5 Q’s for Applied Sports Scientist Gary McCoy
The Center for Data Innovation Spoke with Gary McCoy, a Senior Applied Sports Scientist at Catapult, an Australia-based wearable computing manufacturer focused on athletes. McCoy discussed potential future applications of Catapult’s technology in the workplace and why “culture” shouldn’t be an excuse for teams not to adopt analytics.
This interview has been lightly edited.
Travis Korte: Tell me about Catapult. What do you make, and who some of your users are?
Gary McCoy: Catapult manufactures the world’s most accurate wearable technology to measure human movement. Sports require an intense understanding and evaluation of athlete movements. Over 350 teams globally select Catapult to accurately assess their athletes movement for risk of injury, readiness to perform, and return to play (following an injury). Catapult’s unique software and hardware create the world’s first “bio-analytics” platform that discerns and discriminates motion, creating a new level of key performance indicators (KPIs) in sports.
TK: Some sports have embraced analytics for years, while others are just starting to deploy data analysis initiatives. Why do you think that is? Relatedly, are there sports that are particularly easy to glean data-driven insights from, and sports that are particularly difficult? What’s behind this difference?
GM: There are two layers of numbers in a sporting team’s hierarchy of importance: wins and losses, and player statistics (which contributed to the win or loss).
Analysts use “what happened” as a means to predict the future performance of an athlete among multiple variables (competition, climate, time, etc.) and have had a positive effect on creating smart decisions for teams across many sports.
Baseball was the first to embrace analytics, mostly due to the mass of statistics consumers had access to. When [baseball statistician] Bill James embarked on the journey to quantify better statistical markers of success other than the simple batting average of a player, he never thought he’d be giving rise to an industry. Smart coaches in baseball, like the Cleveland Indians Ty Van Burkleo, now look at factors such as ball exit velocity as a KPI for what determines who is hitting “well.”
Catapult technology is unlocking a third layer of numbers: athlete “bio-analytics” what an athlete’s body did to create the statistics. A great example is an NFL wide receiver. How fast can he repeat the efforts to make great catches? What rate of deceleration and change of direction is needed to run a specific rout? Which direction does he move fastest? What the naked eye can’t see, our OptimEye S5 monitor can.
Competition and fear are strong motivators for change. Many teams have pre-set cultures and believe that technology may be a distraction from cultural beliefs. If anything, adopting Catapult allows for transparent visibility into athlete performance that can enhance a team’s culture. It can prove that the spread offense works best in the later weeks of a schedule, prove that an NBA team is ready for a lighter session after game 76 of the schedule, or ready an NHL team to be in optimal physical condition for playoffs. What you can measure, you can manage.
TK: Can you discuss your Inertial Movement Analysis (IMA) system a bit, how you’ve managed to capture various metrics of athletic performance that traditional methods ignore, and what players and coaches can learn from the new information?
GM: The IMA algorithm is to Catapult what the Intel Chip was to micro-processing in 1990s computers: a breakthrough. Accelerometers don’t provide all the data on the intricacies of human movement. Catapult monitors use three dimensional gyroscopes and magnetometers to better understand movement. IMA simply takes advantage of data expressed from these devices, drawing inferences from them and calculating “true movement” in real time in the athlete-worn monitor. No other technology produces such an accurate and valid measurement of movements, which makes Catapult the only scientific technology available, as validated by 80 globally-recognized institutions.
TK: It seems like your technologies would lend themselves to player safety applications as well (concussion prevention, optimal hydration, bone and joint stress tracking, for example). Is this something you are working on, or something you might like to experiment with in the future?
GM: We’re a long way away from concussion prevention. We can understand the body’s forces, such as its effects on cervical spine that may lead to increased risk of cranial trauma. There are technologies for hydration status, physiological monitoring such as heart rate monitors, all providing athlete-specific information. We tend to stay focused on the biomechanical load applications: the “bone and joint” side of the equation.
Athletes’ bodies were designed to locomote within a gravitational field and environmental demands of the sport (ball, field, competition, and rules) dictate how they express movement. This is the primary law of athletes in sports. The requirement to run 22.5 miles per hour as a wide receiver in the NFL is one of those examples. That’s what we measure: where the body is and how much stress the environment of sport has created. By understanding this, and applying the science of periodization, we can train an athlete for optimal outputs on game day. We can also watch for fatigue, which is the greatest contributor to preventable injury.
We’re on a never ending search for key performance indicators for athletes. Again, identification of these, then measurement, equals management and the designed evolution of the athlete.
TK: Along the same lines as the last question, have you experimented with using these systems in general medical contexts, on non-athletes? Would you like to in the future?
GM: For sure! There are significant sectors of the population that could take advantage of Catapult data. Think about industrial workers and the forces of a production line, or a UPS driver and his need to jump on and off a truck with a box every day to support his family. Think about the veterans returning from overseas conflict, having to learn to move with artificial limbs, or anyone suffering an orthopedic injury looking to return to movement. These are all future users of Catapult.
Right now, however, the most pure expression of the limits of the human body exist in professional and elite sports. By understanding these, we’ll be better served in the future for mass market application.