ANNAPOLIS – Radar guns, bat swing sensors and monitor devices, once exclusive to the elite level of sport, are now affordable to the everyday coach.
Where there were once sports skill trainers who used video analysis, there are now clip-on dongles and mobile apps to provide instant visual evidence that anyone can use.
Parents can follow kids’ games on the train home, coaches can spend less time tallying and more time training, and student athletes can take in stats like everything else – with a snappy digital interface.
“Kids are visual learners and live in the 160-character world; embrace it, there’s no risk,” said baseball head coach Sean O’Connor of DeMatha Catholic High School.
The budding sports technology industry includes both costly and affordable devices available to players and coaches that improve methods of communication and instruction.
During a chaotic burst of strokes and kicking, swimmers cannot hear their coach or receive feedback on their performance to adjust during practice, or a race.
Michigan-based Avida Sports Technology began in 2006 and provides stats for swimming, with no effort by coaches, through a set of sensors and a Wi-Fi device.
For generations, coaches calculated on video many of the statistics Avida tracks, laboriously watching race after race, counting strokes. The device eliminates these hours of analysis completely by providing coaches the same statistics in real time.
Avida Sports uses sensors on the swimmers’ ankles, wrists and in their swim caps to monitor a range of statistics, including stroke count and leg kicks, that can be relayed to the swimmer in practice through an earpiece in the cap.
“It’s pretty much Siri in my head,” said Navy Men’s swim team captain Riley Mita, who is originally from Los Angeles.
The Navy men’s swimming team began using Avida Sports technology in 2013, installing a permanent system in their training facility to monitor their team’s performance during practices. This system monitors eight different measurements, including kick rate and distance per stroke, on up to 100 swimmers simultaneously.
“Once we get it working consistent, it will be invaluable,” said Daniel Bowden, a team manager who tracks Avida’s data on a computer during practice, making sure the sensors function properly. “I think it helps swimmers reach their potential, figuring out where people are getting tired or where they’re not breaking out.”
“It gives you a pretty extensive report with data that for the most part you can’t see with the human eye,” said Bill Roberts, Navy’s Men’s Swim Team head coach. “You would either count these things individually, or use the Avida tech, and get over 40 sets of data.”
Avida’s products start at about $10,000 for the portable device and about $13,000 for a permanent system, plus the subscription costs for each swimmer’s data and devices, which range between $20 and $40 a month.
Avida’s system is not widely adopted by swim teams and clubs nationwide, but the swimmers who do utilize the technology have all praised the benefits of the system.
“Not a lot of teams have it,” Mita said. “We know Army doesn’t have it, which is always a good thing.”
Army Men’s Swimming does not use Avida, but uses a combination of video and other technological resources to track essential metrics, Army Swimming and Diving Head Coach Mickey Wender said.
“It seems that any high school or club team I read about using this is having good success,” Roberts said. “Even then, at a younger age, when they are still learning a lot about the sport, getting swimmers exposed to something like this would yield even greater results.”
The Navy men’s swim team uses the Avida technology during Wednesday practices for a specific type of session on both endurance training and sprint training, Bowden said.
“We had a terrible time getting this implemented because logistically, this is not a wireless venue,” Roberts said. “It’s a wireless product, so there was a lot of convincing to do for this to be permissible at the academy. On the athlete’s part, at first, Avida is time intensive. You can’t just put it on and go; there’s a learning curve.”
The sensors take getting used to, according to Mita, but Avida’s ability to give swimmers a sense of how fast or slow they are swimming during their practice session transformed Navy’s way of training.
“Especially later in the season, our swimmers all have great internal awareness of how to swim in practice, which is really key when going into a race,” Roberts said. “How to swim becomes not just a physiological thing, but a neuromuscular thing. It’s kind of conditioning your brain to fire at a certain rate.”
During their first season using Avida Sports’ devices, Navy Men’s Swimming team placed 31st at the NCAA Championship in Austin, Texas, in March, after not making the tournament the previous season.
Roberts said he hopes to better implement the Avida technology in following seasons by using the devices more frequently, and eventually use the communication features to their fullest.
“One of the neat things we haven’t tapped into yet is we can actually talk to the kids while they’re swimming,” Roberts said. “So eventually, we’re going to really get intimate with them.”
Golf is a sport focused on precision, unforgiving to players who hit the ball with a club improperly.
Golf professionals across the country who have taught by tracking ball flight by eye now have Swingbyte and similar devices that show students of the game exactly how and where the ball was struck.
Alex Pedenko and Nathan Wojtkiewicz met at the University of Chicago’s Booth Business School masters’ program and developed Swingbyte in 2012.
Swingbyte was the first sensor developed for golfers to calculate a wide range of metrics, including club speed on ball impact, club face angle and power of impact, visualizing the data through an app available on phones and tablets.
