(NaturalNews) Professional sports teams are increasingly having their athletes wear GPS tracking and monitoring devices as a way to analyze and improve performance and to prevent injury. In what may be one of the first uses of this monitoring technology in the United States, the U.S. World Cup soccer team was recently fitted with matchbox-sized devices that tracked everything from heart rate to minute movements.
Because each sensor contains a GPS device, team doctors are able to precisely record even the tiniest motions made by players, down to individual kicks, dodges or footsteps. They can then run analyses on this data, such as calculating the overall distance run by each player during a game, or tracking how much energy they were expending at different points in the match.
"That's just one example of the data we use," team physician George Chiampas said. "We have a pool of physicians and sports administrative staff that look at that data. It's something moving forward as technologies improve and you have access to those sorts of things."
The data from the U.S. soccer team were analyzed -- in realtime and after the fact -- by at least 10 separate doctors and coaches. In particular, the coaches were interested in analyzing players' movements during different types of play in order to improve their efficiency. Other data collected by the sensors included hydration and cardiovascular efficiency. Taken together, all the data could help doctors make suggestions to coaches or players designed to reduce the risk of injury.
"When you talk about injury prevention and the doctor using GPS, it's part of the overall package," team spokesperson Michael Kammarman said. "All these technologies and tools didn't exist in the past and they give you a much more specific picture. These tools aren't just for injury prevention measures, they're also for performing."
Yet injury prevention is also considered a key part of performance enhancement, particularly in high-intensity competitions such as the World Cup.
"The World Cup is a grind," said Chiampas. "You have 23 players and you know you're going to have some injuries."
According to U.S. Soccer Federation President Sunil Gulati, injuries can be particularly devastating to a team if they disable multiple players in the same position.
During its stint in the 2014 World Cup, the U.S. team lost only one player to injury -- striker Jozy Altidore, who suffered a hamstring injury during the first game. Other injuries, such as broken noses, did not keep players out of future games.
The low injury rate in the U.S. team is indicative of a slight decrease in injury relative to prior World Cups, an improvement that FIFA Chief Medical Officer Jiri Dvorak attributed to increased concern for injury prevention.
"I am most proud that FIFA understood the value of medicine, that they support all the activity at least for the doctors," Dvorak said. "[P]revention is the bed crown."
Yet Dvorak acknowledged that stricter refereeing and less foul play also led to reduced injury rates.
Tracking becoming more common
The use of GPS sensors in professional sports goes at least as far back as 2010, when the English rugby team the Bradford Bulls adopted the practice. Such sensors are now used by the majority of professional rugby teams in Europe during both training and play.
Sports teams favor GPS devices over older analytical tools such as time-motion analysis, because it is possible to track the motions of each individual player throughout an entire game and in all three dimensions, a feat that would previously have required a minimum of one dedicated camera operator per player.
"GPS helps us to manage load in training," said Will Douglas, sports scientist for Ireland's Munster Rugby team. "We monitor their thresholds to keep players fresh for games."