5 Awesome Ways Scientists Are Giving Superpowers To Athletes
Professional athletes have gotten better, faster, stronger, and smarter over the years. A lot of that is because humanity seems to be breeding more genetic freaks than usual. But it's mostly because a bunch of nerds are flooding the world of sports with a ton of statistical data and technological advancements which are forever changing the way people throw balls at each other. The quantification of every detail that occurs on the playing field is trying to dethrone gut instinct as the reigning king of sports wisdom.
Brains are changing the world of brawn, and it's all thanks to such geeky developments as ...
Ray Allen, Steph Curry, LeBron James, and Dwayne Wade are either former or current basketball legends who've all had their shots made better by a nightmarish screaming black box on a wall called Noah.
Developed by three Silicon Valley scientists, Noah measures the degree angle of a player's shot. One could say that Noah measures a shot's arc. Noah's Ark. I'm so sorry. Don't shoot the messenger.
Ideally, players want to keep their arc somewhere around 45 degrees, which is the most optimal angle for a shot to make it through the basket unobstructed. They'll get there by building muscle memory through constant repetition as they try to replicate the physical feeling of a numerically perfect shot. By the time the ball touches the bottom of the net, Noah's almost-human voice shouts out the angle of the arc from its built-in speakers. "Forty-one! Forty-six! Forty-three! Forty-five!"
Dwayne Wade's career free-throw shooting percentage was 77 percent. Eventually, the number dropped to 71 percent. After using Noah, he found out he was shooting free-throws at 39-degree angles. Within weeks, he was shooting at 45 degrees, and his free-throw percentage jumped from 71 percent to 82 percent.
As of the 2015-2016 season, only four teams use Noah -- the Dallas Mavericks, the Golden State Warriors, the Utah Jazz, and the Miami Heat. Since 2006, the Mavericks, Warriors, and Heat have made it to the NBA finals a total of nine times and have won five championships between them. The Jazz, not so much. Get your shit together, Jazz.
Israeli scientists applied their previous work in the field of missile tracking to soccer, and wound up developing technology which translated on-field actions into data points, thus offering them a chance to shift careers to one with a lower risk of exploding. Their tech is called SportVU, and it's biggest impact could be felt in the NBA.
It begins with the positioning of six cameras on the catwalks of every NBA arena which track all player and ball movement on the court 25 times a second and turns every detail of a game into numbers. The cameras basically watch sports the way Neo from The Matrix would.
From there, anything that happens can be quantified. It's up to each team's analytics specialists to interpret the information and convert it into winning strategies. For example, it can tell coaches that a player's shooting percentage is at, say, 47 percent when a defender is three feet away, 42 percent when an offender is two feet away, and 97 percent when a defender is one foot away, because the player's sweat stank confounds the minds of defenders who get too close. One major impact it's had on the game is in the rise of the three-point shot. The numbers are telling teams that since a three-pointer is worth more, and since shooting percentages don't change much between mid- and long-range shots, the reward of taking more threes is worth the risk. The NBA today is shooting more threes than ever.
The data can be translated into video recreations of the game, like the one below. In the video, you'll notice there are three sets of circles moving around the court. The blue and white circles represent the Indianapolis Pacers and the Toronto Raptors, respectively. The clear circles are "ghosts," the nickname given to the actions the Raptors should have taken to prevent number 21, David West of the Pacers, from getting a wide-open shot -- at least, according to a ton of numerical values the Raptors analytics team put into the system that are based on their overall team strategy.
SportVU is not only telling players what they did wrong, it's also showing them how they could've done things correctly. Sounds crazy-advanced, like we're living in a science fiction future, right? Well, just as SportVU had finally been put to use by every team in the NBA, the league decided to go with another company called Sound Spectrum, which is doing the same thing, but with artificial intelligence, which somehow makes it better. The switch will happen sometime in 2017.
Soon, the games won't even need to be played anymore, and basketball fans will huddle around screens to watch little dots predict with 100-percent accuracy every action and outcome of a game. Players won't have to lift a finger, but will still make more than any of us ever will.
Catapult is an Australian company that makes wearable technology that can track physical performance in ways which make your expensive Fitbit look like a cheap-ass slap-on bracelet from the '80s.
The painful snap-back of a tape measure made fashionable.
Using cameras and wearable GPS trackers, Catapult monitors individual player metrics, including the force exerted by a player on a given play, hydration levels, if players are being overworked, their heart rates, and dozens of other data points. It's being used in the NBA, NFL, MLS, and is slowly transitioning into the NHL. For now, all four leagues only use it during practice, and not actual games.
Team trainers are using all that biometric information to (among other things) decide when to rest players to minimize injury risk. In the NHL, where groin injuries are a big problem, Catapult wearables measure the strain players put on their legs every time they push off to skate. If the data shows a player favoring one leg over another in a way which may indicate an oncoming injury, the training and medical staffs might be able to treat him before his whole dick area explodes in a concussive blast of pubes and balls.
His shorts were a mess.
