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Cutting-Edge Solutions in Training New Zealand’s Athletes

Advanced technology has become smaller, more resilient, and less burdensome over recent years, paving the way for new opportunities, especially in athletics. Athletes now wear sensors that transmit real-time data to a trainer’s tablet, GPS accurately pinpoints motion, smartphones keep everyone up to date, and wearable technology can prevent injuries. Technology has significantly increased athletic potential when compared to whiteboards and post-practice reviews.

Sports training is being transformed by technology, which is live-tracking performances, perfecting athletic movements, improving communication, and virtually eliminating injuries. A boat slices through the water with the powerful pull of the oars. The oars cut the surface of the water, disappear for a moment under the waves, and propel the boat forward in a rhythmic motion.

A coach on another boat watches the numbers come in: the athlete’s heart rate, how many pulls of the oars they make per minute, the force the athlete puts through the oars, and how fast the boat is moving. Later, the data is uploaded to a computer to track the athlete’s performance improvements over time. A rowing coach used to rely on 500-metre split times to gauge how well their athlete was doing. They now have more data to work with than ever before.

“If you keep doing what you’ve always done, you’re not going to improve,” says the head of innovation at High-Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ). He’s part of a team that develops technology, or “bespoke solutions”, to make New Zealand’s athletes – including those who competed in the Tokyo Olympics – perform better. Building ultra-light or strong gear for athletes to use on competition day is part of that, but the majority of the team’s work revolves around data collection and analysis, as well as using it to improve training.

One of their inventions is a data-logging and sharing instrument installed in rowing and canoe boats. It uses GPS tracking of the boat and sensors mounted on the oars to provide coaches with real-time feedback on how a training session is progressing. It’s also very accurate and repeatable.

Rowing, canoe sprint, sailing, track cycling, you name it – all water and bike events have a similar setup. It’s a significant improvement over just a few decades ago when coaches only had a few technological tools to help them. Due to a lack of tools, they could only recall training accurately 30-40% of the time.

The age of innovation began with more efficient note-taking in the 1970s, progressed to watching and analysing videos of a training session on the bus ride home in the 1980s, and has now reached the point where sports analytics and sports tech innovation are jobs in and of themselves. The innovation team creates and builds the technology, and the analyst’s job is to collect relevant data and translate it into something the coach and athlete can use.

Part of that goal setting is influenced by data. HPSNZ will use predictive analysis tools to calculate the record times, distances, or scores they expect athletes to achieve at the next Olympics based on the previous year’s performances. The more information they can gather, the better.

Sports data science is a game in and of itself: who has the best data for predicting where the bar will be set next, and who has the best tools to give athletes an advantage. Stafford, who has worked in a variety of countries, is adamant that New Zealand has the best innovation team in the world.

In contrast, preparing an athlete with highly personalised coaching or outfitting them with the best gear for competition day accomplishes more than just physical gains. The head of innovation also mentioned that these high-tech innovations could mentally prepare athletes to perform at their best.

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