Introducing Pontem Performance
Best Ability is Availability: Sports Performance and Injury Prevention in the Age of Data Analytics
Forget it Dude, Let’s Go Bowling
After the many scientific and mathematical contributions of my Polish people (Copernicus, Rejewski, and Marie Curie), arguably our next set of talents lies either in eating kielbasa or bowling. And bowling is actually where my interest in measuring sports performance - and predicting outcomes - first began.
When I remember bowling as a kid, we had to keep score manually and there were no bumper guards. So, in the smoky haze of most alleys, there wasn’t a lot to get excited about. Over time, automatic scoring came in (nobody wants to do math while playing), but so did one small additional, game-changing stat: the lane speedometer.
I remember quickly changing my focus from the score to “Let’s see how fast we can throw!” Yes, we still wanted to do well and knock down all the pins, but we checked the speed immediately after rolling. If we weren’t going to win, then we might as well throw hard. Two things were inevitable:
If we rolled the ball really hard and made good contact, we seemed to have better success (more pins fell). So, that must mean speed = pins, right?
In the process of throwing as hard as we could, good posture / fundamentals went completely out the window.
We became fixated on the speed first, score second, and form third. Since we didn’t bowl often enough for our poor form to have any long-term adverse effects, it was all fun-and-games.
If You Measure (
Build) It, He Will Come
Now, we can measure results and make that data available in “real-time”. This genie is out of the bottle…and we eat it up. Adults and kids alike. We see it everywhere - speedometer in the bowling alley, speed / carry / deviation at ‘TopGolf’, striking power built into boxing mitts (a la Ivan Drago in Rocky IV), etc.
The technology has gotten so good, now we can have this at our fingertips (i.e. our smart phones) via various applications that sync with equipment. Taking baseball as an example - between HitTrax, DiamondKinetics, and Rhapsodo (just to name a few) - we have the statistics we crave to measure performance. All in real time. All available to both parents and kids to assist with training. It is truly amazing.
Enabling technology on personal devices will become (or has become!) is already part of everyday life for most people, especially kids growing up in the digital age. We are so used to having access to real-time information, training tools like these are becoming more embedded into normal practice routines, especially as you push into more advanced levels. Over time, we may rely more and more on these tools - potentially as a substitute for one-on-one training time with a coach (or parent), so we need to make sure that they are measuring the right things, both for performance as well as safety.
And while this is all fascinating and cool to play around with, it’s a big business. Aspen Institute (2022) estimates US families spend $30B - $40B on youth sports activities annually! And, a big portion of that spend is related to more / better equipment. This includes improved training technologies.
We love to measure the outcome, but this quickly can lead to bad habits, both in terms of sports performance (are we really focusing on the right metrics?), but also in terms of human physiology / biomechanics (what are we doing to chase “a number” and is that safe)?
Looking for some statistics on sports-related injuries in youth sports…well, look no further than this response from ChatGPT:
A study published in the Journal of Athletic Training in 2019 estimated that the annual medical costs associated with youth sports injuries in the United States alone exceeded $935 million. This figure accounts for medical care, rehabilitation, and other related expenses. It is important to note that this estimate does not include indirect costs such as lost productivity, long-term disability, or the psychological and emotional impact on the injured youth and their families.
Additionally, the cost of youth sports injuries goes beyond direct medical expenses. There are costs associated with time missed from school or work, transportation to medical appointments, specialized equipment, and potential long-term consequences such as chronic pain, disability, or the need for ongoing medical care.
Moreover, the impact of youth sports injuries extends beyond financial costs. It can have long-lasting effects on a child's physical and mental well-being, their ability to participate in future sports or physical activities, and their overall quality of life.
Personally, I have coached youth sports for 10+ years. 100’s of games, 1000’s of practices. And I have seen that the first time you hand a kid a baseball - with a built-in speedometer - they will try to throw it has hard as they can. And then again. And then harder than their teammate. And then harder than the last time. And then again. What ultimately happens is mechanics go out the window and this becomes a singular effort in outcome. “Coach, I can hit 70 on the gun today!” Without any thoughts about HOW we are achieving the outcomes or WHY one throw goes faster than the other.
