Performance-tracking technology makes its way into youth sports

When Dave Dengerink arrived at Texas Rush Soccer Club in Spring, Texas, as the youth soccer academy’s director of coaching and player development three years ago, he knew the kids possessed intangibles and skills few across the country owned.

Many of them could already anticipate attacking methods, pursue the ball, intercept passes, and quickly initiate counterattacks. But he noticed one recurring issue: injuries.

Dengerink turned to technology to combat the rash of injuries on his team and keep players fit.

“This same group of girls I’m coaching last year had seven major injuries,” Dengerink said. “By major injuries, I’ll say an ACL tear or anything that has kept you out at least nine months. Since the implementation of (technology), I’ve had one.”

Texas Rush Soccer Club uses Fit For 90, a science-driven player monitoring system aimed at preventing injuries through customized alerts about player readiness, muscle soreness and training load. The system has not made its way to Arizona youth sports yet, but local organizers see the potential it could bring.

Fit For 90 was launched in 2013 by John Cone, former assistant coach with Major League Soccer club Sporting KC and director of sports science with the Portland Timbers. Cone, who has a doctorate in kinesiology, said the system was initially developed during his tenure with the Timbers when the team didn’t have a tracking program in place to understand players’ energy levels and potential for injuries.

“We developed a monitoring system so we could track each individual within the team, so we’d be more aware of problems with each player,” said Cone, Fit for 90’s founder and CEO. “While we’re simultaneously delivering that system to professional teams and college teams, we’re also delivering it to youth teams.”

Players enter information into an application on their phones before and after each practice session and match. There are questions about sleep, hydration and specific muscle soreness spots. The answers help with recovery time and give coaches a better feel for their team’s fitness level.

The Fit For 90 monitoring platform partnered with the US Women’s National Team in 2014 for their run up to the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, and then began selling the system actively in January.

In addition to the Texas Rush and the U.S. women’s team, Cone’s program is used by MLS club New England Revolution and Ohio State University athletics, among others. The Elite Clubs National League (ECNL), a premier female youth soccer academy in the United States, entered into a partnership with Fit For 90 in February.

In addition to soccer, Cone said the program is slowly branching into other sports, including basketball, lacrosse, ice hockey and volleyball. The program is also developing an individual player interface that Cone said will cost less than $10 per month per person, designed to prevent injuries and to supplement the current system designed for monitoring by coaches.

“The hope is that through the information we collect, we can counterbalance some of the movements and deficiencies that players have through single-sport specialization,” he said. “The technology can move us in a direction to solve some of the problems but it can’t prevent them all. Research helps us move along.”

Arizona soccer leaders say one reason Fit For 90 has not made its way to Arizona could be the expense. Cone said the system currently costs about $2,000 per year for each club but that discount of 40 to 50 percent are available, depending on the length of time the interface is used and how many partner clubs agree to begin implementing the technology.

“So many things in youth soccer come down to cost because it’s already at the more competitive level for kids who are traveling and playing competitive games,” said Mark Thede, Arizona Youth Soccer Association (AYSA) president. “There’s a pretty steep cost with paying for a trainer, coach, club fees, league fees and those types of things.”

A survey released by TurboTax in 2013 revealed just how deep parents are already reaching into their pockets so their kids can play sports. According to the survey of 1,000 parents across the United States with kids in sports in grades 6 through 12, families spend about $671 on average annually for sports-related fees and equipment.

For many families whose children play sports for elite club teams, that number is much higher, especially when factoring in science-driven technology to improve player performance.

“I’ve had two daughters who played soccer at a pretty high level and did a number of tournaments and league play out of state and our costs on average were between $4,000 to $6,000 a year for each child,” Thede said.

However, Thede also said costs are significantly lower for parents whose children play sports on a less competitive level.

“On the other side of things, roughly half of AYSA players are just out there to really go have fun and play at a local field,” he said. “Those costs can range from $60 for a 10-week season up to about $120. If you’re after a college scholarship, you’re going to be paying the higher fees without question.”

Thede said if the price is right, it’s possible technology could become widespread in the AYSA, which has about 44,000 participants across the state.

“If it gets down to the point where the price point is good, then yes, I can certainly see it eventually making its way into mainstream youth soccer in Arizona,” he said. “At this point, our tracking really just involves simply making sure that when a player is suspected of an injury or concussion, their player pass is pulled and they cannot return to play until they receive documentation from a medical doctor.”

Beyond player tracking, Dengerink said technology has made it easier for youth clubs to become noticed across the world.

“There are no boundaries anymore,” he said. “A kid from Phoenix is doing exactly what a kid from New York is doing, and if they want to move from one area to the other to play, they do it. Technology has basically torn down any barriers from me as a young soccer player from having the lack of knowledge that I used to have.

“You used to go into a match not knowing who your opponent was. Now you know everything about your opponent,” Dengerink said.

In the last year, about 15 to 20 kids from across Africa contacted Texas Rush about the prospect of joining the team, Dengerink said.

“Twenty years ago, how does an African kid even know I exist? I’m a nonprofit youth soccer association,” he said. “It’s not like I’m Liverpool, I’m not the LA Galaxy, I’m not on TV. How do you know I even exist? Well, you know I exist because of technology.”

Dengerink also said he has had to alter the way he teaches the game to kids.

“Technology also changes the way you coach technically and tactically,” he said. “You have to give it out in a forum the players understand, which is an iPad or a cellular device.

“We’re using those as coaching tools all the time now on a consistent basis because that’s what the players are used to. You put stuff on a chalkboard and they’re not used to it because it’s not part of their academic world.”