Guidelines for using GPS devices in sport

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Over the last number of years advancements in technology have affected almost every aspect of our lives, and sport is no exception.The desire to improve performances at elite level where even the smallest of margins can make the difference between success and failure, means that monitoring all aspects of an athlete’s regime through technology can have huge benefits. As a result teams and individual athletes rely heavily on the data that is obtained from global positioning systems (GPS) and micro electrical mechanical systems (MEMS). This information helps the decision-making process in terms of training and competition. Given the importance of such data for an athlete, it is no surprise that many studies have been conducted to establish the effectiveness of the information in terms of how it should be reported and interpreted in a sports context.

blog 25 image This is an issue that is addressed in Unpacking the Black Box: Applications and Considerations for Using GPS Devices in Sport by James Malone, Ric Lovell, Matthew Conroy Varley and Aaron James Coutts. This detailed report will be of interest to anyone relying on data as it aims to look at the factors that affect the information provided by athlete tracking devices and also suggests guidelines in terms of collecting, processing, and reporting of data.

The idea is that when a standard approach to data collection has been established, it makes it easier for all involved in sport to make informed decisions. The authors note that developments in microprocessors, data processing and software mean that technology is continually improving in terms of athlete tracking and state that

With these advancements, researchers have conducted independent validity and reliability studies as each device/update is released from commercial suppliers. However, due to the time taken to publish such studies, GPS devices are often used in sport before essential independent information on measurement precision is available

Challenges to collecting reliable data

While accepting that there are many challenges involved in establishing data for reporting, the authors believe that having guidelines would be of benefit to all involved in sport, particularly at the elite level. Given the difficulties there can be when it comes to testing, the report outlines the main obstacles to accurate reporting and suggests solutions, as follows:

  • The signal quality received by GPS devices during data collection influences the accuracy of the data recorded. This could result in coaches making decision based on incorrect data and that could have implications for the training programme. As a result, the authors strongly recommend that practitioners ensure they have confidence in the data they use on a daily basis to make practice-changing decisions
  • GPS devices can calculate distance and velocity via two different methods, from positional differentiation or Doppler-shift. Manufacturers should include this information in documentation pertaining to their devices as it is relevant for both practitioners and researchers. If velocity and distance are calculated from two different methods it is an important consideration as validation is required of both measures
  • Users should be aware that data processing by commercial software can be subject to change due to changes in technology and processing algorithms. In circumstances where researchers are conducting studies using historical or longitudinal data, it is recommended to export and analyze the data using the same software version and disclose this information to research consumers
  • Due to differences in the specific challenges of each sport and differences in athletes it is difficult to come up with a uniform threshold for each sport. As a result it suggests that users may also consider individualizing the thresholds for each athlete according to their fitness attributes

The report recommends that the correct procedures are followed when using devices such as the device being properly calibrated, worn on tight-fitting garments, and that when looking at results practitioners should take into account satellite connection quality and also the fact that measurement criteria may differ with different manufacturers. In terms of real-time testing, the report points out that data can be influenced by a number of factors including the distance of the antennae from the GPS device and the processing ability of the GPS device to stream data.

Recommendations for improving reporting standards

In conclusion, the report highlights the fact that there is currently no clear consensus on the appropriate reporting standards using GPS and MEMS devices. As a result they have put forward the following recommendations to prompt an improvement in reporting standards both in research and also applicable in applied practice:-

    • Researchers should include information regarding the number of satellites, HDOP, device brand/model, sampling frequency and software/firmware versions in any published research, together with details of data inclusion/exclusion criteria


    • Researchers and practitioners should be aware of the minimum time used to identify efforts and the smoothing filters used to derive acceleration data. Furthermore, this information should be included in any published research


    • Manufacturers should provide information regarding any changes relating to data processing with updates to software or firmware


    • Practitioners are urged to carefully consider the justification for the short- and long-term application of arbitrary and/or individualized speed thresholds to examine the locomotor (or intensity) distribution of external load


    • Users are cautioned against using one physiological and/or performance metric to anchor multiple individualized speed zones, and to reflect upon practical considerations such as routine fitness testing, test battery selection, and time-efficient processing of individualized GPS data


    • Comparing accelerometer data between different athletes to make judgments regarding external load should be undertaken with caution due to the large degree of variation


    • Inertial sensors and the use of sport-specific algorithms provide an insight into the future of load monitoring, although this is a relatively new area which requires further work to ensure reliable and valid data is produced, and to refine existing metrics


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Unpacking the Black Box: Applications and Considerations for Using GPS Devices in Sport by James Malone, Ric Lovell, Matthew Conroy Varley, Aaron James Coutts