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Harlequins Hopes Fitness Tech Will Lead To Premiership Rugby Glory

Steve McCaskill is editor of TechWeekEurope and ChannelBiz. He joined as a reporter in 2011 and covers all areas of IT, with a particular interest in telecommunications, mobile and networking, along with sports technology.

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Harlequins expand use of fitness and performance tech ahead of the 2017-18 Premiership Rugby season, but can it lead to a repeat of 2012?

In the world of business, getting the most out of your workforce is essential for success, especially if you are in a highly competitive market where even the most marginal of gains can be the difference.

Nowhere is this more obvious than professional sport, where teams and athletes are increasingly turning to technology to maximise performance and health.

Professional rugby club Harlequins have been working with Catapult for a number of years now, equipping players with wearable devices that track fitness levels and analysing this data using its algorithms.

Harlequins Catapult 2

Rugby technology

This season, that partnership will be expanded and the team will use 52 S5 devices attached the back of player shirts during training and matches. Tracking this data helps determine training session intensity, injury rehabilitation and the risk of injury.

“My remit is to manage training load,” Tom Batchelor, Head of Sport Science at Harlequins, tells Silicon. “On a day to day basis I quantify the GPS data, heart rate belts. Each morning players are asked to fill in a questionnaire about wellness, sleep, how they’re feeling. It’s my job to analyse this.

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“I know any metre run by any of the 60 guys on the team. I can see sprint speed, heart rate zone. You can’t answer any of the other questions without data.”

Batchelor says Catapult has tried to help solve these challenges and is full of praise for the company’s data science teams. Indeed, the company has more than 100 engineers and sports scientists and works with more than 1,250 elite teams around the world.

Harlequins Catapult 1

Keeping Fit

With a large squad this analysis helps determine player rotation and ensure the players are sharp enough come game day.

“The first team players mostly keep fit by playing the game so you’re just manging their recovery and tactics,” continues Batchelor, adding that International players might play more games than those in the squad over the course of a season.

“During the week we try and do enough to keep the guys sharp and intense. It’s a balance.”

However some things can’t be measured by GPS alone. In a sport like football, sprint data would be enough to assess a player, but in a much more physical sport like rugby union, Batchelor needs to take collisions and scrums into account. This involves more ‘old school’ methods like video analysis.

“We have four different camera angles and [analysts] are capturing every single stats,” he says. “That’s probably happening across all teams so the differentiator is how you’re using that data and interpret it.”

Harlequins Catapult 3

Data driven rugby

One of the more common issues of introducing technology into a sporting environment is culture, with some older heads preferring to trust instinct.

But Batchelor stresses there is no conflict between himself and some of the more ‘rugby’ oriented coaches, and even the players are generally accepting, especially when concrete data is presented to them.

Sessions and data are sent to players’ smartphones and Batchelor says the integration of technology in everyday life combined with a competitive instinct means it has been a success.

“All the boys are ridiculously competitive,” he adds. “The minute you measure something they compete.

“It’s all about how you communicate it and relate it to performance. We’re lucky we have a lot of motivated guys.”

And he can count on the support of management too. Like any organisation, there are budgetary constraints, but Batchelor says that if he needs something to more effectively fulfil his remit and it’s feasible, he can get it.

“Our Director of Rugby John [Kingston] knows exactly what I do. He understands that if there is something I want and we can afford it, I can get it.

“We are lucky that our teams, unlike big businesses, are relatively lightweight. I speak to heads of S&C and medicine. We can change things [rapidly]. It’s constantly evolving.

“We won the Premiership in 2012 and we want to get back there.”

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