Back in the day, pro sports teams paid for a player's food, gave him a place to work out and provided trainers to help him stay (relatively) healthy. That was pretty much it.
But as the business of sports has continued to grow and players have evolved, teams are now innovating more than ever. Franchises are now utilizing expensive, cutting-edge techniques that aim to improve their players' performance in a variety of ways. The more data a team can compile regarding their players, the better. Here are five innovative methods pro sports teams are using to get an edge.
1. Sleep Tracking
Sleep is crucial to athletic performance.
A 2011 study in the journal SLEEP found that Stanford basketball players were able to dramatically improve their on-court performance simply by increasing their total amount of sleep time. By bumping up to 10 hours of sleep a night, players were able to run faster, shoot more accurately and decrease their overall fatigue.
As the link between sleep and performance continues to grow stronger, pro teams have began investing serious dough in shuteye. Roughly 40 players on the Seattle Seahawks wear Readibands, wristbands equipped with motion sensors that calculate how long and how deeply they sleep. The program uses a formula known as the SAFTE model, which was developed by the U.S. Army to calculate the effect a soldier's sleep had on his or her fatigue level. The information is sent directly to the players' smartphones and shared with the team. Based on this data, the team is able to tweak training, practice and travel schedules. The Readiband is also employed by the Dallas Mavericks, Toronto Raptors and Seattle Mariners.
"If you told an athlete you had a treatment that would reduce the chemicals associated with stress, that would naturally increase human growth hormone, that enhances recovery rate, that improves performance, they would all do it," Dallas Mavericks trainer Casey Smith told ESPN. "Sleep does all of those things."
Many pro facilities also have designated areas for players to sneak in naps throughout the day. Real Madrid, for example, has 81 bedrooms at their training complex with optimized "sleep environments."
2. Virtual Reality Training
Virtual reality is making waves in the realm of professional sports, and for good reason.
VR training allows players to experience what they'll see on game day without draining themselves like they would if they were out on the practice field. The result: more prepared players who are also more well-rested.
STRIVR is one of the biggest players in sports-centric VR training. "[You can] study film from a first-person perspective in an immersive, 360-degree environment. You may physically be in the classroom, but in the VR headset you're right back on the field," the company writes on their website. NFL teams like the Minnesota Vikings, San Francisco 49ers, Dallas Cowboys and Arizona Cardinals employ STRIVR products in their preparation.
"You can rewind it as many times as you want and really get a grasp of fine tuning each play," quarterback Brandon Weeden told DallasCowboys.com. "Out there [on the field], it happens so fast, you're kind of running plays and it's rapid fire. In there it gives you the ability to rewind it, really understand it.
3. Activity Tracking
We've covered ways a team can track a player's sleep, but how do they keep tabs on what he's doing when he's awake? That's where activity trackers come in. But these aren't your average FitBits.
Catapult Sports is one company many major sports team turn to for their activity tracking needs. Catapult's technology helps assess an athlete's readiness and risk of injury and recommends what his workload should be on a given day. Their popularity is a testament to their effectiveness. According to the company's website, 17 NFL teams, 11 NBA teams and soccer powerhouses like Chelsea FC and Real Madrid all use their products.
The data provided by activity trackers is invaluable and can inform a number of strategies, including nutrition.
Players on the U.S. Women's National Soccer Team wear GPS trackers and heart rate monitors so coaches can record how much activity they do each day. Dawn Scott, the team's fitness coach and head nutritionist, uses the data to make adjustments to their dietary plans. She says, "[Following] each session I make the team a recovery drink. Based on how intense the session was, I'll tweak the recipe. If it's after a lifting session, the drink will be more protein. If it was a high-intensity on-field practice, I'll up the carbohydrate content. It's all about refueling them so they can work at an optimal level."
4. Blood Analysis
Your blood can reveal a lot about you.
For athletes, blood analysis can identify food sensitivities and vitamin deficiencies. Quest Diagnostics has been an official partner of the New York Giants since 2013, and their blood analysis has helped a number of players feel and play better.
Linebacker Spencer Paysinger, who was with the Giants from 2011 to 2014, discovered a hidden sensitivity that had been robbing him of energy his entire athletic career. "I found out I was allergic to nuts and all types of legume vegetables. Any type of pea vegetable . . . I always found myself being extremely tired throughout the day. I wondered why that was happening when other guys were doing the same thing as me and bouncing around," Paysinger says. "I wasn't allergic in the traditional sense that my throat would swell up or anything, but all types of nuts and legumes take way too long to break down in my body and use up energy . . . [and] once I cut those foods out and added other veggies and other protein options, my energy, my strength, my stamina all picked up."
It's extremely rare for blood analysis to reveal an athlete with perfect levels across the board. At least one thing almost always needs to be addressed. One common issue? Vitamin D. Most people are low—if not outright deficient—in vitamin D. It's not the sort of deficiency that prevents you from getting out of bed in the morning, but vitamin D is extremely important for a variety of reasons. It plays a role in calcium absorption, bone growth, cell growth, immune function and reduction of inflammation. Quest helped the Giants discover that vitamin D deficiency was rampant throughout their roster and take the steps to correct it. If you decide to use a vitamin D supplement, you may need to pair it with a magnesium supplement to get the full benefit.
Other popular athletes who've used blood analysis to great effect include Patrick Peterson, Larry Fitzgerald and Alex Ovechkin.
5. Weight Training Analytics
Even when pro athletes are pumping iron, their performance can be informed by cutting-edge analytics.
EliteForm produces 3D camera technology that allows athletes to instantly see the metrics of the lifts they're performing. Employed by NFL teams such as the Cleveland Browns, EliteForm helps a player better know how well he is performing inside the weight room on a given day. If he sees that his bar speed isn't quite where it should be, he can lighten the load for maximum explosiveness. The data is automatically stored, allowing coaches to go back and look at the quality of every player's workout.
"It gives instant feedback to the player on if he's doing what he's supposed to, whether he needs to put more effort in or less effort—or if we need to change the exercise," Browns strength and conditioning coach Paul Ricci told ClevelandBrowns.com. "It's terrific, instant feedback."