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How tech could reduce injury in youth sport

By Damian Smith, Chief Technology Officer, Podium Analytics

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Sport

How often do you think children injure themselves while playing sport? In fact, let’s take a step back. What even classifies as an injury – is a knock to the head an injury? And why do so many injuries occur in the first place?

Are sports being taught in the right way? Are children overtired or overexercised? Are they using the right sporting equipment? Does mental wellbeing play a role?

If you don’t know the answers, don’t worry, not many do.

Interest in sports-related injury has intensified over the past few years.

Sports governing bodies have been actively researching this field for many years, but really the topic has become ever more prominent thanks to the media’s coverage of high-profile legal proceedings launched by ex-professional sportspeople.

The focus so far has been on elite sports, namely rugby and football, played at a professional level. Yet, has anyone stopped to look at what’s happening at youth level?

Across the country, millions of children play sport every day – be it at school, local clubs, or at home. With that comes huge health and emotional benefits, but unfortunately, also injury.

Despite the fact that sports injury is relatively common amongst 11–18-year-olds, research has historically overlooked this important age group.

The reason why? Beyond the obvious limited investment made in this space, there is a lack of data for scientists to analyse.

Data that tracks and manages injuries is limited which means we know very little about them – what we do know is that injuries are often left unrecorded and unmonitored.

Some might argue it’s due to the lack of a central logging system, or that under current legislation there is no legal requirement to record sports injuries.

With data and research, not only can we look to enhance athletic performance, we can crucially examine the root cause of injury – the how and the why.

Once we understand the root cause, we can find solutions to lower the incidence and impact of injury and keep children in sport.

Without solutions, children will sadly continue to get injured unnecessarily, fail to recover properly, and could drop out of sport for good due to the impact of an injury, which can also lead to other issues such as poor mental health and social exclusion.

So, for all those reasons, finding solutions matters.

But how do you collect and analyse real-world data at scale and at pace?

The short answer: technology and a commitment from society.

I find it interesting to look at how others have tackled similar issues. Take the ZOE COVID Study for example.

It’s the world’s largest ongoing study of COVID thanks to technology and the 4.5 million people who have recorded their health daily via the app.

The data provided has helped to uncover scientific insights into symptoms, vaccines, immunity, new variants, and is a critical source of COVID information for health researchers, governments and the public.

The study has been so successful, it’s now going beyond COVID to tackle global health issues such as cancer, dementia and heart disease.

Crucially, it shows how technology can facilitate the engagement of a broad community for the ‘future good’; those involved do not necessarily feel a direct personal benefit but know they are contributing to societal progress.

At Podium Analytics, an NGO with a vision to create a safer world of sport, we are doing something similar.

To address the severe lack of data relating to youth sports injury and to provide a completely unprecedented view of the youth sports injury landscape, we are undertaking the world’s largest longitudinal study into youth sports injury over the next 10 years.

We have built a digital Injury Insights Platform which allows teachers and coaches to capture injury-related data on their players during a game or practice.

We also have plans to employ the latest wearable data acquisition technologies and make use of the most advanced AI techniques to identify and predict injury.

The data collected is anonymised and analysed by scientists who sit in the Podium Analytics Institute at the University of Oxford.

The aim is to get a better understanding of how and why injury occurs so we can find innovative protective technologies and recommend evidence-based cases for changes to Sports Governing Bodies and Government, with the aim of preventing and managing the risk of sports injury.

To make progress in reducing injury in youth sport, technology needs to be accessible and easy to use.

In the past there have been questions raised around whether technology creates a divide in sport. By that I mean that sophisticated technology has often been available to the elite or wealthiest teams and clubs who can afford it.

Given that sport is played by people of all backgrounds, it’s vital it remains inclusive to all.

Fortunately, times seem to be changing and sports-based technologies are becoming easier to use and are more accessible to teams of all levels, largely thanks to smart phones and new apps.

We have seen this in cricket where the tools and technologies used by international teams and professional clubs are now available for use by any village and school cricket team.

They can video each ball bowled and each shot played and analyse their own players and their opposition, just like professional international performance analysts. In that sense, technology has been game changing for improving players’ skills and performance.

When it comes to developing technology to collect sports injury data, it’s crucial that organisations prevent certain demographics from missing out on opportunities due to a lack of financial resources – for example by making it free for users, something Podium is committed to.

More than anything, it is vital that any data collected will paint a well-rounded picture of society and ultimately lead to solutions being designed to reduce injury in youth sport for players at all ages and from all backgrounds.

When people talk about ‘tech for good’ they are referring to organisations developing technology to take on big social and environmental problems, with the aim of improving communities and lives.

I truly believe that with the right technology we can tackle injury in youth sport to protect the future of sport, to improve the experience of sport and to give young people the best chance of a happy and healthy, sport-filled life.

Damian Smith is the Chief Technology Officer of Podium Analytics, an NGO that aims to create a safer world of sport by significantly reducing the incidence and long-term impact of injury in sport with a special focus on young people.

He is one of the most notable technologists within international sport and one of the Top 100 most influential people in data and analytics over a 25-year career in Technology across a range of sectors including Defence, Telecoms, FMCG, Sports, Media, Financial Services and Financial Regulation.

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