GPS Tracking in Team Sports: The Comprehensive Guide for Sub-Elite Teams
Updated: Sep 23, 2020
"So this GPS thing will tell my players where to aim at goal, you know '[insert GPS voice] the goals are to the right?'"
This rib-tickler of gag was told to me by a coach of one of the teams I was working with. I admit, the first time I heard it, I thought it wasn't too bad. I thought it might be a joke I could recycle later. Then I heard it again and again.
That sort of reaction is not uncommon to those who haven't seen GPS technology in team sports. In the AFL, GPS tracking is as vital for a strength & conditioning coach/sports scientist as a whistle is to an umpire. You would be amazed (or shocked) at how much importance GPS outputs have on the training demands of athletes.
Until recently this technology was only affordable at the elite level. Now there are GPS manufacturers that specifically target sub-elite and local level athletes. Some athletes and clubs are now torn. Do they buy their annual compression gear or see how many K's they clock up at training with a $300 device?
As someone who has used GPS technology in elite sport for the past 5 years, I know how to get the most out of this technology. I also know the common traps that people can fall into when using these devices.
That's why I want to tell you what you need to know before buying GPS technology for your athletes.
Here is your comprehensive guide to GPS devices in sub-elite team sports.
The BASICS of GPS
What is GPS?
"GPS tells you when you've missed the turn off or when you're about to get done for speeding right? Yeah true. But that's not what the GPS actually is."
The Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite navigation network that provides positional information to earth-based receivers (GPS units) (1). In sport, the GPS sends time and location information to devices which then calculate speed and distance (1).
In sport, GPS devices are worn by athletes in vests or jersey pouches. You've probably seen fully grown adult men walking around in sports bras. Well that's actually the GPS vest with the device tucked in a pouch between your shoulder blades.
The reason these "bras" are worn is to hold the device close and securely to the body to ensure accurate readings. These readings are the result of athlete movement and provide variables such as distance, speed, accelerations/decelerations and collisions (1, 2).
"Fully grown men walking around in sports bras"
Why do we use GPS?
GPS devices provide objective information on athlete workloads (2). They are also unobtrusive to athletes and do not impact their ability to compete or to train (2).
The information we receive from GPS tracking can be invaluable for managing the workloads of your athletes. With information on athlete workloads, we can tailor training, recovery and rehab programs that compliment the demands of competition (2).
WHEN TO USE GPS?
"Some blokes won't take them off. Even if they've got no idea, they'll love the GPS gear"
Simply, every time you train/rehab or play a competitive match.
Some activities do not require GPS. For example, active recovery sessions or static skill sessions.
It's important to have your athletes consistently wearing these devices. The more data you collect on your athletes, the greater your understanding of their demands!
WHO USES GPS?
At the professional level, every athlete will have their own GPS unit. That's not feasible at the sub-elite level. Clubs have strict budgets.
If you are looking to purchase this technology for the first time, I recommend you purchase 5-10 units. We can then be smart about distributing the GPS devices amongst athletes.
I would distribute them like this:
GPS 1: Fittest athlete in your team - indication of workload at top end
GPS 2: Moderate fitness athlete - middle band of workload
GPS 3: Lower fitness capacity athlete - low band of workload
Remaining GPS Devices: To be distributed evenly between positional groups.
This distribution provides a vast cross-section of the demands from each position as well as each fitness level.
IS GPS ACCURATE?
"The conjecture surrounding the accuracy of GPS technology is as heated as the chicken and the egg debate."
For the sub-elite and local level. GPS technology is accurate
In particular, for measures of athlete distance, GPS devices are very accurate!
The doubt surrounds high intensity running speeds (sprints, accelerations and decelerations) (2)
This conjecture is mainly at the elite level where technology is scrutinised due to how lucrative the industry is
Rest assured GPS tracking technology will tell you what you need to know at the local and sub-elite level
The devices we recommend at the end of this blog will tell you what you need to know
ADVANTAGES & DISADVANTAGES OF GPS
HOW to USE GPS in TEAm SPORTS
"You should think of GPS as the GPS in your car. It will tell you what you need to know, but you are in the drivers seat"
1. Define how you will use GPS technology for your athletes.
Is GPS data going to guide training prescription?
Are you using GPS devices to collect data on your drills?
Will players receive feedback on their data/effort?
Is GPS used to monitor workloads only?
These are all important questions you need to ask. There's no real right answer, it's whatever you believe will make your athletes better.
2. Be clear about the variables and metrics you will analyse
This is one of the most important considerations when it comes to using GPS technology in team sports. At the sub-elite and local level I recommend you KISS (the old keep it simple, stupid).
