At two centimetres shy of two metres tall and weighing in at around 114 kg, Geoff Parling exemplifies the new generation of rugby union players. Powerful, athletic and capable of rising to dizzying heights to snaffle lineout balls, he’s the archetypal modern player, a world away from the beer-guzzling bruisers of the amateur era. But while union players may have changed physically over the years, the bone-crunching brutality of the sport has not. Injuries are part and parcel of the game -- and now, for some teams, so are efforts to use biomedical informatics to help predict potential injuries.
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Parling is well acquainted with the injurious nature of the sport. His gut-busting efforts for Leicester Tigers’ pack won him the “newcomer of the year” accolade from team supporters in his debut season of 2009-2010. They also won him a call-up to the national team, but a neck injury, sustained on tour to Australia, kept him out of the Tigers’ first team for the opening games of the following season. Worse still, two minutes into his first game back, he picked up a knee injury that kept him out for the rest of that season.
“We don’t have the biggest squad here at the Tigers, at least not compared to some of those abroad,” said Andy Shelton, a sports scientist at Leicester Tigers. “But when we can get our best players on the pitch, we know we can beat anyone.”
To that end, the Tigers have adopted a new data-driven predictive approach, which they hope will help reduce injuries to players in the forthcoming Aviva Premiership campaign kicking off in September.
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In a physical game like rugby, there are some injuries that are simply unavoidable. But Shelton said that so-called soft tissue injuries, such as hamstring strains or muscle tears, turn out to be possible to predict.
“If you have a 125 kg prop landing on you, there’s always a chance you can get hurt,” he said. “But soft tissue injuries typically get picked up when muscles are weakened, either through fatigue or from an existing injury.”
In every training session for the new season, Tigers players will be fitted with an array of high-precision body sensors, which provide finely grained details on how the players’ muscles, tendons and respiratory systems are performing. This is a complex operation, requiring the collection of vast quantities of biomechanical and biomedical data, from heart rates to the forces being exerted on players’ bodies as a result of impact.
The player monitoring system was built by sports analytics software developer Edge10, with IBM providing the predictive analytics tools to turn the information collected into insight.
The findings that come back from the data analysis process let Shelton’s group pinpoint players who are at risk of injury. “It enables us to see any muscles that are showing signs of fatigue,” he said. “We can then alert the coaches and adjust the player’s training routine, allowing the muscles to recover and thereby minimising the likelihood of tears and strains.”
Alongside the physical data, players are being asked to provide psychological and lifestyle information -- such as sleep patterns, perceptions of stress, what they’ve been eating and how they assess their energy levels. Analysis of this information could provide insight into social or environmental factors that may affect a player’s performance, helping the coaches gain an edge in crunch matches.
Shelton is confident that the biomedical informatics system will be a success after it’s put into action for the coming season. “We put the system through some pretty extensive tests and used it to predict injuries using test data,” he said. “In every case, it was able to spot where injuries were likely to happen.”