GPS athlete performance tracking devices for...sports field management?

By Chase Straw
A person's hand holding a GPS athlete performance tracking device
Figure 1. A GPS athlete performance tracking device.
Athlete performance tracking devices are becoming prevalent in team sports at the professional and collegiate levels. An individual device is small (~3 x 1.5 inches) and usually inserted into a vest that holds it to an athlete’s upper back (Figure 1). They measure several variables regarding athlete performance during competition while on a sports field, such as distance covered, top speed, sprint count, acceleration, and deceleration. The devices are also equipped with GPS to track athletes’ location and time spent in areas on a field. Associated software, for viewing measured data, is user-friendly and normally accessible online with a login name and password. Within the software, each athletes’ performance data are broken down by individual sessions, such as practices and games. This includes a performance summary of the session, as well as maps generated with the GPS (Figure 2). Data are used by coaches, trainers, and sports scientists to develop programs that better prepare athletes for competition and optimize their on-field performance, but they could also be used for sports field management.
sports filed map with colors indicating amount of use
Figure 2. A heat map showing athletes’ time spent in areas on a field during a game. Red areas indicate where athletes spent the most time.

There are several ways the information from GPS athlete performance tracking devices could be valuable for sports field management. Objective field usage information can provide justification to apply programs that mitigate concentrated areas of wear, like site-specific management or mandatory requirement of field and practice drill rotations. If field usage is then combined with field characteristics (e.g. surface hardness, soil moisture, infill depth, etc.) and documented over time, the effectiveness of management strategies could be assessed to guide future management decisions. Furthermore, the devices offer an opportunity for sports field managers to work collaboratively with coaches and trainers to possibly manipulate field conditions based on gathered data. An example could be irrigating heavily or drying down a field to alter soil moisture and surface hardness levels to perhaps accommodate a coach’s desire to achieve certain athlete performance thresholds.

Challenges will likely occur initially with using GPS athlete performance tracking devices for sports field management. The most evident being potential invasion of athlete privacy. However, this may not be that big of an issue since the most beneficial information to a sports field manager would be field usage maps. These can be easily shared by coaches or trainers as computer screenshots, which would not contain athlete data. General athlete performance could be an informal discussion between all parties without a sports field manager actually seeing any athlete information. Unfortunately due to high cost, for the time being these devices are likely only relevant to higher-end sports fields. Even if they are not applicable in your specific situation, they should become more affordable and widespread moving forward. Just like any new technology, try not to turn a blind eye, because they could be a valuable tool one day for your management regimen.

The full version of this article will be published in the May 2019 edition of SportsTurf magazine.

Thank you to the Minnesota Park and Sports Turf Managers Association, UMN RecWell, Francesca Principe (UMN M.S. student in Kinesiology), Diane Wiese-Bjornstal (UMN Professor and Associate Director in Kinesiology), The Toro Company, and all involved UMN undergraduate and graduate students for their contributions to this project.