These are the variables you should look at:
Distance (m) – total distance for the drill, session or match
Intensity (m/min) – measure of severity of the drill, session or match. Measured in metres per minute
Max Speed (m/s or km/h) – top speed achieved by the athlete during the drill, session or match
High Speed Running – either measured in distances (m) or counts (n)
Accelerations and Decelerations – stop-starts and changes of direction. Usually measured in counts or distances
3. Create your monitoring process.
I believe the below process is beneficial when using GPS tracking in sport for the first time. TRIAX will have an in-depth blog post on this to come. But for now, see the following:
Step 1: Understand competition demands
Collect GPS data during matches. Start to analyse your athlete's workloads and how this extends across your team. If you have a thorough understanding of the demands in competition you can tailor your training more appropriately.
Collect 5-8 matches worth of data (plenty)
Collect workload data on athletes playing in different positions
Step 2: Create a Drill Database
Collect data on your drills in training to analyse their demands. Generally we perform a lot of the same drills at training. We can collect data on how hard or easy these drills might be. If you have information on your drills, you can program training more efficiently based on your goals.
This point may be challenging depending on your GPS device provider. Some software packages provide you with more flexibility than others. It is possible to develop a database in some manufacturer's software or you could track the information in an excel spreadsheet.
Note each drill start and finish times during each session (this will allow you to look at each drill's demands individually rather than the whole session)
Average the workload demands (through your variables) in the drill to provide an overall indication of workloads across your athletes
Store the averaged data in a database (excel spreadsheet)
Repeat process for each drill you use in training. Keep updating your information on each drill each time its used in training
Step 3: Monitor your training sessions relative to competition demands.
Here you can start to use the GPS data you've collected. Are you training at sufficient workloads and intensities that are similar to competition? Do you need to alter your training? Or are your sessions already spot on?
Regardless, you can now start to assess whether you are preparing your athletes appropriately for competition.
At this point you should start to create reports or dashboards to monitor training and competition demands. This can usually be done directly in the GPS device software or again you could even create your own in something like Excel.
Need help creating a monitoring process? Contact TRIAX to get the most out of your technology.
4. Use GPS tracking data to supplement your decision making
Don't become driven by statistics (as you will see below). Use the data to guide your decisions about training programs. We know how tempting it is to use this data to justify giving a spray to that one bloke who just won't have a crack...
This is an example of the right way to use GPS:
GPS technology is only as good as the coach who implements it. The GPS device does not have an eye as good as the coach. GPS tracking in your sport should be one part of the overall process. It shouldn't be the focal point.
5. Keep it simple
Collect data before making any decisions
Use the basic metrics (as listed above)
Make quick and easy report templates that you can easily produce
Don't spend too much time analysing every detail
Educate athletes on why they are wearing the devices
How not to use GPS
1. Do not use GPS tracking as a selection tool.
GPS tracking should only be used to supplement and guide your decision making regarding your athlete workloads.
When you start to use this technology you will see that not everything is black and white. Your best players won't always be the best athletes. Your lower skill players may be the best athletes. Different positions also have different workload demands. Use your judgement before team selection.
However, there is always an exception to the rule. If you believe a player isn't working as hard as they should be, then by all means, use the GPS data to prove that to the athlete. This method works as it's supplementing your thoughts and providing the athlete with objective feedback. Plus it lets you throw a bit of weight around and give the squad a razz up.
2. Do not use GPS technology as a fishing rod.
One of the common pitfalls with GPS technology is that we get caught up in the shiny graphs and cool layouts. There's so many choices, there's so many variables. It's like the first time you go to Times Square, there's so many shiny lights.
You need a clear definition of why you are using GPS technology. You need the data to supplement your program. Don't let the technology dictate what you are analysing. Don't fish for a cool metric you think might be fun to look at.
3. Don't allow players to become 'Stat chasers'
"I'll be the first to admit it. We've all had a sneaky look at our stats after we've ripped a game to shreds. It's human nature."
But with GPS tracking, there's a fine line between players becoming interested in their GPS stats and becoming consumed by them.
I've been involved with organisations where athletes are shown their GPS data regularly. I've been at other organisations where players were only allowed to see their match data. Both have pros and cons, but you need to find a happy medium.
Athlete interest in GPS data is beneficial for your program as it promotes adherence to wearing the devices and data collection.
Too much interest creates a misguided purpose when it comes to training. Players see these stats as another competition amongst their teammates. Give individual feedback to athletes, but consider how much information you present to the wider group.
TRUE STORY: I once had a player who turned his GPS device on in the car before he left to go to a game. He thought he was a genius until I informed him that no human can travel at 25 metres per second.
Which GPS device do I buy?
So you've decided to buy some GPS units for your team. Which one should you buy?
This is a great question which we will talk about in greater depth in a future blog post. But for now let's go over a few details before you buy.
As well as the GPS units themselves, you also need a laptop or computer to run the software on and GPS vests to hold the devices in. Generally the vests and the software come as a package with the GPS devices.
The GPS devices used at the elite level are generally too expensive for the sub-elite budget.
