Weird Science

The Inexorable Rise Of Data Science In Action Sports

Weird Science

To the average Brit, baseball looks like a dumb person’s version of cricket. Someone chucks a ball, another guy hits it, who then runs around some mounds of earth before high fiving his team-mates and scratching his crotch. If you were picking a team of baseball players, you’d want guys who could throw, guys who could hit, and ideally a couple of guys who could catch as well as being able to throw and hit. Pretty simple, right?

And for many years it was simple.  The teams with the most money got the best throwers, hitters and catchers – so they won all the games.  The teams with less money got slightly worse players, so they lost most of their games. And that was that.

It stayed like that until Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, hired a guy called Paul DePodesta, a Harvard graduate brainbox who could do maths really well.  He concentrated very hard and came up with a formula for a winning baseball team, which didn’t require Oakland to have all the best players – which was handy, as they didn’t have much money. The story of his algorithmic success was planted firmly into the public consciousness by the movie Moneyball, which showed how the Oakland A’s massively outperformed expectations – all thanks to the use of clever mathematics.

Believe it or not, this appliance of science is about to hit snowboarding in a big way

But for many years, across many sporting fields, there have been many unheralded Paul DePodestas transforming the performance of elite sportsmen and women through sports science and analytics. From cyclists to curlers, various athletes have been measured, monitored and motivated by statistics. They have had their brainwaves analysed, their saliva tested and probes stuck where the sun don’t shine to measure internal body temperature (a key performance metric for endurance athletes), all in the pursuit of the extra 1% that will make the difference between winning and losing. And, believe it or not, this appliance of science is about to hit snowboarding in a big way.

When Lady Dame Baroness Jenny Jones was standing on the podium in Sochi (whilst Jamie and Billy were photobombing puffy-faced Russians and Shaun White), she probably had no idea how big a deal her success was going to be. OK, perhaps she could have guessed that she’d soon be appearing on countless uncomfy chat-show sofas, or that she’d regularly be propositioned for autographs while walking down Bristol high street. She might even have had an inkling of the inspiration her success would give to the next generation of snowboarders who will be following in her wake.

But there’s another aspect to her medal-bagging that she couldn’t have imagined: namely, that it led directly to the UK Snowsports Park & Pipe team receiving £4.9m to fund their preparation over the next Olympic cycle. That is a lot of money, enough to buy 25 million bananas, 16,000 snowboards or even twelve milligrams of Shaun White’s semen in a decorative presentation box.

Who rode fastest, jumped the highest and covered the greatest distance is now irrefutable and available in real time

So with all this public money at their disposal, what will the Park and Pipe team do? Buy lots of bananas? Stay in Baldface Lodge for the next four years eating caviar and packets of pickled onion-flavour Monster Munch? [Yes please! Can I come? – Ed] Or plough the cash they have been given into an elite performance improvement programme that will leverage technology, data and advanced analytics techniques to achieve a series of marginal gains that will ultimately deliver podium results for the athletes?

Sorry Jamie, but thanks to Jenny’s success, you are more likely to spend the next four years getting a thermometer up your arse than you are to be heli-dropping in snow-laden interior BC. In addition, it is likely that you will be subjected to frequent biomechanical and physiological tests. You will need to monitor your emotional well-being and quality of sleep. You will have your muscular density measured to assess your risk of injury. Something called ‘plyometrics’ will become a big part of your life. And don’t be surprised if you find yourself inside a cryogenic chamber or ice bath at some point.

It is also quite possible that you will be subjected to hours of video footage analysis to identify the optimal 1080 style for you to replicate, and I would expect that someone will be developing a scenario-planning model which will be able to predict the target score (and combination of moves) you will need to achieve in order to progress in FIS competitions – based on the historical scores achieved by the other competitors and the judges’ observed preferences. You will also be expected to get really good at long division and know the thirteen-times-table like the back of your hand.

