When the Colombian national soccer team tries to end Brazil's World Cup tournament run this afternoon, they'll have a high-tech advantage. The Colombian team will be armed with special insight into the physical load that can be endured by each player, thanks to specialized tracking hardware and the algorithms that power it.
Player "load" is often understood only through the physiological toll on an athlete's body during training. But Australian company Catapult has a different take. Using wearable GPS technology, Catapult maps athlete's body's across three planes, in three-dimensional space, to determine what is actually being asked of individual athlete's bodies.
"When Catapult invented this market category, no appropriate hardware platform existed," explains Igor van de Griendt, cofounder and engineer at Catapult. "This forced Catapult to develop the best possible hardware platform to use for elite sports."
Catapult uses only 10Hz GPS and the hardware, designed and manufactured in-house, is eight times more expensive to engineer than that of their closest competitor. With offices on three continents, Catapult manufactures the only monitors able to measure collisions and player load in space.
And while partner USMNT bowed out of the World Cup on Tuesday, Catapult's influence is global. The 2014 NBA Champion San Antonio Spurs, for instance, used Catapult systems to evaluate prospects leading into last week's NBA Draft. They even went so far as to send Catapult technology overseas to monitor international prospects on their radar. And the Colombian national soccer team—hoping to end host Brazil's tournament run tomorrow—employs Catapult's technology to help get them over the hump.
The F5 sensor is a compact tracking device that accesses both GPS and GLONASS to optimize positional accuracy. And while most modern cell phones come with similar technology pre-installed, Catapult's technology is more powerful. Each sensor has a 200-meg processor capable of broadcasting at 10 hertz, which means coaches and training staff have access to all the information instantaneously.
What sets Catapult technologies apart, however, are the intelligent algorithms in the devices’ firmware. The hardware doesn't simply collect data for storage, it analyzes sport-specific movements and provides vital information to coaches and sports scientists.
The device houses a large GNSS antenna which accesses GPS and GLONASS. Inertial sensors—accelerometers, gyroscopes, magnetometers—then capture every single movement an athlete makes and track them three-dimensionally so as to determine the strain exerted on each athlete's body.
"Some people think it’s just a GPS device that shows a dot moving around on the screen, but it is the advanced inertial sensors, and the intelligent algorithms, inside the unit that allow you to analyze micro-movements like a goalkeeper’s dive, a quarterback in the pocket, a jump shot etc." says Gary McCoy, senior applied sports scientist at Catapult.
And the best part is, individual athletes need no supplementary equipment. They can just strap up and play. "The device has an internal computer with memory so if you’re just interested in capturing data, all you need is to wear the device and go out and play, then upload the data later," explains McCoy. "If you’re interested in real-time information, you will need a laptop set up on the sidelines to see everything as it happens."
And range on the device up to 250-300 feet, so you can keep the computer where it belongs: on the sidelines.
In 1976, Australia performed poorly at the Olympic games. At that time, the Australian government decided to invest heavily in athlete training and performance because, as Gary put it, "In Australia, our religion is sport." The government founded the Australian Institute of Sports where world class Australian athletes are housed and trained.
The original Catapult device, then, was used exclusively by the AIS for the next five years, seeing a definite spike in Australia’s performance at the Olympics, as the technology was used across about 15 sports.
Catapult was officially founded in 2001 by Shaun Holthouse and Igor van de Griendt as part of an Australian scientific research organization called the Cooperative Research Centers (CRC). At the time, the only way to monitor athletes was in a lab or on a treadmill, and they obviously react differently in those environments compared to during competition.
Ten years ago Igor and Shaun founded Catapult Sports and took the product into Australian football—by their measures the most physiologically and biomechanically demanding sport on the planet. "Over the course of the last eight years, they’ve seen a staggering 33% soft tissue injury reduction in Australian football and close to a 40% performance improvement in the athletes," says McCoy. "It really has revolutionized the game."
In 2006, Catapult commercialized the technology for elite sports teams worldwide. Starting off with Australian professional teams, the technology was quickly adopted in Australian football before the focus was shifted to the European market, where the majority of the English Premier League teams became clients. And it’s really just been in the last 18-24 months that Catapult has entered the U.S. market and has had great success, particularly in the NBA and NFL.
In the near future, van de Griendt hopes to steer Catapult away from hardware manufacturing and into analytics exclusively. Analytics, he explains, is where the real work is to be done.
"We see a future were the hardware component in this category will get commoditized, but the inflection point has not yet been reached, and thus we will continue to develop the best possible hardware platform available," reveals van de Griendt. "If an appropriate partner came along that can help with the development of the hardware piece, we would be interested."
In the meantime, however, Catapult is experimenting with supplementary biomedical technology it feels can improve everyone's understanding of player load.
"We are and do some biomedical measurements now. Simple heart rate, using an external strap. We want to move more into the Heart rate Variability. We're always trying to keep an eye on what is happing in the sensor industry," van de Griendt says.