin.

*NFL head health

Head health does not regularly dominate the NFL headlines the way it used to, though the forensic CTE analysis of Phillip Adams is a jarring reminder of how the sport impacts some of the men who play it. Overall, the league has made gains in becoming safer—concussions are down 24% over the past three years compared to the three years prior—and more tech- and data-driven methods are in progress.

The NFL has expanded its mouthguard sensor program to collect more data on head impacts to help inform future rule and equipment changes, such as the creation of the first position-specific helmet for linemen. The league also completed its recent $3 million Helmet Challenge and continues its collaboration with Amazon Web Services on a variety of health and safety measures, including the creation of a composite Digital Athlete that’s used in testing.

*Big Names, Big Gains

Even the best athletes in the world realize a little technology goes a long way. Tiger Woods, whose right leg was nearly amputated following a horrific car crash in February, was back blasting golf balls by December with the help of a Full Swing KIT Launch Monitor that he invested in and then provided a blueprint for. Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen had a sloppy first two seasons in the NFL until he leaned on 3D Motion Capture, courtesy of the company Biometrek, to get his throwing mechanics to an MVP level. The University of Iowa, meanwhile, recruited a robot quarterback, otherwise known as Monarc’s “The Seeker,’’ which helped turn receiver/kick returner Charlie Jones into the Big Ten’s premier return man. Everyone is looking for an edge.

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