I can hear the cries of derision spilling over me as I type this. Snowboarding isn’t a sport. It doesn’t even belong in the Olympic Games. It’s not about winning; and it definitely isn’t about trying too hard using maths… it is about hanging with your bros and smiles.

Even for normal people who wear jeans the right length and who don’t drink coffee as a lifestyle statement, it has been pretty hard to ignore the rise of wearable technology

The power behind the throne? Looking on as Shaun drops is Bud Keene, El Blanco's "success coach" for most of the last decade. Photos: JDP (left/top) & Gabe L'Heureux (bottom)

On a personal level, I agree – I don’t snowboard to compete (I mainly snowboard to look cool, have an excuse to buy new kit and also impress hot girls). However, I really want Britain’s snowboarding gladiators to compete, and I really want them to win. And so do all the other nations around the world – which is why even the shaka-inflected huggy bro-down clan of snowboarders will not be able to resist the evolution of sports science in the pursuit of competitive success and chat show appearances.

But it isn’t just the elite athletes who are going to be exploiting technology to enhance their snowboarding. Even for normal people who wear jeans the right length and who don’t drink coffee as a lifestyle statement, it has been pretty hard to ignore the rise of wearable technology. Whilst GPS watches and heart rate monitors have long been espoused by skinny people who run up hills in skimpy shorts, “wearables” are now becoming almost as mainstream as full-arm tattoos. Devices that track your sleep patterns, monitor your heart rate and inform you about calorific consumption levels now make it inexcusable for anyone to be a fat lazy bastard. Google Glass can stream critical information to your frontal lobes as you walk down the street, providing you with all the relevant data you need.  By the way, when this gets integrated with Tinder all hell will break loose.

So technology has firmly embedded itself into everyday life, providing us with all the data we could ever need to make better, less schlubby versions of ourselves. Which is why it should come as no surprise when we see products such as the Smith Recon goggles, retailing somewhere around half a grand, becoming more popular (in Verbier, anyway). These goggles have a Heads Up Display (HUD) that is reflected onto the lens, providing real-time information about your speed, altitude, airtime and mileage, as well as a Bluetooth link to your phone. They will also tie your shoelaces for you, say nice things about your hair and wipe your arse for you if you shit yourself. They are the ultimate mountain companion.

From cyclists to curlers, various athletes have been measured, monitored and motivated by statistics. They have had their brainwaves analysed, their saliva tested, and probes stuck where the sun don’t shine

Whilst this technology was originally treated with a hefty amount of suspicion (the default position for all things new in snowboarding is that they are bullshit until someone cooler than us accepts them), it nevertheless now seems to have been ‘normalised’ by the data-fication of the real world and the broader rise of wearables (plus the fact that you can get all the same functionality on a free smartphone app).

All this data simply makes one-upmanship a slicker and more transparent process.  Who rode fastest, jumped the highest and covered the greatest distance is now irrefutable and available in real time, which is fantastic if you are looking to firmly establish yourself as the person with the largest penis just moments after completing a black run.

And it isn’t just snowboarding that is getting sucked in.  Our older cousins are at it too. In the surfing world, Rip Curl has just released a GPS watch that will tell you how many waves you caught, your top speed and the distance of your rides. It codifies your surf session and confirms, in data, just how crap you actually are.

An article by Todd Prodanovich in Surfer Magazine recently articulated his experience of using the aforementioned item. His was a positive message, and along the way he debunked the idea that the explosion of surfing statistics will take away some of its magical essence, by pointing out that for most of us surfing involves grovelling around in crappy waves with at least 40 other people for company (not magical in any way), and a little extra data-based competition (be that with yourself or others) can actually add to the enjoyment. He reinforced this assertion by way of reference to the mega-popular Strava platform, which essentially takes the age-old pissing contest to a whole new data-fied level. It does, of course, focus primarily on cycling, which is a sport now dominated by middle-aged men desperately trying to cling onto their youth (not unlike snowboarding I suppose), but it is hard to deny that for all the MAMILs out there, the ability to compare data points makes the act of pedalling for hours on end more enjoyable.