And, its not just kids. Just send an adult to a sporting event that measures anything. Ball speed, hit speed, how fast you throw, how hard to punch. And, we will focus on the outcome (and buy the ice-bags for the next day…)
The accelerated rate of technology adoption in sports - particularly youth sports - is an amazing tool that will ultimately build better, more aware athletes. But, like all technology, it must be used correctly.
We will come back to this…
Yeah, well, you know, that's just, like, your opinion, man
“Facts are stubborn things, but statistics are pliable” - Mark Twain
A good sports debate is timeless. We hear “Who is the G.O.A.T.?” (Greatest of All Time) discussions on TV, Reddit chatrooms, or neighborhood bars constantly. The discussions are never-ending, largely because there is no right answer. They usually fall into one of three (3) categories as the basis for what to use:
Championship / Rings (Michael Jordan vs. Lebron James)
Eye Test (Barry Sanders vs. Emmitt Smith)
Numbers (Willie Mays vs. Mike Trout)
In some cases, we even make up new statistics to help support our argument (i.e. the introduction of WAR - Wins Above Replacement - in baseball helped spark an entirely new statistically industry of how to “better” evaluate sports performance. In this case, use of WAR as a metric really served two purposes:
If you are conspiracy theorist, it was set-up to make certain players appear better and was a number designed to make that specific comparison “quantitative”.
There is endless data generated. So, what is important and can we start to distill all of the statistics down to “a number”? This would assist the financial side (ownership) in making decisions, from what a player is worth to where they should play in certain situations/match-ups.
(As a side note into some of the GOAT and statistical analysis debate, be sure to look at our recent article on NBA stats where those same topics come up)
The desire to condense our sports performance data into small, digestible, and actionable insights can be very powerful. It allows training to be focused, equipment to be designed, players to be properly valued, and non-sports personnel to have more input. The introduction of sabermetrics and the ‘Moneyball’ culture has brought data analytics front-and-center into the global sports & athletics conversation, where identifying small edges in performance can translate into big money.
We will come back to this too…
Metrics vs. Metric System: Do we have the right KPIs?
In sports, we measure everything. Both on the field and off. When amateur athletes are getting ready to make their professional league debuts, they are put through a battery of tests to measure performance (40-yard dash times, bench press, vertical leap, etc.), as well as physical traits (weight, body fat, height, hand size, etc.). We often make judgements on an athlete’s future success on whether he/she “look” the part. Do they pass the “eye test”? But how reliable our our eyes?
Speaking of height and “eye-test” (and diverting from sports for a quick second…), there is an interesting statistic on US online dating apps, where men who are under 6ft tall get significantly fewer matches (or, “Swipe Rights”). We have all seen the memes of poor 5’11” guy vs. 6’0” guy. However, this abrupt difference does not exist outside of the United States. We would expect a normal Gaussian distribution that, on some level, follows typical demographics (albeit possibly with the mean offset by preference to something taller). So, why is this the case in the US with the drop-off? Is there a magic bias about preferred height starting with “6-something” rather than “5-something”? Looks like that is the case (see below). Is anyone actually choosing a potential partner based on needing to be “at least 182.9cm tall”? No. Clearly, there are some biases built in that impact choice that are obviously more superficial (which shouldn’t come as a shock, but the quantitative side of this is interesting).
Back to sports - since this is a sports post - let’s take another magic number: 100. As in, 100 mph. When Nolan Ryan became the first (or at least most famous) baseball pitcher to hit 100 mph on a radar gun back in the 1980’s, the world took notice. But, is there anything magical about this number from a performance standpoint? Were we watching cricket bowlers trying to break the “160 km/hr barrier” with the same enthusiasm as Nolan?
Baseball Savant tracks pitcher speed (velocity) against opponents success rate, in this case, opponents batting average was used as a proxy. If 100 mph is a magic number that impacts performance, we should see it in the numbers. The data (2022 - 2023) suggests that higher velocity translates to less opponent success, which is not all that surprising. But, is there anything clearly differentiating between 98 - 99 - 100 mph, other than is just sounds really cool to say “I throw 100 mph)? And, what is it worth - and what does it take - to keep incrementally adding +1 mph to a pitcher’s fastball?
