The NBA Is Turning To Wearable Sensors To Prevent Player Injuries

The NBA Is Turning To Wearable Sensors To Prevent Player Injuries

When NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spoke at the league’s inaugural Launchpad technology event during last month’s Las Vegas Summer League, his primary focus was unmistakable: using the NBA’s burgeoning realm of basketball-related tech to improve player availability.

Silver’s comments were pointed, and he took aim at more than just injuries.

“There’s nothing more frustrating, obviously, than injuries and … having series decided by players not being on the floor,” Silver said. “And there’s nothing more frustrating also for our fans than having players, frankly, that aren’t injured, following some programs scheduled for rest. … Figuring out a way to create that right, healthy balance is what we’re all about at the league.”

Multiple 2022 Launchpad finalists have created products in the health and recovery world; Silver even announced that next year’s program will be exclusively focused on player availability, with an emphasis on preventing soft-tissue injuries and developing healthy habits in youth basketball. Through further comments, which touched on everything from planned rest approaches and media-rights contracts to fans’ desire to see their favorite players on the court, Silver’s message was clear: The league will overturn any stone if it means keeping players in the lineup.

It was fitting that Silver’s remarks came at summer league, which has become one of the league’s technology and innovation hubs. Over the course of several days in Vegas, I attended both the Launchpad event and the league’s annual Tech Expo, a booth event featuring solutions from several dozen leaders in sports technology. The focus on player health stood out to me in one particular area: the growing field of sewn-in fabric sensor technology. Here’s what I learned about an industry that’s poised to have a big impact on the sports world over the next several years.

For decades, measures of load and force have played a major role in injury diagnosis, recovery and prevention. These measurements offer insights into whether athletes are fully recovered, sometimes using heavy sensors known as force plates to track imbalances between muscles on each side of the body.

This approach, however, has long been limited by its inconvenience. For teams and athletes who travel around the country during their seasons, transporting a bulky force plate presents obvious logistical hurdles.

That’s where Nextiles, a presenter at Launchpad and Tech Expo events in 2022, comes in.

“The world we’re trying to merge is the semiconductor industry with soft goods, namely fabrics,” Nextiles CEO George Sun told me. “In the semiconductor world, you have a lot of conductive and metallic pieces that are hard and inflexible. What we do is, we take those metallic conductive materials — copper, aluminum, stainless steel and silver — and instead, we put them onto threads.”

Suddenly, a host of tools to aid in health, recovery and injury prevention are available to teams and athletes anywhere.

Nextiles coats fabric threads with those various materials, sewing them into standard garments and creating what Sun terms “highways” of conductivity that retain full ranges of movement and flexibility. They then relay real-time information to a nearby CPU.

One example is a portable, fabric-based form of force plate that Nextiles featured in Las Vegas. Laid out under an athlete’s feet, the surface can be placed anywhere — and it tracks some impressive metrics simply though sewn-in fabrics, including jump height and time in the air; strength, impulse and power of the jump; symmetry between legs; and forces applied at different phases of the jump.

Fabric force plates track data on an athlete’s jumping.

For additional insights, athletes can don one of Nextiles’s wearable fabrics. Nextiles has utilized their tech in both shooting sleeves and performance socks, the latter of which can track virtually everything the portable force plate can plus even more data, such as:

  • Specific force impacts on distinct foot areas, such as heel or toes
  • Gait analysis (pronation, supernation, planar)
  • Ankle angle and roll analysis
  • Feet orientation, position and angle — both on the ground and during jumps
  • Cut angle (used when players are running and cutting)
  • Step count, walk-run cadence (how fast steps are being taken) and other simple metrics

I tried on the shooting sleeve during the Tech Expo event and was shocked by how … normal it felt. (Neither clunky nor delicate, like you might expect from a high-tech piece of equipment.) The ability to use ordinary pieces of an athlete’s wardrobe for performance insights opens up a world of possibilities, including Silver’s ultimate goal of injury prevention.

“[The data] is about potential injury prevention cues,” Sun said. “Are [athletes] landing correctly? Are their muscles in the fatigue zone because they’re not jumping as high as they did before?”

For much of the past year within the Launchpad program, Nextiles has been working primarily with NBA Academy Africa. It’s looking for common injury indicators in athletes at this level: Are they getting enough rest? Are some players overworked, and can these fabrics help identify those cases faster? Eventually, the goal is to work both further up and further down the scale — across the NBA, potentially, but also through various grassroots and youth basketball programs.

Beside the Nextiles booth at the 2022 Tech Expo was another cutting-edge use of fabric sensor technology, this one a collaboration between two major players in the sports-wearable field.

