Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin and former US Olympic swimmer Ariana Kukors perform on much different playing fields, but they’re in total agreement about technology and what impact it has had on their careers.
Speaking at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit on Wednesday at Safeco Field, Baldwin and Kukors said they were intrigued by data analysis, wearables, virtual reality and more. But when it came down to best understanding what they needed to excel in their respective sports, gut instinct won out.
Baldwin wears a GPS system during practice that collects data on his “workload.” That data is analyzed by trainers and coaches.
“The positive side of the technology is that we are getting this feedback,” Baldwin said. He said if the team’s tech guru tells him he exceeded his workload he can come into practice and “chill” the following week.
“I say ‘chill out,’ but it’s more just a thought, it doesn’t actually happen,” he said to laughter.
But Baldwin said the potential downside of data collection is that a lot of players are worried the organization is using it to chart whether a player is declining earlier than coaches are able to see “with their eyes on the field.” Players are worried they could be cut due to this type of analysis.
“Some guys are really anxious and really excited about getting their feedback about their workload about what they did that day or that week,” Baldwin said. “Other guys are like, ‘Don’t put it on me, I’m not gonna wear it.’ For the most part a lot of guys are buying into it slowly.”
In 2012, Kukors achieved her career dream and qualified for the USA Olympic Team in the 200 individual medley. She went on to place fifth in the London Games. Throughout her career, she won 22 national championships, seven international medals, broke four American records and two world records.
Kukors came up in swimming before a rise of heavy data analysis and said time in the pool was the metric of choice. She used visualization and meditation to see a race before she actually competed in it, and figures that’s where virtual reality technology is headed. But nothing beats the “magic of the water.”
“It still comes back to me,” Kukors said. “I don’t swim very often, but when I dive in there’s just this peace. I was at Olympic Trials last week and I was there late one night and the pool was just flat and calm and there’s something magical about that feeling of being able to immerse yourself in that.”
Baldwin agrees. VR cannot replace strapping on the pads during practice.
“A lot of the athletes now, we’re all old school, we want the physicality, we want the practice reps, we want to smell the grass, we want to feel the air … it’s different. So putting yourself in a virtual reality room or augmenting your reality, it changes things.”
In the end, Kukors — who swam through an era of high-tech swimsuits, for instance — said rising to a high level of performance goes back to feel.
“I know without talking to my tech guru that my stroke is off, because I can feel it,” Kukors said. “I think that’s what makes great athletes and I know the feeling when I haven’t been in touch with my gut. So I think there is going to be a nice balance between, we have all this incredible information, we should use it to our advantage to get better, but at the end of the day there’s a reason why we’re made up the way we are and we have instincts about ourselves and our sport.”
Baldwin, in his sixth-year as a wide receiver for the Seahawks, just signed a new four-year contract. He set career-highs last season with 78 receptions for 1,069 yards and 14 touchdowns — leading the Seahawks in all three categories — and was part of the 2013 Super Bowl team.
He said no amount of data or virtual reality or anything else will change the fact that he has to make the decisions on the football field.
“Maybe it’ll help me in terms of repetition, but when I’m on the field, I’m not thinking about that,” Baldwin said. “It has to be second nature.”