Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham
Last month the use of GPS tracking in football came under scrutiny, following a seven-minute delay in a League Two game. In the interests of player safety, Plymouth manager, Derek Adams, complained about the devices worn by the Wycombe team as they lined up in the tunnel. The device, worn between the shoulder blades underneath the shirt, is surrounded by padding, although it is debatable whether this padding is designed to protect the GPS tracker or the player! An article in The Guardian (2015) quoted the Plymouth Manger: “it’s a hard object and a dangerous bit of equipment”. However, after consulting the rules and regulations, the matter was resolved; FIFA ruling permits players to wear GPS trackers – official termed Electronic Performance and Tracking System (EPTS) – during matches and, this season, the Football League has also sanctioned their use. There are currently 19 English Football League clubs registered to use these devices.
So why are GPS trackers being used in football? Has sports science turned into Big Brother?
Tracking devices have been used by football clubs, behind the scenes, for some time, but have only recently been used in competitive matches. In this sense, football is lagging behind rugby, which has long used such devices to monitor player performance and health. Speaking to the BBC, Wycombe midfielder, Matt Bloomfield (2015), explained the importance of GPS tracking devices in football. Electronic Performance and Tracking System (EPTS) devices track each individual player’s every move on the pitch and can provide a wealth of data about the player; how far they have run, how many sprints they have completed, their position on the pitch over time, their heart rate over time, and how much work their body has done. The feedback players get after each game, Bloomfield (2015) states, is then used in training sessions to recreate the number of sprints or distance covered in games. This is certainly one way to decrease the number of players deemed ‘not match-fit’. Furthermore, Bloomfield (2015) stresses the importance of EPTS devices in monitoring players’ well-being, as their stats can highlight when they are fatigued and, therefore, more susceptible to injury. Thus, prevention of niggling injuries is another major benefit.
The use of GPS in football redefines the space of the football pitch. Understanding the ways in which footballers use the space is every sports geographer’s dream. The data collected by the devices can be used to map players’ use of space and track the flows of their movement throughout space. This is not dissimilar to the use of Geographical Information Science (GIS) to map and monitor transportation systems. In this further example of mapping mobile subjects – although admittedly on a much larger scale than the football pitch – data about transport is used to map and analyse the spatial networks within which interactions occur, showing the routes and flows of movement (Miller and Shaw, 2015). Miller (2007) recommends a ‘people-based’ approach to GIS, rather than the traditional ‘place-based’ approach. The increasing mobility and connectivity of people means that the relationships between people and places are becoming more complex. Mapping the “individual in space and time”, Miller (2007:503) argues, provides a more complete analysis of our interactions with space. The theory behind this approach has its roots in 1960s ‘time geography’, which considers the dynamic use of space in human activity, the constraints and fluidity of these activities, and the temporal aspects of them. From this we have evolved location-aware technologies, which collect space-time activity data in real time, such as global positioning systems (GPS) and radiofrequency identification (RFID). The use of location based services (LBS) has become ubiquitous in everyday life; social networking, parcel tracking, and Google Maps all use locational data to provide us with real-time information about what is around us. Locational privacy is a thing of the past, as our movements across space and time are constantly being logged. It is, therefore, not surprising that technology is now being used to track the individual movement of athletes in sport.
The use of GPS trackers in football can certainly give teams a competitive edge and reassure fans that their favourite players will be in top condition. They are useful ways to track movements on the pitch and the ways in which the space is used, as well as monitoring players’ health and fitness. There is, however, another implication that I’d like to propose to you; these GPS trackers are re-defining footballers’ bodies. Tailoring training and recovery to individual players’ needs, whilst not new, has taken a massive step with the use of tracking technology. No longer the achievement of individual skill and managers’ tactics, football teams are being moulded around quantitative observations of individual players’ movements and bodily responses. The goalposts have been moved, and expectations of players’ performances and capabilities are being raised accordingly. Footballers’ bodies and performances are becoming hybrid collaborations between player and machine. Thus, it seems, even in the beautiful game, we cannot escape the pervasiveness of computers in modern society and the ever-diminishing distinction between humans and technology.
Miller, H. (2007). “Place-Based versus People-Based Geographic Information Science”, Geography Compass, 1(3):503-535.
Bloomfield, M. (2015). “Matt Bloomfield explains why GPS tracking devices work”, BBC Sport Football Online. 16th September 2015. Available at: www.bbc.co.uk/sport/0/football/34267968
The Guardian (2015). “Football League supports Wycombe over GPS trackers under shirts”, The Guardian Online. 14th September 2015. Available at: www.theguardian.com/football/2015/sep/14/football-league-wycombe-plymouth-gps