Can GPS devices prevent sports injuries?

October, 20, 2012
10/20/12
1:00
PM ET
Atlanta FalconsKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesThe undefeated Falcons are the first NFL team to use GPS-tracking devices on players in an effort to prevent injuries.
Editor's note: This story appears in the Oct. 29 issue of ESPN The Magazine. Subscribe today!

Can injuries in the NFL be predicted -- and prevented? The Falcons are turning to new technology for a helping hand.

Every season, there are more than 2,000 injuries in the NFL. Imagine if a coach could see even a fraction of them coming, and thus prevent them. (Rex Ryan, do we have your attention?)

One team is testing a device that may be able to do just that.

The key is a GPS tracker about the size of two AA batteries, hidden under 10 pounds of pads. It allows coaches to monitor players’ vitals in real time, not unlike the way NASCAR mechanics gauge engine performance. The technology, offered by several companies, is common among rugby and soccer clubs.

Now the Falcons are the first NFL team to try it out.

“It gives you perspective,” says Jeff Fish, Atlanta’s director of athletic performance.

The GPS device, worn between the shoulder blades in the manliest of sports bras, tracks an athlete’s dynamic stress load, a measure that takes into account his running motion, speed, distance run, heart rate and force of impacts. Related software creates a profile for each player -- based on his injury history, body type and overall fitness -- which is used to establish his stress-load limit for a practice or a game.

[+] EnlargeStatSports
Courtesy of StatSportsGPS devices, like this one by StatSports, monitor athletes' vitals in real time.
When an athlete exceeds his limit, the technology signals that it’s time for a trip to the sideline to avoid a potential injury.

That level of customization is key, says Alan Clarke, CEO of Ireland-based StatSports, which provides GPS devices to soccer clubs such as Arsenal and Manchester United. “The way you run is as unique as a fingerprint,” he says. “Two people could run the same distance in the same time, but the dynamic stress load is different for everyone.”

After testing six devices from Australia-based GPSports last year, the Falcons now monitor 30 players in practice. None of them had suffered a major injury through Week 5.

Still, Fish is coy about revealing how Atlanta’s injury rate compares historically. “It’s not something we want to put out there,” he says. “With my luck, three weeks from now we’ll get decimated with injuries.”

That would put things in a different perspective.

Here's how the device works:

Customized: An athlete’s profile records every hit and every move of even an inch. A coach can also set workload targets for each player.

Advanced: The device, which includes a heart-rate monitor, gyroscope and accelerometer, can tell when a player is running on his heels or whether he has slowed down -- both indicators of fatigue.

Instantaneous: A team can see a player’s data immediately. Is his heart beating too fast? Has he slowed since that tackle? An early shower now could prevent a groin strain later.

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