Upgrade Your Gear & Tech Knowledge

Joe Friel describes the evolution of sports tech, explains how to keep up with new advancements, and offers tips on improving technological knowledge.

Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, for both coaches and athletes. There are plenty of coaches who are opposed to technology. You can even find these coaches hanging out on social media. They want athletes to compete based solely on RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion). At the far end of the spectrum, there are coaches who are opposed to any data that can be uploaded to an app to be viewed and analyzed online. Whether this resistance to technology is born out of a desire to keep the sport “pure” or a desire to remain focused on human sensation, it makes for a difficult landscape for athletes.

The Craft of Coaching Skills Pyramid by Joe Friel

Evolution of sport technology 

When I was a young runner in high school and college (1950s and ‘60s), only the coach had a stopwatch. It was a rather big contraption that hung around his neck on a lanyard and was treated with great care. The only way an athlete knew how he/she (mostly “he’s” back then) was performing was if the coach announced the time from his watch. Then in the late 1960s the first wrist-worn stopwatch came on the market. For the first time in my life I had personal access to technology and knew in real time how I was performing.

Amazingly, there were people opposed to such devices. Only the coach should know that and relay it … and only if and when he thought it was appropriate. There was a fear that the athlete was being given too much control. Performance (as determined by elapsed time) was coach-only data, they seemed to believe.  

In 1977 the heart rate monitor was invented in Finland. For decades endurance athletes had manually checked their heart rates during workouts to monitor intensity. A finger on the carotid artery in the neck told the athlete what their effort was. This was especially popular in swimming. The Polar heart rate monitor made this much more precise since the athlete could check it on their wrist without stopping. Some were opposed to heart rate monitors as they took human sensation out of training and competing. Stopwatches were all we needed they said. Today it’s a widely accepted tool for athletes in all endurance sports. 

Then in 1987 the bicycle-mounted power meter was invented in Germany. It took more than 15 years to become accepted among road cyclists and, later on, triathletes and mountain bikers. The data it provided was overwhelming when compared with time and heart rate. In the early years of power meters, it could take nearly as long to analyze a ride as to actually do it. And, of course, many were (and still are) opposed to using power meters for the same reasons as the sport technology that preceded it.  

This historical perspective on sport technology could go on and on with, for example, devices that use GPS to measure speed and distance and power measurement for sports other than cycling. In the last few years the rate at which new measuring devices have come on the market is amazing including technology for body temperature, glycogen, lactate, muscle oxygen saturation, and many more. There are also wearable devices that measure and report through apps how many steps were taken, how many flights of stairs climbed, how long one slept and the quality of the sleep, and what the athlete’s estimated VO2max and functional threshold are. And the list goes on and on.  

Keeping up with today’s tech 

The devices and technology on the market today often meet with resistance from coaches who, again, feel that it is interference with the athlete’s internal perception of exertion. However, I really doubt that this is the whole reason for the opposition. Much of the resistance may also have to do with the challenge of trying to keep up. There is so much new technology in endurance sports now that it’s become hard to stay current.

So many coaches draw the line and resist new technology beyond that point. I can sympathize with them. It’s a real challenge to stay current on the new technology. I sometimes feel the need to resist too. But, eventually, I come to accept that I should really understand this new technology. There may be something here that would prove to be beneficial. And, besides, I know athletes are going to ask me about it, so I feel a strong need to keep up with change. 

Coaches who love data are often eager to check out all the latest innovations. As a coach, it’s often important to buffer this enthusiasm somewhat because it can distract you (or your athletes) from the most important metrics and objectives. And there have been times when the latest and greatest technology proved not to deliver on its promise or value in the long run.

Resources for improving technological skills

It’s difficult to stay abreast of the avalanche of new sport technology, and not every new product that becomes available delivers value or enhances the athlete’s training. Ultimately, using a new device yourself is the best way to understand and master it.

You will also be able to decide if this device could be beneficial for any of your clients. Keep in mind that not everyone needs all of this data. In fact, very few do outside of the most high-performance athletes you coach.

Be aware that you can overwhelm athletes with information. And you might have athletes who don’t even like numbers and data and will be turned off by being told to use it. Online research of specific devices can begin to give you an understanding of new technology, and here are a few links to get you started.

Product Reviews from DC Rainmaker

There are also resources and books available on many of the more common devices for heart rate, bike power, run power, speed, and distance.

Product Manufacturers

Manufacturers are usually more than happy to provide you with reading or online videos. Most companies who offer such devices would also be glad to sell their product to you at a greatly reduced price if you have a healthy-sized coaching business or if you have amassed a good following as an influencer in the sport. Contact the product’s PR, marketing, or sales department to explore this further.

You’ll want to be very careful not to endorse a product you feel is subpar no matter what the company offers. Your reputation is on the line when putting your name with a product. Don’t take this lightly. It’s extremely important to your “brand.” Don’t let that stop you from becoming more informed.

Other Opportunities to Build Your Technological Skill

Again, coaching companies can bring in speakers, either in-person or via the internet, on various topics related to sport technology. For example, there are many coaches who are well-versed on using power meters for cycling, running, or other sports. If your company has coaches that are not fully up to speed on what is becoming a standard piece of equipment, then by all means find experts to broaden their knowledge.

For many new sport technologies there are online “how-to” courses offered by national governing bodies and manufacturers.

Don’t become a luddite. Understanding technology doesn’t mean you have to use it. Stay current. This will pay off for your coaching.

The following workshops from the Fast Talk Labs content library are valuable resources for improving your technological skills.

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