Navigating the technology paradox in sport

Technology is a good thing, right? When we evaluate technology we tend to focus on the benefits: what it can add. But the paradox of technology is that it often has hidden costs we do not see up front. Determining whether technology is good or not can be harder than it looks.

Just think of how many billions of lives that have been saved by technological advances. During the 20th century, the global life expectancy more than doubled due to the impact of new technologies. At the same time, technology has given humans the power to nearly destroy the entire world in a matter of minutes. When we look at economics, the American worker today is 400% more productive than he was in 1950. Experts predicted this decades ago, but they also predicted this would mean a surplus of free time and 30-hour work weeks. In reality, the average work week has increased in the US, commutes have gotten longer, and inflation-adjusted wages haven’t budged. We don’t talk about this side of the equation because we’re too busy staring at our phones in our reduced amount of free time.

The paradox appears in sport too: every technology brings with it the potential to both help and hinder training. We don’t have much of a choice over the technology being implemented in our life around us, but as coaches we do have the power to decide which technology we bring into training. In this article I share seven questions that can help coaches evaluate the cost and benefits and see how much return on investment they can really expect from technology.

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What is the direct cost?

Literally how much money is it going to cost to buy the technology. Most of my coaching roles are on a volunteer basis so our limited budgets go first and foremost to athletes and coaches, then afterwards to new gadgets. This is the reality for most coaches I know. If the cost is too high, we don’t even need to go to the benefit part of the equation.

What are the hidden costs?

Beyond the sticker price, there are many hidden costs behind most technology. Most GPS or VBT devices involve up front cost, but are essentially worthless without paying recurring subscription fees that need to be built in. Some data intensive technologies might even require a new staff member to manage it.

Then there is the time investment. If you are not willing to dedicate time to learning about the technology and how to get the most out of it, it’s probably a waste of money. As Vern put it on this week’s GAINcast:

“If you’re going to if you’re going to invest heavily in technology and science, you as a coach better in invest heavily in learning the science and technology.”

For some technologies this can be a simple task, but for others you almost need a new degree.

Is it going to save time or take time?

Related to the hidden costs, it is useful to see what the net time cost will be. Like many coaches, I don’t have extra time on my hands. I might be able to invest some time up front to learn a technology, but over the long term I need it to save me time overall. Technology often promises increased efficiencies, but more of then than not it just adds to our task list.

Thankfully many technologies do create real efficiencies. For example the athlete management tools I use in training takes a little time to learn how to use, but save me even more time by streamlining my planning process and gathering athlete feedback in one place. Having an overview of the time costs and time benefits will help you evaluate the technology.

What question is it answering?

Franco Impellizzeri made a great point on GAINcast 192 earlier this year:

“I’m not interested in the technology, I’m interested in the information. Based on the information we want, we use the best available technology. But people are falling in love with the technology before the information.”

Here is a little homework assignment: sit down and make a list of the top question you have about training and the top information you would like to know about your athletes and their training. If the technology does not help answer these questions, then it is probably isn’t worth your time and money. Don’t reprioritize your training over a piece of technology; otherwise you are adding unneeded costs to the equation without meaningful benefits.

Is it going to distract or bring focus?

Focus is a key element of successful training. We train with a goal and we are more likely to reach that goal if we are focused. All too often technology disrupts the flow of training and therefore shifts our focus. This can be another hidden cost of technology. Recently on HMMR Podcast 234 coach PJ Vazel talked about this point:

 “I don’t want technology changing our way to train or changing the rhythm and flow of the workouts. Instant feedback can be an encouragement tool without changing the workout.”

Good technologies can be seamlessly integrated and even help sharpen our focus.

Many times the answer to this question is not so much about the technology as about how you will implement it. We’ve been using the Vmaxpro sensor in training a lot recently (disclaimer: we sell device in the HMMR Store). I coach mostly youth athletes and found that in the past focusing on peak velocity with other velocity measurement devices was often a distraction as they tried to pull as hard as they could without stable technique. With the Vmaxpro’s bar path feedback, athletes get quick feedback on their technique which they can match with their feeling to start improving the underlying movement. We don’t want to overdue it and create athletes dependent on external feedback, but it is a good example of how technology can help us focus.

How can it facilitate conversation?

Data is great, but that data must ultimately be translated into actions through conversations. The real magic happens in the conversations. As Vern pointed out on the GAINcast: “Good technology facilitates conversation between coach and athlete, rather than interfering with it.” Some technologies really lend themselves to conversation. And often the less complex the output of the technology, the better the conversation. Simple video of a training session can lead to more productive conversations than a biomechanical breakdown of a drill. Detailed complex feedback often leads one to be confused or assume the answer is already given, when the point of the conversation is to discover the answer since it is rarely clear from data alone.

There is of course a human role in this point as well. Humans have to interact with technology and we therefore have a chance to improve the conversations around them. This week James Marshall showed how simple data visualization tricks can go a long ways. Done right, coaches can make the data accessible to everyone, which brings more people to the table for the conversation.

Does it improve your return on investment?

Even if you ask all the right questions and the benefits outweigh the costs, there is one more question to ask: will it improve your returns. My day job is in the finance industry and a key question isn’t whether an investment will make money, but whether it beats the benchmark. Each investor has a limited about of funds, just like a coach has a limited amount of time. Simply making money is not enough, investors want to find the investment that will give them the best return.

It’s the same with coaching. Technology might help you, but low tech solutions in many cases can provide even bigger gains. Looking to hire a data scientist to run your new GPS unit? That might help your team, but if they can’t even run properly you’ll likely get more return on investment from hiring a speed specialist. Once you know the true cost and benefit of a technology, compare it to the other options out there before making your final decision.