Wearable Technology: Does it Have a Place in Baseball & Softball?
January 31, 2024
32 min read
In the past several years, wearable devices have become a popular way to track your health and fitness.
Watches, wristbands, heart monitors, and other devices can relay important health data to a smartphone app, clueing you in on your daily habits and improving your overall health.
Or at least that’s the idea.
Wearable tech in the general marketplace of ideas also brings up concerns about information overload and whether we need that much data about ourselves so consistently.
One area where this debate plays out – and where wearable devices have risen greatly in popularity – is athletics.
As more professional sports teams incorporate forms of wearable technology into their training and performance, it begs the question: is there a place for wearable tech in baseball and softball as well?
Before tackling this question head-on, let’s start with some definitions, move into how wearables are being used in other sports – which might be a glimpse into our games’ futures – and then detail some serious pitfalls that may come with these devices.
Wearable technology, or wearables, are electronic devices you can wear on your body.
Unlike smartphones, tablets, or laptops, they’re designed so you don’t have to hold them in your hand or on your lap to use them.
Wearable devices take many forms, such as wristwatches, jewelry, medical devices, or clothing.
Numerous types of devices fall under the wearable devices umbrella.
Some less obvious ones are artificially intelligent hearing aids, Meta or Microsoft’s virtual reality headsets, or disposable skin patches for temporarily collecting and transmitting patient data.
🔑 Key Insight: Almost all wearable devices will use your personal information – health, location, etc. – to collate data and present you with results. Many wearables have an accompanying app, where you can read and keep track of all the data that’s collected on you.
Health and fitness wearables are already popular, letting you see how many steps you take in a day, or tracking your heart rate.
But there's also non-fitness-specific wearables, like augmented reality headsets, that integrate digital information with the user’s environment to enhance their experience are on the rise.
Now that we’re all on the same page definitionally, let’s dive in.
Wearable technology is a growing industry, with new devices coming out all the time.
While wearables provide us with valuable insights into our health and daily activities, it’s possible that they cause information overload.
Many wearables present information to you without much filtering or editing. You’re bombarded with graphs, charts, or other data that you either don’t know how to interpret or don’t really care to in the first place.
Although flooding ourselves with too much information has been a concern throughout history, in today’s digital age it’s getting objectively worse.
🔑 Key Insight: Our general human knowledge is a product of having learned to communicate concepts in a consistent enough way, mostly through language, and preserved it through technologies like writing tablets, paper books, and computer hard drives, in order to allow many brains to contribute over stretches of time greater than a single life.
And both language and all knowledge preservation technologies are artificially created additives to the original human condition.
These ideas are why some thinkers and scientists regard human societies, which are made up of many brains artificially communicating and preserving knowledge, as actually large artificially intelligent supercomputers.
Soccer has historically been at the forefront of wearable tech.
The first notable breakthrough in wearable sports technology came in 2009, when the European Soccer Club used a real-time monitoring device to track player’s biometrics for signs of exhaustion or injury on the field.
The next notable moment in wearable devices and sports was in 2014, when the Manchester United coach used the Oculus Rift’s virtual reality simulations to let his players experience the 2014 World Cup from other players’ perspectives.
Since these first two instances in wearable sports technology, the industry has grown.
Wearable technologies are now used by athletes, trainers, coaches, and administrators mainly to:
Monitor athletic training
Track in-game performance
Aid recovery after an injury
Many modern wearables are easily applied outside a laboratory setting and can track athletes in a more natural environment.
And when gathering accurate data, having the athlete perform as closely as they would in a competition or game as possible is ideal.
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Devices integrated into sports apparel, built into equipment like bats and balls, and wristbands or patches worn by the athlete are all types of wearables being used today.
Baseball teams are using bat motion sensors to measure and perfect swings, and GPS trackers sewn into uniforms are tracking football players’ balance, speed, and motion.
The sensors and devices athletes use have to be both flexible and durable while producing precise measurements.
If a wristband that tracks heart rate feels too clunky or gets in the way while the athlete trains or competes, it could impede their performance or produce inaccurate results.
