Big Data is here to save your knees

Picture this: You’re an elite athlete at the top of your game. You have a huge event coming up, say, the Olympics. You’re on a strict training regimen which culminates in your Olympic event. You head to the gym for a routine session nothing out of the ordinary. As you’re going through the motions of your session, *POP* a searing pain shoots through your knee and you immediately know something is very wrong. You see a doctor as quickly as you can and they confirm your worst fears. Diagnosis: ACL Tear Treatment: Surgery Recovery time: 8-12 months. There goes your Olympic dream. Absolutely heartbreaking.

This is truly a tale as old as time in the world of elite sports and is also one that the sports medicine field is looking to prevent through the use of big data and analytics. Most athletes are utilizing wearable devices or smart apparel during both training and on the field. These devices are capturing thousands of data points on a daily basis from steps to heart rate and everything in between. Combining the data from these devices as well as biometric data gathered from each athlete, athletic trainers and physical therapists are able to establish an athlete’s unique baseline and monitor any significant changes throughout the training cycle. This consistent monitoring and re-measuring allow trainers prevent any injuries that may be brought on by overuse or inconsistent training.

Now that you know why it’s important and how it’s being done, let’s look at some use cases.

The NBA is on the forefront of utilizing data from each athlete in order to *hopefully* prevent an injury. Each NBA player is monitored through wearables, sleep monitors, diet tracking and saliva samples to assess fatigue and predict performance. Prior to every game a report similar to the one below is printed by each team to determine what each player’s playing time should be. The results of this report are also used during the broadcast of the game to indicate to viewers why their favorite player may be on the bench tonight. The report for each game looks similar to the one below.

Not only is the NBA using data to fuel decisions about players, but it is also using it to enhance the viewing experience by allowing viewers a glimpse into the decision making process that goes into each game.

Next up is a company called Sparta Science. Sparta Science makes products used specifically to project performance potential and identify injury risks. The company offers a suite of machine learning software paired with force plate technology to assess and predict results for each athlete. Athletic trainers will take each individual athlete and walk them through a set of baseline scans on the force plate. The data produced from these scans is then ran through a ML model with over 2 million other scans to assess the athlete’s movements in 3 segments – jump, plank, balance. The model then suggests exercise recommendations for movement health improvement to hopefully prevent future injury.

Force Plate Machine Learning™ software delivers your Scan results instantly, including your Sparta Score™ and MSK Health, identifies your strengths and weaknesses and automatically generates  personalized Machine Learning exercise   recommendations  for movement health improvement.   Online access and reporting  optimizes engagement, demonstrates progress and improves outcomes.
Report generated by Sparta Science software after initial force plate analysis

With that small summary of what Sparta Science is doing, they have contracted with a ton of major league and D1 sports teams throughout the world simply demonstrating that teams are starting to think very proactively about athlete health and injury prevention rather than reactively after the athlete sustains an injury. I believe the adoption of these kinds of technologies will not only be the new standard for athletic trainers and the sports medicine industry in general but will also start to filter down to the average Joe. We’ve already seen some of that with the Whoop band that assesses your daily activity, sleep and diet and then provides your fatigue level in a sleek app.

Whoop Strap 3.0 review

We’ve heard approximately 1 million times about how much money Tom Brady spends on his health and wellness (it’s millions in case you don’t follow sports). I believe as we move forward and the adoption of data analytics becomes the standard, we will no longer be shocked that professional athletes are paying millions of dollars to keep their body in top notch condition. I think it will actually become surprising if an athlete is NOT using all of the new tech and data analytics to prevent injury and stay in the game longer. Fewer injuries thanks to personalized data analytics means that athletes could play longer if they so choose and it will be very interesting to see if this truly plays out.

I think it is very interesting to see that Sports Medicine is really buying into the data analytics movement and utilizing all kinds of new technology to help prevent injuries among athletes since typically medicine as an industry takes a while to catch up with the new thing. With that being said I am very excited to see more applications of injury prevention data and tech filter down to the average person who may not be actively participating in a sport but enjoys exercising 4-5 times a week. Obviously, I am alluding to selfish motivations for this as I am someone that very much knows the pain and frustration of an injury which could have easily been prevented if I was just a bit better informed…maybe.

All of this leaves me with the final question I will pose to you, dear blog audience.


