Smart sports equipment turns phones into trainers

Story Highlights

Sensors are installed in basketballs, soccer balls, baseball bats and tennis rackets

They allow casual gamers to get pro-level feedback on performance

A connected racquet can tell you how hard you hit the ball and where it landed on the racquet


After losing a particularly intense game of tennis, you drop your racquet and storm off the court. Instead of fuming and reaching for a bottle of water, you grab your smartphone to see what went wrong.

There is a new generation of tools to calculate the speed of a shot, the force of a putt, the arch of a basketball shot and the quality of a serve. They are not intended for professional ball players or touring golfers. These pro-level gadgets arrive for casual sports, from pick-up games to Little League.

The technology that makes this possible is a combination of increasingly affordable small sensors such as accelerometers and gyroscopes. Smartphones are full of them and they helped create the booming industry of fitness trackers.

They’ve already changed running and cycling, with apps like Strava and clothes such as Fitbit. Now they are placed inside existing sports equipment – tennis rackets, running shoes, basketballs and golf clubs.

Babolat has been manufacturing tennis racquets for 20 years. In 2013, he released his first connected racquet, the $399 Play Pure Drive. Hidden inside the hollow shaft of a perfectly normal-looking racquet is a trio of sensors that track movement and vibration. The racquet can detect exactly where a ball hits the strings, how much spin the player is giving it, and how hard it was hit.

These stats feed into a colorful smartphone app that displays the information in easy-to-digest diagrams. The app can also track the duration of a game and count the total number of shots, hits and misses.

Similar tools and companion mobile apps are coming out for almost every popular sport.

the 94Fifty Basketball looks and feels like a standard ball. Inside, sensors measure the arc of each shot, backspin, and the speed and intensity of a player’s dribble. Adidas does the miCoach smart ball, a soccer ball that collects information about every kick. Many of these products are for individual training sessions, not team games.

Not all sensors need to be built into expensive custom equipment. Zepp makes $150 attachments that fit the bottom of baseball bats and golf clubs to create a 3D visual of every swing in the mobile app.

Even smartphone cameras are getting in on the action. Professional athletes have relied on cameras as a training tool for years. Now, casual gamers can do some of the same tricks with phones, including slow-motion playback.

Velocity by Athla is an app that can turn an iPhone into a speed camera detector. Created by Mike Gillam, a former ER doctor, the $7 app calculates the speed of a ball flying through the air using only the camera. Currently, it is designed to work for baseball, tennis, football, and cricket.

One of the challenges these companies face is turning raw data into actionable, easy-to-understand information. By itself, knowing the speed of a free throw will not help you succeed in the basket. The different apps try to give suggestions on the techniques. But they also show how you compare to other players, even those on the other side of the world.

Performance is not only measured in scores against a single opponent or against past training sessions, but against everyone who uploads their stats to these apps. The apps double as small social networks of other gamers, turning real matches into long-distance competitions. Sure, you won that one-on-one pickup game, but maybe your dribbling strength was in the bottom 15% for your age group.

With these sensors appearing in sports equipment and phones turning into pocket trainers, every aspect of performance could eventually be tracked, counted and measured. For non-professionals and children, will all this quantification harm the pleasure of playing sports?

Jean-Marc Zimmerman, CIO of Babolat, said he thinks it’s a natural part of playing any game.

“Today, anyone who plays a sport is generally interested in improving. We are in a competitive world; everyone is interested in getting better,” Zimmerman said. “We think it will be more fun to play tennis with technology than before.”

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