STRIVE, a company in 2016 with current ties to the NFL, MLS and the NCAA, is focused on tracking muscle performance at the source. In Vegas, STRIVE presented a pair of compression shorts that look and feel entirely normal — but are actually set up with sewn-in electromyography (EMG) sensors, which measure small electrical signals generated by the muscles as they move.

STRIVE’s shorts (left) and KINEXON’s sensors (right) collect data on muscles and movement.

STRIVE technology can glean vital muscle amplitude data (such as the force a muscle applies) from several areas of the body, including the glutes, hamstrings and quads. It also tracks “total muscle load,” a combination metric that aids in areas like general fatigue and recovery. For instance, the athlete in this STRIVE-produced graph appears to have an imbalance between the left and right hamstrings, represented in diverging muscle loads on each side:

And that’s only half of the equation for these special shorts. STRIVE’s partner is KINEXON, whose wearable tech has a presence in multiple European sports, plus the WNBA and NBA. (The NBA utilized KINEXON for contact-tracing purposes in the Orlando bubble, for instance.) KINEXON has a separate set of sensors loaded onto the waistband of STRIVE’s compression shorts, which track their own set of “external load” metrics:

  • Mechanical load: the overall workload of the athlete based on distance traveled, speed (including speed changes) and more.
  • Acceleration events: specific instances of demanding, sustained acceleration that may lead to larger bodily strain.

KINEXON then takes the lead on processing both companies’ data within the same back-end system. Together, these metrics reveal a ton about the current (and possibly future) state of a given athlete’s body.

“[KINEXON is] giving you external load metrics — speed, distance, all those kinds of things,” Matt Howley, an applied sports scientist at STRIVE, told me. “What we give you is the internal load, so essentially the cost to achieve those outcomes.

“Across a quarter or a portion of a game, what happened with this player and their speed, and those kinds of things? Acceleration and deceleration, [KINEXON is] very good at capturing that. But then we can objectively say, ‘Okay, what was the cost of doing that?’”

The potential in health and recovery circles is immense. Teams can track how players are responding to training regimens and see red flags in advance that may indicate higher injury potential. Athletes themselves can utilize the tech for everything from ramping up a training program to their own injury recovery, where load metrics can help determine whether a healing muscle has achieved equilibrium with its healthy counterpart in the other leg.

KINEXON’s metrics can even capture game data through a clever workaround.

Current use of any wearable tracking technology is prohibited in NBA games, a major limitation for teams and athletes looking to improve performance by analyzing biometric data. It’s hard to simulate true game activity within any other setting, especially with regard to things like muscle load and exertion levels. But KINEXON has developed a way to estimate those numbers from games by utilizing existing data from league partner Second Spectrum.

“[We] take that raw positional data that’s generated from each game from the [Second Spectrum] camera technology, [and] we put it through our KINEXON system,” Jim Garofalo, KINEXON VP of sales and marketing, told me. “So when our team wakes up in the morning, they can look at the practice data with all the KINEXON metrics — and their game data with KINEXON metrics as well.

“Guys have told us it’s not apples to apples … but it’s red apples and green apples. …Now you can see what the game loads look like. Now you can say, if I’ve got guys that are in return to play [protocols]how do I get them up to those load levels they need to be at to be ready to go for a game?”

This kind of data adaptability is a big part of what makes KINEXON so prominent in the sports tech world. Having systems that can “talk to each other,” so to speak, is immensely valuable to teams and players looking for simple, synthesized information.

“I think KINEXON is certainly doing a nice job of being as open as possible,” Tom Ryan, NBA vice president of basketball strategy, told me. “Taking data into their system, allowing their data to live in other systems — that’s the name of the game.”

Not only that, but the use of Second Spectrum data alongside insights derived from wearable tracking is an early attempt at bridging two worlds (computer vision and wearable tracking data) that have largely been “siloed off” from one another in past years, as Ryan put it. “It’s more powerful when you can have both,” Ryan said. To many in the sports tech field, that combination is the true holy grail. Even if restrictions on in-game wearable use limit today’s possibilities here, entities like KINEXON project even greater things for the future.

STRIVE and KINEXON are already delivering these insights to a handful of NBA teams, per multiple league sources. Soon, this concept could also proliferate across pro sports and even trickle down to consumers; within just a few years, everyday people could buy their own pairs of sensor-infused compression shorts. The ability to so closely track muscle activity, and especially to have more predictive information on when and why injuries might happen, has value at every level of sport — and beyond.

“It’s definitely a new frontier,” Ryan says.

If the goal of Silver and the NBA is for top players to suit up as often as possible, sewn-in fabric technology might be the first of several solutions. Will it entirely solve issues of long-term injury or even stop teams from resting star players? Certainly not, but it’s a step in the right direction. So don’t be surprised if high-tech, data-recording garments like the ones on display in Vegas this summer become common on courts and fields near you soon.

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