Visual learners benefit greatly from the device by showing how the club struck the ball exactly and at what angle, but Swingbyte does not replace other forms of training and instruction, like a weighted club or video of a golf swing, said Kent Keith, PGA teaching professional at the Blue Mash Golf Course in Laytonsville.
“Practice makes progress, and Swingbyte’s ability to track progress gives golf teachers the visual evidence to validate their instructions with players, and make sure they don’t revert to old habits,” said Patrick Cerone, Swingbyte’s marketing director.
Golfers position the small white rectangular Swingbyte device on their club shaft and link it via Bluetooth to a phone or tablet with a free app that collects swing data and instantly creates a set of statistics and a 3D representation of the person’s swing.
“It’s a handy tool I started using about three years ago,” Keith said. “People are somewhat fascinated by it and it helps promote my business, but it’s a small part of my instruction.”
“The position of the sensor on the shaft gives a more accurate reading, we feel, because hand grips change for each shot,” Cerone said. “Our app’s instant feedback allows golfers and instructors to track progress from swing to swing.”
“Video ball tracking devices like FlightScope and TrackMan provide more data and visuals, but they costs tens of thousands of dollars that average consumers, golf instructors and even many golf clubs just can’t afford,” Cerone said.
Swingbyte is available online and in stores like Best Buy and the Apple store for a one-time fee of $169, making it affordable to players who want to self-evaluate and improve on their own. The device’s installation is very easy, but interpreting the data carries a slight learning curve.
“There are in-app tutorials and resources on our website to help players understand what the app is calculating,” Cerone said. “Once they do, the device can easily show them corrections they need to make.”
California-based Zepp began in 2011 and released their golf sensor in 2012, but aimed to reach as many sports possible through a multi-sport device. Zepp offers their sensor for baseball, softball, tennis and golf.
In the traditional and ritualized game of baseball, generational gaps often exist between coaches and their teams, and high-tech devices that can show players their habits have yet to reach every ballplayer.
“The Zepp is more than just a gimmick product,” said Sean O’Connor, DeMatha Catholic High School head baseball coach. “The ability to see swing path directions and angles I think blows the competition out of the water.”
Zepp’s app presents users a three-dimensional path of their swing along with a set of statistics to represent the angle the bat, club or racquet hits the ball, how fast it hits the ball, hand speed, and many other sport-specific metrics, Zepp CEO Jason Fass said.
The small, neon-yellow, square sensor is made of two high-performance accelerometers and priced at about $150. Zepp is mounted on the bottom of a bat or racquet, or on the back of the hand for golf, and pairs via Bluetooth to a free mobile app that takes about 10 swings to gain a player’s baseline, Fass said.
O’Connor uses the Zepp sensor with players during off-season fall games and plans to implement the device during inter-squad scrimmages for the upcoming 2015 DeMatha baseball season to calculate player performance in game-intense situations.
“We have tons of coaches using it for all our sports,” Fass said. “In baseball, for example, there’s an option in the app to add a whole team and run an entire batting practice with one sensor by just switching to each player on the app. This allows coaches to gauge a hitter’s performance like never before.”
While swing plane and angles of impact may be newly discovered statistics for youth and high school coaches, baseball bat speed is a critical component that has been calculated for decades, said Bo Vicendese, owner of the indoor training facility The Reaper’s Den in Columbia, Maryland.
“I like using the Swing Speed Radar because I can tell if their bat swing is consistent,” Vicendese said. “If they go from 55 mph to 40 mph, there’s something wrong, but if a player has a consistent swing, the speed will stay within a range.”
The Swing Speed Radar is a simple device held a short distance away from the area a player swings through to calculate bat speed. Vicendese positions his radar working on tee drills to see how fast the swing is at the point of contact with the ball. The Sports Sensors Inc. product costs a one-time fee of $120.
“For most coaches, a 60 m.p.h. swing or faster is Division I caliber,” Vicendese said.
Because baseball is mental-intensive, there are aspects while hitting, like being afraid to miss the ball, that could slow down a player’s bat speed in a real game. These situations are hard to replicate in training, Vicendese said.
Although he does not have a Zepp sensor that tracks more stats than the Swing Speed Radar, which only calculates swing speed, Vicendese plans to get one once he sees it in action. The only time he worked with a Zepp, Vicendese could not get the device to work consistently, he said.
“Theoretically, a hitter’s swing plane is supposed to be a straight line through the ball, and the Zepp could show many so many things that a player may be doing to affect their bat speed and contact,” Vicendese said.
“We really want to help people figure out what works for them,” Zepp’s Fass said. “Once they understand their goals, we want them to use the app to really dial their swing in. It’s not just hit the ball and immediately see what you need to do.”