In basketball, Catapult has been used to optimize practices. After poring over reams of data, the director of sports medicine for the Toronto Raptors, Alex McKechnie, noticed that 80 percent of player movement during practice was either side-to-side or backward. Players hardly ever moved forward. A follow-up analysis of data from the D-League (the NBA's version of a minor league), where one team had worn the trackers during games, showed players only moved forward 15.5 percent of a game. McKechnie then adjusted the team's training to reflect the movements they'll actually perform during a game, eliminating all that pesky walking forward.
The obvious next step for catapult is in-game use in American sports. Aussie Rules Football teams are already using biometric trackers during games. The information gleamed from the real-time data influences coaching decisions, like when to substitute players.
Field F/X, Pitch F/X, And HIT F/X
Baseball was begging to be quantified and analyzed a hundred different ways, but didn't have the technological infrastructure do it until recently. So Sportsvision, the Silicon Valley company that gave us the yellow first-down line for American football broadcasts, swooped in and created a SportVU-like system of cameras that record everything that happens on the field and turns it into data. They created Field f/x to cover the infield and outfield, Pitch f/x for pitchers, and HIT f/x for batters. Their work helped bring numerical objectivity to what used to be a sport dominated by a tradition of subjective opinion based more on observation than data.
Pitch f/x is the most impressive of the bunch. Major league pitchers are the closest we're ever going to get to having real-life airbenders. They can make a ball curve, dip, dive, shimmy, strut, and Crip Walk fractions of a second after they're release from their grip. It's magical. Pitch f/x quantified this magic, measuring the spin, arc, velocity, and drop of a pitch. It can tell you precisely where a pitch goes in relation to the spot the catcher sets the target. It can tell you how much the catcher shifts his mitt into the strike zone after a catch. It can tell you where the pitch is going after the game, and if it would be interested in getting some drinks.
"What do you say we get outta here and take some swings with my bat, eh?"
The MLB makes this data available to the public, so anyone with the smarts to analyze the numbers can do so and then, for instance, write a Bible-length essay about the estimated ball release points of different pitchers. Turns out there are benefits to appeasing people in the slim middle part of the Venn diagram between math nerds and baseball fans that extend beyond content for sports nerd websites.
In 2007, a Seattle Mariners fan wanted to know why hitters were so easily getting hits off of Mariners pitcher Felix Hernandez. He pored over Hernandez's Pitch f/x data and found that he was throwing fastballs too early and too often. So he wrote an open letter to the Mariner's pitching coach about it. Hernandez and his coach read it. In his next outing, Hernandez cut down his fastballs and pitched eight scoreless innings.
The work Sportvision has done to drag baseball into the 21st Century is commendable, but it would be nothing without a statistical revolution that changed baseball ...
You've probably heard the word "Moneyball" a lot since that Brad Pitt movie in which he played the general manager of the Oakland A's who pioneered the use of statistical data to assemble a baseball team which ended up sucking anyway. It was once revolutionary, but now anyone can Moneyball anything. Are the sales at your dildo emporium not sufficiently dope as shit for you? Moneyball those dildo stats 'til you've optimized your dildonic cash flow or whatever the fuck!
The underlying field of study is called Sabermetrics. It was created as a way to help anyone who cared to listen to a math lecture understand baseball through the novel concept of irrefutable statistical fact. Through Sabermetrics, a ton of new measurements were created to coexist with the stats in the pantheon of glamorous baseball metrics, like RBIs, home runs, batting averages, and ERAs. Like the DRS stat, which stands for Defensive Runs Saved. It tallies the number of runs a player has saved or cost his team on defense. It's kind of like the plus-minus stat from basketball and hockey. There's wRC+, which stands for Weighted Runs Created. It measures the number of runs a player creates against the league average, which puts a hitter's production into sharper focus. All useful so far.
Then the math geniuses let their newfound influence go to their heads, so they started making up a bunch of ridiculous bullshit to calculate.
The CHEW stat, which estimates the number of tumors a baseball player will have in their mouth before they turn 50.
There's the Pythagorean Expectation, which is an algorithmic expression of how many games a team should have won, considering how many runs they scored and allowed. It assigned a numerical value to wishful thinking. It also sounds like the title of a Dan Brown novel. There's the NERD stat, which is an attempt to quantify which teams are the most entertaining to watch. We already have TV ratings for that, so what the fuck?
Finally, there is the stat that answers the question, "Can a numerical value be an asshole?" It's the WAR stat, which stands for Wins Above Replacement. Its sole purpose is to gauge how good you are as a Major League Baseball player versus the worth of a theoretical scrub from the minor leagues who can very easily be called up to replace your worthless ass in the blink of an eye. Again, the minor league player being compared is theoretical. The stat just makes up a person and says, "Hey, you piece of shit, you suck worse than some asshole I just made up!" That's some cold-blooded shit.
Being smart isn't all it's cracked up to be. Learn why in 6 Ways To Be A Better Nerd In 2016 and see how being a nerd has transformed over the years in 5 Things Modern Kids Don't Understand About Being a 'Nerd'.
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