Wearable devices have helped improve performance, but an analysis of wearable sports technology from data scientists Yewande Adesida, Enrica Papi, and Alison H. McGregor forwards that it also has tremendous potential for injury prevention.
After looking at what wearable tech has chosen to address so far, these researchers write:
The common themes were injury prevention, performance assessment, movement recognition and skill level classification. Out of these themes, injury prevention is an area with great potential when the cost of injuries and harm to athletes is considered....
To fully exploit this potential in injury prevention, however, there is still a need of identifying which biomechanical data obtained from wearable technology is the most useful as a predictor of injury.
They also pointed specifically to studies on baseball players, where non-commercial accelerometers and gyroscopes were used to assess not only performance but also upper body and elbow torque to look for risks of injury.
The researchers noted, however, that current wearable technology was more often successful in predicting injury, rather than shedding light on changes athletes could make to reduce those injuries.
Monitoring of only a few selected variables to the exclusion of others
No measurement of environmental factors
Uncertainty about accuracy of data interpretation
Inability to always transmit data indoors, underwater, and in built-up areas
Interference from other physiological responses
They also point out that many wearable technologies that are marketed to athletes and coaches haven’t been properly vetted by sports science experts, or their measurements haven’t been accurately validated.
Halson, Peake, and Sullivan note that athletes – like all of us – are living through a digital age where information is valued. And the more information, the better.
As a result, some athletes and coaches may look past the scientific inaccuracy of wearable devices in an effort to gain an ‘edge’ over the competition.
There are also concerns about privacy, which we’ll address in a bit.
#What to look for when considering a wearable technology
When evaluating wearable technology, athletes and coaches should be on the lookout for four things:
The technology’s primary concern should be doing no harm, so consider the direct implications of the technology on the athlete’s health and safety.
Athletes and coaches should question the scientific basis of the device.
If there is no pre-existing scientific evidence, then data on the athlete should be taken in a controlled environment, i.e. not a live game.
Implications for the athlete – like information overload, unnecessary information, or information that causes undue stress and anxiety – should be another top concern.
The market for wearable sports devices is wide, and new products are being developed all the time.
Here are three of the most common types of wearable technology that athletes across other non-baseball or softball sports are using now.
🚨 Important Note: You may be wondering why we’ve even chosen to include this section in a resource made for baseball and softball coaches and parents. Because traditionally our games have adopted technological advancement and experimentation a bit more slowly than other sports.
Luckily, this trend is changing with the newest generation of coaches and thought leaders, but looking at what other cutting-edge professional sports teams and players are doing can still reveal potential future applications of the same tech and principles in baseball or softball.
Sensors can be placed almost anywhere on the body and their usefulness applies to most sports.
Inertial sensors usually measure three things on the athlete's body:
Force and acceleration, using accelerometers
Rotation, with a gyroscope
Body orientation, with a magnetometer
The three types of data gathered from inertial sensors together try to quantify athlete readiness and fatigue.
The slightest changes in acceleration and movement are detectable with these sensors, so coaches and trainers can see when an athlete’s motions aren’t ‘normal’ and thus predict fatigue or even risk of injury.
Inertial sensors are best at capturing small movements in a tight area.
Global positioning systems are also used to track athletes’ movements and acceleration on the field, court, etc.
The devices are often worn on the upper back and communicate with GPS satellites. They can track how fast an athlete runs, along with other detailed movements like foot stride.
Although this type of technology is better suited to sports where distance matters as much as speed, like soccer and football, it may have practical applications for baserunners and outfielders in baseball and softball as well.
There are ethical dimensions to wearable technology, specifically how the data that’s being collected on you is used.
Many wearable companies will sell your information to third parties, who can use it for advertising purposes.
While monitoring your activity and selling your personal info isn’t exactly new, wearable technology poses a different problem.
Google may track your search history to show you relevant ads, but the wristwatch tracking your heart rate could share the info with your insurance company, causing a rise in premiums.
