These days, professional sports teams are continuously seeking ways to gather data on their players’ biomechanics and movement with an eye to increasing performance and avoiding injury. Now, Kitman Labs, a sports technology company based in Menlo Park, Calif., that calls itself “the World's First Athlete Optimization System,” has devised a way for teams in the NFL, MLB and NBA to transform multiple-source data into digestible, practical information.
Jeff Bower, general manager of the Detroit Pistons, explains the advantages of a system like Kitman Labs the best. “We think [Kitman Labs] provides a terrific vehicle for us to turn an incredible amount of data into useful, manageable information that can help our players,” he tells SI.com. “Everything we are doing in this area is designed to give us feedback that can help us monitor the welfare of our players.”
What's the idea behind Kitman Labs?
Kitman Labs CEO and founder Stephen Smith tells SI.com that his company serves its clients at the intersection of sports science and technology, using artificial intelligence and machine learning to help teams reduce injury and improve overall performance.
His program isn’t another style of wearable device designed just to track players, though. Instead, Smith is gathering data on all the different stresses placed on athletes and uncovering “subtle, small degenerations that occur that may increase the risk of injury.” Those occurrences are then documented and sent to a team’s staff for their own in-house analysis.
“Teams have spent vast amounts of money and hired more and more staff to understand and utilize tech, but we continue to see injuries on the rise in the big sports,” Smith says. “Everyone is focusing on one particular data source, whether sleep, heart rate, movement or neurological data. Everyone is focusing on one piece of data as the golden ticket. The human body is incredibly individual and one data source, we believe, is way too simplistic.”
How does it all work?
Kitman Labs isn’t about hardware, rather the focus is solely on software. Leveraging data from the big tracking companies, such as Catapult, Smith pulls information into his system and uses proprietary apps to track movement information. The system also has a series of questions it regularly asks players via an app about how they feel throughout the week and uses a camera system to identify body symmetry within a matter of seconds.
By collecting these multiple points of data, from physical to psychological, Smith says Kitman can consolidate all the sources into one place and empower team staff to make better decisions and interventions throughout a season or during the off-season.
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images
What about AI and machine learning?
Smith says that if you put two athletes through the exact same stresses each would respond differently. The first company in this space to use machine learning, Smith says his system can sift through the data to adapt to what is “normal” for each athlete.
His example: If two athletes engage in a high-intensity practice, most data-tracking scenarios would tell team staff that the high workload necessitated reduced training the next day. “With our system, that is not necessarily true,” Smith says. “If an athlete responds well and has no signs of fatigue, proceed about your business and push them to get fitter, faster and stronger. That is exactly what you want in a high-performance environment. Athlete B, though, if he is getting tired and when landing was having an issue with his knee, we can flag that risk of injury and [staff] can micro-manage to ensure he gets to the game and ensure he stays on to perform at his highest level.”
How have the Detroit Pistons taken advantage of Kitman Labs?
Bower says that the Pistons systematically measure the biomechanical movements of players and identify changes or deviations that take place over the course of the season. The Pistons want to better understand the long-term effect of a full season of stress and strain and have tools in place to identify these trends.
Detroit also tracks player loads and GPS data throughout the season, combining that data with heart monitors. “We think that combination of everything provides a totally comprehensive approach to tracking and monitoring our athletes for their welfare,” Bower says.
Using Kitman, the Pistons disseminate that data throughout the organization, including athletic trainers, training staff, director of athletic performance Jon Ishop and Anthony Harvey, the team’s strength coach. Combining the medical team’s input with the entire Pistons’ analytical team, Bower says, they “view this as a total collaborative enterprise.”
“What we’re looking for is to establish trends and workflows that are meaningful,” Bower says. “We are interpreting practice information versus our game information, which are all different. And that’s where we are relying on the support of experts from Kitman to synthesize many of these different sets of information.”
But it all goes back to helping the players, Bower says. “It is a total transparent exercise.” The information is shared so players understand their bodies and staff understands the players. “We are all searching for ways to reduce injury and we are all looking for ways to keep our players healthy,” Bower says, “and we all understand the demands and rigors across the board of an NBA season.”
With this intersection of science and technology, Bower can see a much healthier NBA season.
Tim Newcomb covers stadiums, sneakers and training for Sports Illustrated. Follow him on Twitter at @tdnewcomb.