Runners have running watches, cyclists have cycle computers and power meters, triathletes have multi-sport watches and the rest of us have fitness trackers. But amateur footballers? Close to diddly squat.
That’s not the case with pro footballers. Keep an eye on training camp pictures from the England World Cup squad and you’ll inevitably see an image of them wearing what look like sports bras. These are in fact sports vests that carry a GPS tracker, the stats from which can be used by the coaches and players to analyse and improve.
One of the major companies operating in that elite space is Catapult, which works with roughly half the Premier League teams including Chelsea, Leicester City, Newcastle and Fulham. Catapult’s now hoping to work with you, the everyday footballer, with Playr: a GPS tracker, “crop top” (as the packet it comes in unfortunately describes it) and app, a package that costs £200.
The sleek, buttonless GPS tracker powers on when slipped into the vest the right way (magnets trigger it into life), but doesn’t start tracking until it senses enough movement so you won’t track your journey from the changing room to the pitch. After the game it syncs over Bluetooth to your phone and it charges wirelessly on the cradle it comes with. From start to finish, it’s a sleek, easy-to-use product.
The GPS tracker captures distance covered, top speed, sprint distance and something called “power movements”, which could be sprints, quick changes of direction or rapid deceleration. There’s also the chance to match a satellite image of the pitch to your tracked meanderings to give you a heatmap.
So far, it may sound like a toy most would soon get bored of, but Playr is hoping to turn this info into useful insight for people who take their football seriously. Playr benchmarks your performance against those playing the same position as you and in a similar demographic of Playr users (currently limited to under or over 18 years old, and male or female) and any pros Catapult has data on.
For instance, when we tried it out in a session hosted by Playr at Fulham’s training ground we notched up 20 power plays, compared with the relevant Playr community’s 22 and pro-level 42. For the aspiring elite player Playr caters to, comparing performance with that of peers and the elite is a compelling offering.
The other trick Playr has up its sleeve is that the app calculates load and intensity of sessions, and provides recovery advice and feedback on whether the work put in was optimal. That latter designation is mostly concerned with when your next training session and match is, which you enter on a calendar in the app.
The recovery advice is based on input from elite level coaches, like Tony Strudwick, head of performance at FA Wales and previously at Manchester United, and some of it may surprise the Sunday League regular. For instance, we saw a screenshot of swimming being recommended as a recovery device.
“Swimming’s great for lung capacity,” explains Strudwick, “and from the recovery perspective you’re getting hydrostatic pressure and increased venous return, and from a mobility perspective it’s great to move and recover.”
Surprising, and perhaps this level of elite expertise is also a bit perplexing, but then the Sunday League regular just needs to know what to do, not necessarily why, which is what Playr offers.
After the session the app recommended we sat in a cool bath (not icy, mercifully) for 12-15 minutes within 24 hours of the session. Not something we had considered before, nor was it something we did, but then we’re the five-a-side once-a-week if-we-can-cobble-a-team-together type and this tracker would be wasted on us.
There’s more content in the app as well, including drills and it seems to be Playr’s intention to offer an ever-growing coaching service derived from the elite-level expertise of people like Strudwick.
Playr is clearly useful as a sports science educational tool, and it could be very useful for assessing performance in a game, but there’s a wrinkle. It appears that it wouldn’t be allowed in an FA-sanctioned game, at least according to the FA’s law four governing player equipment, restricting the use of Playr to training games.
Benoit Simeray, consumer CEO for Catapult, told Coach that FIFA has only just put in place a procedure for registering this type of equipment and Catapult’s application is in. Still, at least for the time being it means you won’t have to choose between tracking your performance and not getting stick from the opposing team for wearing a sports bra outside of your shirt.