How FC Barcelona leverages technology for athletes’ performance

The famed soccer club’s head of technology explains how Barça uses tech to help its athletes reach their full potential

How FC Barcelona leverages technology for athletes’ performance
Fredric Paul

A little over a year ago, I wrote how FC Barcelona, perhaps the world’s most iconic soccer team, offers very little in the way of technological enhancements to fans at its home pitch, called Camp Nou.

+ Also on Network World: FC Barcelona's soccer stadium foregoes technology +

Well, it turns out there’s a lot more to the story of how the famed club uses technology. 

First, Barça is finally adding tech enhancements, including more than 1,000 Wi-Fi access points, as well as video security cameras, touchscreens, contactless ticketing, new mobile apps and much more. The club is also working on a dramatic new stadium at Camp Nou, scheduled to be ready for the 2021-2022 season, designed to further embrace a technologically enhanced fan experience.

Barca’s big tech innovations are happening behind the scenes 

But in Barça’s first-ever public presentation in Silicon Valley earlier this month, Raúl Peláez, the club’s head of sports technology, explained how Barça uses tech to help its athletes reach their full potential. 

The session was put together by startup accelerator Sports Colab and featured Peláez in conversation with Mounir Zok, head of technology and innovation for the United States Olympic Committee (TeamUSA). [Disclosure: The event was hosted at the San Francisco headquarters of New Relic, where I am editor in chief.]

Responsible for all areas of Barça’s technology that relate to athletes and coaches, Peláez said his job is to “put all its players in a position to win,” and that includes a wide variety of existing and emerging technologies.

Wearables—for practice

Barça uses wearables to track player movement, fitness, health and other variables, but Peláez said the technology still has limitations on the professional level. While fitness wearables have become smaller and lighter in recent years, they’re still considered invasive for professional athletes competing at the highest levels. That’s why Barça mainly relies on them for training sessions rather than matches. And even then it doesn’t force players to use the devices, though many do so willingly.

The next step, Peláez said, could be smart fabrics that deliver many of the biometrics tracked by wearables but are less invasive. Similarly, computer vision tracking is providing useful positional data—sampled 25 times per second—without affecting the player movement or comfort.

Custom data-analysis platform

For the past five to six years, Barça has been developing its own custom platform to collect and analyze training and medical data from across the club’s teams in five different sports, from soccer to basketball. The club now has 20 people working on the project, Peláez said. 

Coaches view the data and analysis on mobile devices, including tablets and smartphones, Peláez said. The club has found that smartphone apps are also the best way to share the findings and best practices with the players, who are largely millennials. 

That’s especially effective if the data can be presented in the form of a competition. He added: “Professional athletes compete with everything!

Next up: virtual reality training 

“We need to train our players more hours,” Peláez said, “but without loading their bodies with more stress.” 

And VR seems positioned to do that. 

“It also promises to help injured players regain their rhythm while their bodies are still healing,” Peláez said.

For young players, meanwhile, VR offers the chance to experience the speed and physicality of the professional game, increasing their knowledge base so they can make better decisions. 

Open questions 

Sports data is not yet standardized, however, making it difficult to combine and analyze data gathered in different systems. And soccer, in particular, remains frustratingly difficult to analyze, Peláez said. Tracking the tactical implications of the actions of 22 players continually moving across a large space is very complex. 

All those movements matter, of course, but only some of them result in goals. 

“The only KPI that matters,” Peláez said ruefully, “is the win.”

For example, Barça still hasn’t quite figured out how some players don’t seem to excel in any metric, yet are still clearly one of the best players on the team.

In addition, who owns the data remains an issue. What happens when a player’s contract is up, for example? Does the data generated about them stay with the club or go to the player’s new team? And what about the privacy ethics of collecting potentially relevant data—such as sleep patterns or conjugal relations—generated when athletes aren’t on the job?

While FIFA and other sporting organizations are working on these issues, Peláez’s goal “is not to keep knowledge in a box. We believe we all need to grow together,” he said.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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