UCD researchers at the coalface of Sports Science

Increasingly, modern sport is defined by marginal gains and minute-percentage improvements. Athletes strive for that extra millisecond, that extra metre, that extra bit of power that gets the ball over the line. In order to achieve such precise incremental improvements, more and more coaches, across all levels of sport, from professional to amateur, are turning to sports science and wearable performance measures. To understand this more completely I spoke to Output Sports, an interdisciplinary project based at the UCD Insight Centre, at the coalface of sports science research.

Dr. Martin O’Reilly, a sports scientist and computer engineer; Dr. Darragh Whelan, a sports-medicine expert and physiotherapist; and Julian Eberle, a theoretical physics “rockstar” - according to O’Reilly - and programmer, are the creative team behind the project.

“Athletes strive for that extra millisecond, that extra metre, that extra bit of power that gets the ball over the line.”

The trio all have links to UCD, as part of the teaching faculty on the Health and Performance Science and Physiotherapy programmes and (coincidentally), 2 of the 3 are previous captains of the Olympic handball club! The aim of their research project is “to create a genuine positive impact on exercise and sport...by combining interdisciplinary expertise and advances in technology spaces such as wearable sensors and machine learning.”

O’Reilly muses that, in spite of the competitive nature of the sports they are measuring, sports science itself has only been able to progress by incrementally building on the work of colleagues in pursuit of mutual beneficence. During the last 2 years of his degree in Sports and Exercise Engineering, he completed placements with wearable sensor company Shimmer in Dublin. “During the placement, I had a bit of down time and started to explore how the sensors I was working with during the day, could be applied to the Strength and Conditioning (S&C) training I was doing in the evenings for my own sporting performance.”

Output Sports is the fruit of the idea that took root during this time. However, O’Reilly is quick to point to the aid of collaboration in helping the concept evolve and develop. “This [their progress] is thanks to domain expertise from Darragh and Prof Brian Caulfield and engaging with system users (gym-goers, sports coaches etc.)”. Not merely satisfied to make up the numbers, the Output Sports team is determined to create “something that adds true value in S&C environments.”

Using just a single wearable motion sensor Output Sports tests and tracks multiple components of athletic performance, combining their top-of-the-range equipment with machine-learning algorithms trained on unique athletic data sets during their 5+ years of interdisciplinary research at UCD.

“O’Reilly muses that, in spite of the competitive nature of the sports they are measuring, sports science itself has only been able to progress by incrementally building on the work of colleagues in pursuit of mutual beneficence.”

The UCD Insight Centre for Data Analytics, apart from being Ireland’s flagship analytics research hub, is, according to the Output Sport team, “a pretty special place to be.” A joint initiative between Science Foundation Ireland, UCD and other Irish universities and the EU, “it houses experts ranging from clinicians, psychologists and anthropologists right through to statisticians and computer-scientists.” Having such a breadth of academic experts on a diverse array of subjects is the “the key advantage of being part of the centre”. Their one small gripe - itself borne of their irrepressible enthusiasm - is that with “such academic environments, is that at times progress can move slowly due to everybody’s busy schedules.”

In addition to this, the team has worked closely with the Institute of Sports and Health to ensure the accuracy of their minituarised equipment. They have “all the traditional performance testing technologies e.g. force plates for power, light-gates for speed, LPTs (linear position transducers) for barbell velocity” (focusing on how well/quickly you are actually lifting weights). For Output, whose aim is to produce “portable and unified performance measurement systems with equivalent accuracy to the expensive, high-end kit” such access has been invaluable in developing ever-smaller and more convenient prototypes, without sacrificing performance.

Although sports science is inherently associated with elite sports - indeed "over thirty elite and top flight teams are currently trialling our product" - this is not a status quo which O’Reilly and co. want to necessarily see maintained. He explains that “in the longer-term the relatively low cost nature of our technologies could mean that we can put pro-sports performance analytics in to the hands of everyday gym-goers and athletes. This could allow such people to reach the training goals in a far more engaging and optimised fashion at both the elite and sub-elite levels.”

Merrily describing themselves as “nerds with a love for sports” gives an indication of the group’s enthusiasm for their work. For proud athletes - who, after counting, reckon they have “competed in over 20 different sports” - “the possibility to add value in our field of passion, sports and exercise, with technology and data analytics” as academic researchers is tremendously exciting. Moreover Whelan takes special excitement in being able “to solve the problems he has witnessed in practice as a physiotherapist over the years.”

Asked about potential trials with current UCD athletes and clubs, the response was emphatic. “Absolutely! We’re big advocates for exercise and sport participation and education in UCD and we’d be happy to share our tech with any sports club or UCD athlete who would like to try it out.” Their systems, which allow coaches “to understand a bit more about their athletes’ power, flexibility, balance control or explosiveness” could be suitable for either clubs or individual athletes in UCD. Indeed, in recent times they have been working with Adam Byrne, Leinster winger and Biomedical engineer at UCD, to ensure their “tech meets the needs of pro-athletes and coaches.”

The interview ends as it began - with enthusiasm and passion abounding. I ask, with a not-so-vague inkling of what type of answer I’ll get, why do they like their work? “Funnily enough, the reasons we like our work are the same reasons we love sport. We get to work with a super team and approach very difficult challenges together.”

In truth, the smiles didn’t flag throughout and show no signs of disappearing now, as Output Sports moves towards the startup world armed with the expertise of some of UCD and Ireland’s finest sports scientists. In fact, as we go to print, they are competing as just one of 8 global finalists in the start-up competition at the world-leading MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. There is little doubt that they are indeed “onto a winner!”

Follow @outputsports on social media for more information.