RATHBONE: What does the future hold for sport?

Clyde Rathbone Columnist

By , Clyde Rathbone is a Roar Expert

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    A few weeks ago I was invited to speak as part of a panel hosted by The Roar entitled ‘The Future of Sport’.

    We covered a lot of ground, and I thought it might be worth revisiting the event with a cursory focus on how technology could shape the next generation of sport.

    Virtual Reality
    Virtual reality, or VR, has recently exploded in popularity. Back in 2014 Mark Zuckerberg saw the future and happily forked out $2 billion to acquire Oculus VR, the leader in virtual reality technology. VR is still in its infancy, but its implications for sport are massive.

    From the perspective of fans, VR will allow for unprecedented and completely immersive experiences. With camera technology becoming smarter and smaller it’s only a matter of time before we’ll be able to strap on a headset and emerge on the other side, not as casual observers of our favourite team but as vicarious participants in their experience.

    For athletes and coaches the application of VR is even more exciting. Players will soon be able to accumulate invaluable repetitions of game-like scenarios without putting their bodies through increasing wear and tear. There is also the potential to give players on-field experiences that typically require years to gain.

    VR will allow players to practise inside the most intimidating stadiums in the world without having to venture any farther than the clubhouse. It is entirely possible that VR will lead to a quantum leap in skill acquisition and mental preparation for athletes.

    GPS and heartrate monitors
    GPS monitors are now ubiquitous in professional sport, and for good reason: GPS is now able to collect and stream vital information to coaches and trainers, and the monitors are worn at every training session and in games.

    Western Sydney Wanderers training

    When I returned to rugby after a three-year break I was astonished by the volume of data collected by GPS units and the sensitivity at which they operate. One day at training a coach mentioned that the graph of my running session had identified a leg length discrepancy – that my right leg is indeed eight millimetres shorter than my left leg was later confirmed by X-ray.

    GPS units have also made a direct impact on team culture and work ethic. Not 20 minutes after a session the team room walls are now plastered with all the running data collected moments earlier. This made it impossible to hide poor performance and directly increased healthy competitive tension between teammates.

    GPS also assists trainers in their quest to tailor training programs for each individual to minimise injury risk, and it can be used to quantify the training intensity required to match or exceed in-game thresholds. Heart rate variability systems are also being used to screen players for under and over-training. This data lets trainers push the training envelope while rarely exceeding injury risk thresholds for each player.

    Concussion
    This week it was announced that All Black James Broadhurst has been forced into retirement due to concussion. While head injuries continue to cast a shadow over many contact sports, there is currently no simple screening available to assess the severity of brain trauma.

    The methods in use are crude and often lead to highly conservative return-to-play protocols. Of course this is how it must be, but there is a billion-dollar market opportunity for the first company to devise a simple and effective concussion screening.

    Sports medicine
    Modern players are already able to get back on the field far quicker than in years gone by, and many injuries once considered career-ending are now completely recoverable. Factors such as stem cell treatment could continue this trend by further reducing recovery times.

    Doping
    Drug testing has come a long way in the past ten years. Household names like Lance Armstrong and Marion Jones have been busted, and most professional sports now have sophisticated testing protocols.

    But the endless cat-and-mouse game between doping athletes and authorities is about to be stacked in favour of the drug cheats. Enter gene doping, the layman Wikipedia definition of which is “the hypothetical non-therapeutic use of gene therapy in order to improve athletic performance in competitive sporting events”.

    While there is no evidence that gene doping has occurred, recent breakthroughs in gene therapy make this novel form of cheating inevitable. What is especially interesting about gene doping is that it is likely to be almost impossible to detect. There are already calls to legalise it to prevent increased risk to athletes who could attempt risky, illegal methods.

    Artificial intelligence and machine learning
    AI is set to storm sport and totally overhaul the way coaches design and implement gameplans – in fact AI is likely to overhaul what it means to be a professional coach.

    Where once a wily old guru would call upon thousands of hours of hands-on experience to spot a weakness in an opposing team, AI will perform a similar pattern-matching exercise at a speed and depth that no human brain could hope to compete with. While it may be difficult for some to accept the death of traditional coaching roles, they are as likely to survive the AI revolution as the horse-drawn cart was to fend off the arrival of the car.

    I expect the most successful professional coaches of the future will increasingly call upon AI until coaches are relegated entirely to man management duties. It is worth noting that we are still at least a few years from this point, and modern coaches would be wise to consider early AI a tool rather than an entire solution.

    Whatever is set to arrive, we can be sure that sport as we know it will seem radical and strange to future generations, and as with so many technological advances, it’s likely we’ll bemoan them at the very moment they are improving our lives.

    Clyde Rathbone
    Clyde Rathbone

    Former Wallaby & Brumby Clyde Rathbone retired from rugby in 2014. Clyde is a writer, speaker and technology startup founder. A Roar columnist since 2012, you can follow Clyde via his Twitter page.

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