The 2016 Rio Olympic games as with the previous games was a great platform for many tech companies to showcase their latest developments. There are radar and camera technologies that capture motion/biomechanics of an athlete on the field and in the pool. There are wearable devices that (also) track motion plus monitor physiological parameters 24/7. They aim to positively alter athlete behaviour and optimise performance. There are also sports apparel and equipment that were designed and developed (after much R&D) to enhance athlete performance. But we will leave that for another time.
Wearables for tracking performance
Going back to wearables and tracking systems; they often look at (somewhat) straightforward parameters – joint positions, speed (or velocity), height, acceleration, impact, angles, rotation rate, heart rate, heart rate variability, sleep and other physiological stuff. Sometimes coaches and athletes only need to look at a single parameter while other times they may need to examine a combination of variables and find correlations or visualise them over time to identify trends. Some companies go further by processing the above data and coming up with (trademarked) indexes such as Player-Load (Catapult), Windows of Trainability (Omegawave) and Recovery Score (Whoop). What they are trying to achieve is break down all the data that is being collected and deliver one metric that simplifies things and make it easy for coaches and athletes to measure performance (and recovery) .
In major games like the Olympics, where athletes trained years to prepare and qualify for that one event and possibly one moment, there can be a lot of anxiety and pressure to perform. Even if all the physical preparation has been done right, the results could still boil down to how well those emotions are managed; the difference could be between a podium finish or not performing as well as expected. So are there wearable technologies that monitor an athlete’s emotions and maybe warn the athlete of dangerous anxiety levels that can lead to choking or panic?
Wearables for tracking anxiety
Turns out there are a number of wearables in the market that do that. Here are three different types:
- Head-worn wearables that measure EEG signals (or brain activity) like the Emotive Insight and Muse. Although the Muse is designed as an aid for meditation and relaxation, it is basically monitoring four EEG channels to see how excited or relaxed a person’s brain is. The Emotive Insight has five EEG channels and looks at the user’s cognitive performance in areas such as Engagement, Focus, Interest, Relaxation, Stress, and Excitement. Emotive also has a higher spec neuroheadset that can look at fourteen EEG channels and goes into much more depth of what’s going on in a person’s mind and how he/she is feeling.
Wrist-worn devices that measure electrodermal activity (or EDA), blood volume pulse, skin temperature and motion; like the Feel and Empatica E4 wristbands. Based on research, measurements of EDA strongly reflect sympathetic activation which is linked to stress levels and excitement. Measuring heart rate variability through the blood volume pulse sensor also reflects sympathetic and parasympathetic activation. Skin temperature is another reliable measure of stress levels as shown in this research. Finally, motion tracking with inertial measurement units (or IMUs) helps identify the user’s activity and tries to place a connection between anxiety levels and what the user might be doing at that time.
- Clipped-on devices that measure breathing frequency like the Spire. The Spire is built with force sensors; when it is secured onto the user’s waistband or bra, it detects the expansion/contraction of the user’s torso and diaphragm during breathing, thus deriving the breathing rate. Then algorithms are used to determine from the breathing waveforms whether the user is calm, tensed or focused.
Most of these devices also provide an accompanying app to monitor anxiety levels, and they prompt users to meditate or do breathing exercises. On a side note, a breathing exercise for lung patients was adapted for training athletes’ breathing technique and also focuses on dealing with anxiety. Athletes could also listen to brain.fm music that either helps them relax or stay focused. In a way, managing stress levels on a day-to-day basis can be beneficial for athletes because stress levels can increase the likelihood of an athlete falling sick or getting injured, and it also affects recovery.
Emotion Profiling for Performance
On the other hand, when it comes to performing well during competitions/races, some athletes actually perform better with some amount of anxiety. In fact, different athletes in different sports may perform better at varying levels of anxiety. In other words, some athletes perform well at high levels of arousal while others may perform better at lower levels of anxiety. It’s all about finding a sweet spot. As mentioned in this article, one widely used tool by coaches/athletes to identify that sweet spot or optimal performance zone is the individual zones of optimal functioning (IZOF) model. This is a qualitative analysis approach that involves the athlete recounting the emotional experiences related to successful and/or poor performances. All the emotions are then labelled and rated as described here, and this creates an individualised emotion profile showing which emotions are helpful for performance and which ones are unhelpful. Of course, this would only work if athletes have competed for a number of times previously and came out with different outcomes (winning or losing or setting new personal bests).
Ultimately we could utilise all the different wearables (and tools) mentioned above and somehow piece all that data together to shed some light on the inner workings of each individual athlete. Then the data could be used to “pivot” them in the optimal direction. But at the end of the day, its really down to the athletes themselves pushing hard every day and fighting battles with their body, mind and soul to get to where they would be. So let’s just salute the Olympic athletes for what they do and what they have achieved. And while we await the start of the Paralympics, I leave you with this video below by Under Armour and Michael Phelps. Thanks for reading!