New technology in contact sports to enhance player safety
As sports continue to evolve, so too do the methods employed to ensure the safety and wellbeing of athletes.
In a groundbreaking development, the NFL recently introduced an artificial intelligence (AI) system capable of identifying on-field head impacts during games. This technological advancement, which analyses multiple video angles through machine learning, reduces a process that previously took 12 hours for each game to just a matter of minutes. The result is a detailed breakdown of head impacts and their frequency, sent to teams after every weekend of play.
While this innovation has clear implications for player safety, it also drives equipment innovation and improved training techniques. For players who experience a high number of head impacts, adjustments to their techniques can be made, enhancing their overall safety.
NFL quarterbacks and offensive linemen are now wearing position-specific helmets with enhanced padding in areas prone to impacts. This tailored approach to equipment design is a testament to the sport’s commitment to player safety.
But the exciting prospects don’t end there. The future may hold even more sophisticated technologies, such as helmets equipped with accurate sensors to estimate the force of each tackle. Another avenue of interest is the use of biomarkers like saliva and blood to gain insights into when injured players can safely return to action.
Rugby union has ventured into the realm of sports innovation by adopting smart mouthguard technology. This revolutionary step involves real-time monitoring of players for significant collisions. Starting in January, elite players who experience an impact in a tackle or ruck exceeding a certain threshold will automatically undergo a head injury assessment by a doctor.
Dr. Eanna Falvey, World Rugby’s chief medical officer, hailed this development as a potential “gamechanger” in identifying concussions promptly. It has the potential to address a significant issue where a substantial portion of concussions become evident only after a match has concluded.
This blend of smart mouthguards, AI and biomarkers represents the new frontier in the fight against brain injuries in sports. It has arisen out of medical, ethical and legal necessities, particularly as sports organisations face lawsuits and concerns regarding player safety.
Dr. Ross Tucker, a science and research consultant for World Rugby, highlights that the surface is on just beginning to be scratched of how these advancements can enhance sports safety. World Rugby’s approach involves assessing factors like G-force and rotational acceleration to determine when players should be removed for head injury assessments. In the coming years, the aim is to refine this approach by identifying impacts with clinical significance, considering factors like impact duration and direction.
These innovations can be utilised to track the load placed on an athlete’s head over time. Beyond helping identify concussions, they have the potential to enable coaches and players to monitor the cumulative impact over an athlete’s career, which is especially crucial given the focus on long-term health risks. Managing this load, especially during training, can offer performance and welfare benefits.
In the realm of combat and collision sports, new research suggests that even subconcussive hits can have lasting effects on brain physiology. A study involving amateur boxers found alterations in the ability to regulate brain blood flow after a series of trials, even when no concussions occurred. This points to the critical importance of monitoring head impacts and their cumulative effects.
While risks in sports may never fully disappear, the emergence of cutting-edge technology offers hope for mitigating those risks. These innovations have the potential to revolutionise athlete safety, protect their long-term health and lead toward a future where sports and wellbeing coexist seamlessly.