Whilst I don’t necessarily agree with Todd’s worldview – I couldn’t care less (or as a yank would say, “I could care less.” Idiots) about how fast I surfed, I just want it to feel good – it is notable that the bible of the sport was happy to endorse the notion that the codification of surf sessions is a good thing.  As I have said before [see “The C Word”, WL issue 117], surfers are much more comfortable with being jocks than snowboarders are.

Having read the article, I then stumbled across what I thought was a mockumentary on Red Bull TV. When Scientists Go Surfing turned the dial right up to 11 (without any sense of irony) in showing the caffeinated drink’s performance division beta-testing a number of technologies intended to accelerate the development of their sponsored competitive surfers. As part of the experiment, some poor kid was trussed up like C-3PO and sent out into the break weighed down by the following technology:

  • Followcam drone (in fairness, that is pretty cool)
  • Motion sensors on wrists to quantify paddle strength, speed and endurance
  • Trace tracker device to judge wave manoeuvres, and distance covered
  • Pressure sensors in booties to assess weight distribution
  • Eyeball tracking goggles to identify where the rider was looking on the wave
  • Brain EEG electrical pulse monitoring thing, to see if he is making the right decisions when picking waves

Amazingly, at no stage did the kid say, “I feel like a prize bellend doing this” (which is what he looked like), and all parties involved were genuinely stoked about the possibilities for data analytics in surfing. I watched it aghast, thinking that I would rather make a slit in my wetsuit and surf with my testicles hanging out, in the middle of February, than cover myself in computers and tracking devices in order to turn my surf session into a quant’s wet dream. And whilst I admire the maturity of surfing’s relationship with progression and competition, this just looked like it was an exercise in un-installing the soul of surfing and replacing it with a firmware upgrade that was designed by a guy whose shoes make a squeaky sound when he walks through the lab to go for a pee.

The NATO submarine had recently been fitted with douche-seeking missiles. Photo: Seth de Roulet / Red Bull Content Pool

But as the algorithm becomes the altar at which society worships and the basis on which young folk make billions, so it seems there is an inevitability to the increasing involvement of science, metrics and technology in our snowboarding lives. Be it by our heroes in their pursuit of gold, or by our mates in the pursuit of bragging rights, measurement and analysis will invade and pervade our shred. As a counter-argument I could waffle on about the beauty of the powder turn and the immeasurable pleasure that seeps into my veins at the peak of a nice floaty backside 180. I could talk about the timeless soul of the mountains and the simple joys of laughing with my buddies at the bottom of a run… but I would be pissing into a wind of change that will have digitised everything I say and decoded it into binary before it even leaves my lips.

So, rather than beat them, I am going to join them.  Here is my top five wish-list for snowboard performance-enhancing wearable tech:

  • A merino-wool base layer into which is woven metallic fibre that can carry electrical current.  If at any stage I put on a dorky outfit, it sends shockwaves through my body to remind me not to be a dweeb and act cool at all times.
  • Remote sensor pads on the fingertips of my gloves that are connected to contact lenses.  If I grab outside my bindings – but not on the nose or tail –  the contact lenses will flash bright red to warn me that I may look like a tindy-and-tailfish-grabbing punter. (If I grab my boots, they simply fry my eyes out then and there).
  • A hologram projector that can surround my body with the image of another snowboarder who is able to do much better tricks than me. I could ride along and do a nollie, while the hologram would have performed a front flip to fakie and buttered for 100 metres.
  • Auto video capture embedded into my goggles so that I can record my mates without having to carry a GoPro everywhere. I could just think, “Bob is snowboarding like a dick” and it would record automatically and stream it live to his goggles. He could do the same for me, so I could see my tindys from a third-person perspective and in real time.
  • Lasers. Don’t really care what they do, I just want lasers.
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