Sports, as we know them, are changing. Stadiums are equipped with sensors to track advanced stats. Big league clubs use sophisticated technology to gauge player performance. And those players wear equipment such as bands and monitors to keep themselves at peak performance.
"You take advantage of all the stuff that's out there," says Miguel Cabrera, the 2012 American League Triple Crown winner, who wears and endorses the Samsung Gear Fit. "We live in a new world, so we've got to use all the stuff to help raise our game to the top."
This digital revolution is impacting more than just pros. Thanks to the popularity of smartphones and tablets, cutting-edge gear — from smart equipment to fitness trackers to external sensors — is reshaping how kids practice, play, and develop as athletes.
Christian Dibenedetto, senior innovation director at Adidas, believes that young athletes who don't have access to great coaching no longer have to be at a disadvantage. "What matters is [their] access to technology," he says.
Dibenedetto leads the team that developed the miCoach Smart Ball, a soccer ball released in late May designed to improve a player's kicking ability. Sensors built into the ball collect data on kick speed, spin, and where your foot makes contact, among other metrics. That's fed into an Apple iOS app, which then guides you on how to improve.
Adidas's effort follows the success of InfoMotion's 94Fifty Smart Basketball, which launched late last year. That ball is also constructed with internal sensors that measure dribble power, shot-release speed and arc, and backspin. That info is sent to an iOS, Android, or Google Glass app that provides feedback on how the user can improve.
But 94Fifty also amps up the coaching component. When using the ball while connected to the app, the voice of a digital coach pushes you to correct your mechanics mid-drill. If you miss a goal, he encourages you to do better; if you succeed, it's cause for a (short) celebration.
"The number one thing I see is [the app] keeps [kids] from getting bored," says Mike Crowley, InfoMotion's founder and CEO. "The ball itself doesn't make you better. But the motivation we can bring in the form that kids want gets them to [practice] more."
That kind of presentation is crucial, says softball Olympic gold medalist Jennie Finch. "Coaching, a lot of times, it's not so much what you tell [kids], but it's more of what you're trying to get them to do," she says. And technology, like Zepp Lab's recently refreshed Baseball app (which Finch endorses), makes that process easier. Using a sensor that attaches to the bottom of a bat, the app collects data on bat speed and attack angle, while also providing a 3D model of your swing.
The Zepp experience is also empowering. "It allows the athletes themselves to think of things and try different things," says Finch. "And [they] see with instant feedback what works, what doesn't work, and how you get faster bat speed and faster to the ball, faster ball speed off the bat."
This kind of sports-specific technology is changing how kids train and interact with real-world coaches. But multi-use hardware and software, like smartwatches and Google's Android Wear operating system, have the potential to alter the landscape even more.
Right now, smart balls and equipment sensors require smartphones or tablets to analyze data. Chances are you're not carrying one of those out on the field with you. But a smartwatch, like the Moto 360 or Sony SmartWatch 3, can bring that virtual coach experience to your wrist. (Or, in the case of 94Fifty's Google Glass app, to your eyes and ears.)
The past six months have seen the release of six unique smartwatches that run Android Wear. (Apple will release its watch in early 2015.) And developers have already created apps for the devices tailored to runners, cyclists, hikers, golfers, and basketball players.
In the future, someone could develop a watch designed specifically for a sport that will then be used by coaches and players. And the possibilities from there are endless.
"You're seeing a lot of engagement, but the sky's wide open and these devices are going to get more and more capable over time," says Jeff Chang, product manager for Android Wear. "We're just scratching the surface of what's possible today."
Cutting-edge tech like smart balls and wearables are changing how kids play sports:
Moto 360/Google Play
A smartwatch that values form and function, the Moto 360 runs Google's Android Wear operating system and syncs with any phone running Android 4.3 or higher. It includes a built-in pedometer and optical heart rate monitor, so you get the most out of apps like Cardiogram (pictured) and Google's Fit.
Nine internal sensors measure data when the ball is shot or dribbled. The sensors then send that data to the 94Fifty app, so you can receive instant feedback while a virtual coach pushes you to get better. Add the recently released SmartNet, which communicates with the ball, for the full 94Fifty experience.
$249.95 (ball), $19.95 (SmartNet), shop.94fifty.com
Zepp Labs Zepp Baseball
The Zepp sensor measures bat speed, attack angle, stance, and follow through. That info is sent to the Zepp Baseball app, where you can see your results and a 3D model of your swing. You can also use the free app (which is loaded with tons of great tips and drills from pros) without the sensor. Use your phone's camera to record your swing, and you can play it back side by side with superstars such as Mike Trout and Giancarlo Stanton.
TRIPLE CROWN WEARABLE
Samsung Gear Fit
The Gear Fit tracks physical activity, such as steps and heart rate, as well as calories. But you can also sync it with your Samsung smartphone to receive emails and texts. And the 1.84-inch full-color, curved display gives your wrist a little pop.
A KICKIN' APP
Adidas miCoach Soccer Ball
Built with the same construction as its World Cup balls, Adidas's miCoach Smart Ball utilizes internal sensors to improve your kicking. The ball measures how fast you kicked it, how much spin was on it, the launch angle, the spin axis, and where your foot made contact. It then sends that data to an iOS app, where you can see your results and improve your kick skills through challenges and pro videos.
Photos: Don Penny for Sports Illustrated/Styled by Bill Laughlin (portrait), play.google.com (Moto 360), Zepp Labs (Zepp Baseball), Samsung (Cabrera), Adidas (miCoach soccer ball)