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GPS in Australian rules football

Posted by Doug on May 4, 2007

Hat tip to The Wizard of Odds for the pointer to this story about new uses of technology in Australian rules football. Apparently, the Aussies are already strapping some information-gathering devices to their players with the aim of measuring exactly how far and fast they've run and their heartrate while doing it:

Just as a Ferrari mechanic monitors every component of an F1 car during a grand prix race, a footballer's body will communicate directly with a laptop sitting in view of the senior coach. If the data proves reliable, it is a potentially revolutionary coaching tool.

For the past two seasons, AFL clubs have had access to GPS units, at a cost of $4000 per unit, which measure the distance players run, their average speed, the number of accelerations and decelerations and various units of workrate.

Until now, the use of these devices has been limited to a few players per team and a few games per year. But there is now discussion of lifting the restrictions to some extent.

To me, the GPS aspect of it isn't nearly as interesting as the simple idea of strapping heart rate monitors on these guys. I have at times been a semi-serious runner and so have played around with a basic $100 monitor. You strap it around your chest and it transmits information to your wristwatch. Believe it or not, the monitor sometimes knows more than my brain does about how tired I am and therefore how hard I can/should push myself on a given run. We've all seen running backs ask out of the game for a play or two after a long run, but this would be a more proactive approach, identifying situations where a player is tired but doesn't even necessarily realize it. Obviously, standard-issue heart rate monitors like mine wouldn't stay on during an NFL football game, but designing one that would doesn't strike me as a major issue.

So you strap monitors onto all your players, you hire a couple of top-notch exercise physiologists to monitor the data that comes in during practices and games over a long period of time, and you see what you can learn. Worst case: you gain nothing. Best case: you've got yourself a potentially large advantage.

Yeah, sure, some old schoolers would grouch about it, but old schoolers grouched about The Forward Pass too, which led to their getting clobbered by old schoolers with slightly more open minds. Coaches who talk to their quarterbacks through speakers in the helmet and probably spend more hours on the computer than I do will bemoan the encroachment of technology into a man's sport. But if it wins games, they'll do it.

I don't mean to make fun. Some of my best friends are old schoolers, and I really can understand the tendency not to like this idea because it would reduce the human element in football coaching. But really, it wouldn't. It would just shift the job of judging player fatigue levels from one human (the coach) to a different human (the exercise physiologist). Sure, the physiologist has lots of data and computing power to help him, but the more computing power he has, the more data he can gather, and the interpretation of that data in real time is highly nontrivial and, in my view, no more or less worthy a skill than giving a pep talk is.

But whether it offends your sensibilities or not is irrelevant. It's the way things are headed. This would just be one more step in the direction that things have been moving since the beginning of the sport: toward more specialization. This is simply more specialization of the coaching staff.

Question: is this legal according to current NFL rules?