  1. I think it will be interesting to see if the leagues and teams mandate this technology in order to keep players healthy. They have a vested interest in keeping top players on the court or field so that the league can be entertaining and the teams remain competitive. While I think the new age players would be highly likely to embrace this technology, I could see how some older players who are set in their ways being less receptive. I could also see how leagues may want to use this data to evaluate if rules need to be adjusted to prevent plays during a game that are more likely to cause injury. If they are able to pinpoint that, it could have a material effect on the way the games are played.

  2. ritellryan · ·

    It is impressive how far some of this science has come in the past few years. The NBA is the most progressive with this by far (mostly due to the nature of its schedule) with the concept of load management and resting players for full games (because they certainly wouldn’t play them for fewer minutes in a game to hurt their per game averages), but we see it in baseball as well making sure pitchers don’t throw too many innings for arm health even though arm injuries are worse than ever before. This is obviously based on Alex’s comment above regarding how much of an investment teams are making in these players and keeping them on the field/court.

    I know that many teams also have changed when they travel, choosing to do so the following morning if possible than right after a game to have a more consistent sleep schedule and in beds instead of planes. Coaches also use this to gauge whether to pull back in practices or not. Obviously this is very helpful for more individualized work too. While many players might be tired, some might still have the ability to work out and this might allow for more skill development, rather than completely canceling a practice or practicing bad habits because they are sluggish.

  3. olivia_levy8 · ·

    The internet of things is making big waves in the sports industry, wearables are just the beginning. I remember getting an ad for a wearable called WHOOP a few months back and being confused, but it is a performance focused wearable that shows data on how strained the body is, how well rested and recovered your body is and much more. I can imagine how beneficial this data is to help athletes train strategically so they can be at the top of their game

    Will be interesting to see if we see the longevity of pro athlete’s careers and age of pro athletes increase over the years if they can leverage this data and technology to keep them healthier and performing better in their older age. I don’t doubt there is already some correlation seen with Brady’s obsession on health and wellness and him being the 7th oldest quarterback in the NFL ever. Not only that but I hate to admit how successful he still is as well. Great post!

  4. Such an interesting blog post. What I find interesting is whether players will start to use the data to leverage more concessions in a collective bargaining or contract situation. Now that this type of data is available, I could see that the players union could argue for a shorter season or additional roster spots to protect the health of its members. It will be fun to see how this all plays out.

    1. therealerindee · ·

      That’s a really interesting thought Ben. I could definitely see it becoming a bargaining chip.

    2. courtneymba · ·

      Very cool topic! That will be so interesting to see how players can use concussion data for bargaining chips and just qualify of life post-sports!

  5. Interesting post. Would be truly interesting if tech could have the impact of helping athletes play longer, which could change the prospects for younger athletes too.

  6. This is a great use case of big data! I remember Professor Kane said in the class that previously people’s focus is on collecting the data, but now the focus shifted to how do we use these data to solve problems. I do see there are more and more use cases being developed with big data in the sports industry, but I’m a little worried that the data will be used against athletes in the future, and it is fully dependent on the ones holding these data.

  7. lisahersh · ·

    Really interesting post, Erin! I’ve read about technology like this utilized in the rehabilitation space, but the ability to proactively prevent injury on an individual basis would be huge. Honestly, I can’t wait for this technology to trickle down to the average joe. Having a partner who’s a tradesman, I see the toll a lot of physically demanding jobs have on the body (seeing guys in their 20s with arthritis and bad backs). A lot of them already utilize wearable tech, so if it was able to detect changes in their movement and try to course-correct their movements early on it’d truly be life-changing.

  8. AndraeAllen · ·

    Awesome post, captivating subject. I am still not convinced that this data will enable professional athletes to play into their 40’s. Most sports are simply a young persons game, its gonna take some really weird science to make that happen like in the movie The Island (2005) when Michael Clarke Duncan’s character finds out that he is a clone, used for body parts, for a high profile athlete.

    The images you provided also helped convey the level detail that is being captured by these sports franchises. Interestingly simulator metrics such as the image from Fatigue Science have been included in sports video games for decades.I know this because I have been playing EA Sports Video games since the 90’s. Saying this makes me feel old and young at the same time lol.


  9. kellywwbcedu · ·

    As an athlete myself I am personally a big fan of this very relevant post! I have used Sparta Science as well as Whoop and I can attest to their accuracy and helpfulness on a day to day basis. I have also seen a change in coaches’ mentalities as well, as they do not always think more is more. They understand now that it is more about efficiently using your energy, especially during the season. I am a big fan of this analytics based movement and I look forward to where it will take the game and possibly elevate the next generation of athletes.

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