Affordability and access to GPS devices was an issue for sub-elite teams years ago, but now there are many options and manufacturers to choose from.
Companies such as Sports Performance Tracking (SPT) have a focus upon the sub-elite level, particularly within Australia. However, the bigger companies at the elite level, such as STATSports and Catapult have also entered into the sub-elite market with devices.
Before we review each company and their devices let's establish what we need from our GPS devices and software.
Affordability – You want to have at least 5-10 units. These things aren't cheap so you need to shop around and see what 5-10 units will set you back
Leasing/Buying outright – At the elite level, a lot of clubs will enter into a subscription where they lease the devices and software rather than buy them outright. I'm not certain whether companies will do this at the sub-elite level but do your due diligence. By leasing, you can always upgrade to better technology when it's introduced
User-friendly software – Very important point. You want something that's easy to use and fast. You want fast download speeds from the device and easy to create reports. GPS companies should allow you to trial their products before you buy. Navigate the software and see how it feels
Devices Specs – A sample rate of 10 Hz is best (all devices should be at 10 Hz). Sample rate refers to how many pieces of data the GPS device collects per second – 10 Hz = 10 samples per second. All of the GPS devices available should be able to measure distance accurately. But a higher sample rate may be more capable of measuring high-intensity activities (think sprints, accelerations & decelerations). Battery life should be at least 4-5 hours. You want something that has the capacity to last for two sessions (2)
Tech Support – This often gets overlooked. If you haven't used this technology before you'll need help setting everything up. Each GPS manufacturer will help you with installation (hopefully) but it's important to know where the company is based and their means to assist you. If a GPS device malfunctions you want quick support and turnaround times if replacements need to be sent!
Our 3 Top Options at the Sub-elite level
1. Sports Performance Tracking (SPT) - SPT2
SPT2 – $299.99 (AUD) (Individual)
SPT are a Melbourne based GPS company that is primarily focused on the sub-elite, which has them well suited on paper.
They offer GPS devices sold individually ($299 AUD) or in packages on their website. I recommend if purchasing for a team you buy these devices together and let the company set you up. It would be too difficult to buy individually and try to track players.
I've had a play around with their software and it seems user-friendly. It's definitely catered towards coaches of sub-elite teams who don't have a thorough understanding of GPS technology or sport science principles. Being based in Melbourne is also a big plus.
Their GPS device is certified by a recent Victoria University/FIFA research collaboration to determine match standard GPS devices. Their data quality is good enough to track your team. One to strongly consider.
2. PlayerTEK (Catapult Sports)
Playr – $299.99 AUD (Individual)
PlayerTEK is Catapult Sports' sub-elite product. Catapult Sports is the major global player in wearable technology and are based in Melbourne.
Again, the Playr device can be purchased individually from the Catapult website, but I suggest you buy the PlayerTEK devices for your team.
I've personally used PlayerTEK for my own use and it is very good. For the price you pay it provides a professional standard of analysis and the graphs are impressive. As the company is headquartered in Melbourne, tech support shouldn't be too difficult.
Their GPS device is also certified by a recent Victoria University/FIFA research collaboration to determine match standard GPS devices. The GPS vests worn by players are comfortable and do not hinder athlete movement.
One to at least give a trial run.
3. STATSports APEX Athlete
APEX Athlete – Special: £199.99 GBP (~$360 AUD). Normally £249.99 GBP (~$450 AUD)
STATSports are a GPS giant in Europe, particularly in soccer. Based in Ireland, their technology at the elite level is first rate and their data quality is even better. I haven't used their sub-elite GPS system so any research is based on second-hand information.
Being based in Ireland any tech support or correspondence may be an issue. They do have Australian contacts listed on their website so it might be wise to enquire on their facilities before choosing to buy. Their device technology is more expensive individually than the local options. Again it may be best to enquire via their Australian contact about pricing for teams.
Their quality is first rate and must be respected. Their GPS device vest is probably the best on the market. I've had players rave about how comfortable they are.
Their GPS device is also certified by a recent Victoria University/FIFA research collaboration to determine match standard GPS devices (see a common theme here?).
There you have it. That's TRIAX's guide to GPS technology for team sports (sub-elite).
If you require any assistance in using GPS technology for your team, contact us!
How did we go? Notice any glaring omissions about GPS technology in sports? Let us know via our social links below!
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Otherwise, it's time to hit the track!
about the author
B. Ex&SpSc (Hons)
Available for Sport Science Consulting
1. Aughey RJ. Applications of GPS Technologies to Field Sports. Int J Sports Physiol Perf 6: 295-310, 2011.
2. Malone JJ, Lovell R, Varley MC, and Coutts AJ. Unpacking the Black Box: Applications and Considerations for Using GPS Devices in Sport. IInt J Sports Physiol Perf 12: S2-18-S12-26, 2017.