In both cases, there is nothing magic about those numbers from a performance standpoint. But, they are captivating (or limiting) and speak to the risk of using the right numbers to make decisions. Truly break-through athletic results stems from optimizing performance based on desired outcome. And we should build metrics that are singularly-focused on that objective. We need the right KPIs (Key Performance Indicators)
Baseball and Bikinis
“Statistics and bikinis are a lot alike: The both show a lot, but not everything” - Toby Harrah
Baseball Savant also tracks measurables such as exit velocity (speed of ball off the bat) and launch angle (trajectory of ball leaving a bat). The beauty of baseball is the vast amount of data points that can be collected, analyzed, and trended.
Similar to the pitch speed comparison, the collected data shows correlations that may be obvious:
The harder you hit the ball (exit velocity), generally the higher your batting average (success)
The higher you hit the ball (launch angle), there is a ‘sweet spot’ where you maximize odds of a favorable outcome
These two factors are easily measured in today’s technology and can be built into training devices (bats, balls, pocket radars, etc.) and pulled into smart phone apps. But, what is still emerging in this space is how to tie body mechanics to those desired outcomes. HOW can I consistently get higher exit velocity? HOW should a batter’s swing be to maximize launch angle? Or, taking Nolan Ryan, HOW can I throw 100 mph?
Technologies are being developed to combine computer vision, biomechanics, and sports metrics to better assist with training and measurement, democratizing the technology so that it can be used at-home (by tech-savvy) youth and analyzed together with parents / coaches for quicker, consistent feedback. The connection between the outcome and the why/how is the next generation of these applications.
Layering in biomechanics unlocks the ability to better determine WHY a certain movement will lead to a better outcomes. Any baseball player growing up has heard parents from the stands yelling “Squish the Bug", Elbow Up, Don’t Dip, etc.”. My dad took a different approach and yelled “Just swing the bat! Just hit the ball!” (I think that advice has been passed down for generations). Advancements in sports technologies, leveraging data and domain knowledge, offer a pathway to better understand how we connect our bodies to better outcomes. Once we stop focusing on the numbers and understand (a) what are the important numbers and (b) how can we make our bodies achieve those numbers, then we have unlocked real value.
And, ideally, we don’t want to gather 5-10 years of statistics to hindcast what works - we want to start building this up at the base physical level and monitor the outcomes along the way. If we can start to incorporate domain knowledge with the data, we can get to a better outcome. Quicker.
But more than this, these assessments can also assist with injury prevention. Currently, youth sports have measures in-place to look after player safety (i.e. pitch counts in youth baseball), but a “one-size-fits-all” approach doesn’t always work. Back to the speedometer example, we can easily track speed. And when speed dips, we often just try to keep ‘throwing harder’. The pitch count alone will not monitor poor, dangerous mechanics. And, we don’t want to always leave that to the coach (or, often times, the over-competitive parent-coach). The emphasis on the outcome has the (disastrous) potential to lead to improper mechanics that will lead to injury. Being able to tie physiology to metrics can give coach’s real-time data on an athletes fatigue level. This can assist with over-training, importance of rest days, and generally better load management.
We are excited to be announcing Pontem Performance as a subsidiary of Pontem Analytics. When we founded Pontem Analytics, our goal was to “build the bridge” between data and discipline, wherever that made sense. Clearly, the professional sports world has embraced the role of data as a means to improve performance and prevent injuries. This continues down through weekend warriors and youth athletics alike, with everyone looking for an edge.
Whether we are players, parents, coaches, or simply fans - the goal is simple: get the best out of our individual talents. At Pontem Performance, we are making investments in leading technologies to safely improve and optimize athletic performance. As my son’s team says before every game: “Let’s Get It”
Be sure to check out our accompanying story to this introduction piece below, where we discuss the future of sports performance analytics with Aikynetix, a startup founded by two oilfield veterans. Pontem Performance and Aikynetix will work closely to progress applications that bring data and discipline together.