In one case, a company is selling information you search for. In the other, they’re selling information that’s inherent to who you are, that you have no real control over.
Therein lies the ethical dilemma.
These concerns are no different for athletes, like baseball and softball players.
Many wearable technologies have the capability to know where you are, how long you spent there, and what your heart rate was while you were doing whatever it is you were doing.
Of course, all of this depends on the nature of the device, and whether you wear it on your body over long periods of time or it just attaches to an inanimate object like a bat – the latter being significantly freer from these ethical concerns.
But, if it ever does become the former in baseball, how comfortable would you be with wearables being used as part of the equation to determine draft position or player’s salaries?
While it might seem great to have metrics on-hand related to your baseball or softball performance, you have to ask yourself what cost it presents to your personal privacy.
Especially if it’s wearable technology that hasn’t been fully validated or scientifically backed.
Are you the owner of the data you generate with the wearable device? Or is the company?
#Should Baseball and Softball Players Use Wearable Technology?
Wearable technology does have many positive implications for everyday life as well as athletic use.
However, when using wearable technology to gather data meant to track performance and prevent injury, it’s important for coaches and parents to do their homework.
Some forms of wearable sports tech can be expensive. And if they’re not used properly or you don’t know how to accurately interpret the data, you could be investing for nothing.
🔑 Key Insight: Collecting all the data possible on a given athlete is great, but it’s mostly useless without a trained professional to interpret the data and make actionable suggestions or meaningful adjustments that move the needle toward more positive performance outcomes.
All that said, luckily, a few commercial wearable companies are exciting and mostly affordable additions to our game.
Currently, the biggest market for wearable tech in baseball and softball is in bat swing analyzers.
These are small devices placed on a bat to track the athlete’s swing and break down essential metrics like bat speed and launch angle.
Again, let’s be extra clear. This type of wearable tech is much more innocuous than those that track personal, internal health.
Many college and professional organizations have adopted bat accelerators and gyroscopes to help add quantifiable data points to things like recruiting and player development – things that had long been quite subjective.
When combined with accurate ball exit speed off of the bat, such devices and their accompanying apps, are a rightfully ubiquitous part of the modern game.
Pitchers are getting the same objective overhaul.
Pitchers can now purchase a ball with a sensor inside from various companies. And these balls can similarly relate and display each pitch’s analysis on an app.
An example for baseball and softball chuckers, is the Pitch Tracker from Diamond Kinetics.
With a remote lessons app, like SeamsUp, video of your ballplayer taken with the wonderful data overlays found on such wearables or devices as Blast Motion, Diamond Kinetics, or Pocket Radar can then be shared directly with a professional baseball or softball coach.
These objective metrics, along with their actual pitching or hitting mechanics, can then be analyzed and tracked by an expert instructor personally who’s invested in the player’s improvement.
🔑 Key Insight: When robust wearable tech is paired with expert human analysis and personal feedback, the true power of wearables is unlocked for both players and coaches.
The newest frontier of baseball and softball wearables is coming in the form of virtual reality hitting and pitching experiences.
Companies such as Applied Vision Baseball & Softball and WinReality pipe their robust in-game simulations through VR headsets, so ballplayers can have full at-bats or participate in pitch recognition drills from their living rooms.
Many collegiate and professional programs have adopted these VR wearables to be used for extra reps without the bodily wear and tear of traditional BP.
And they work particularly well for keeping players who are injured and on DL sharp.
These virtual experiences are also fantastic for youth coaches with limited helpers or training spaces, as an additional hitting station during their team practices.
#Conclusion on Whether Wearable Tech Has a Place in Baseball and Softball
Despite their popularity in soccer and American football, it remains to be seen if other more controversial forms of wearable tech, like inertial sensors and GPS, have a place in softball and baseball.
Arguably, the aspects of baseball and softball that require the finest, most precise movements are hitting and pitching, and wearable products to account for these two are already available and rapidly developing.
As of today, it seems likely that if new wearable products come along for our sports, they’ll fall into these same well-established categories – for a while anyway.
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