The Digital Athlete Brings Science To Sports

Stefan Wagner

Sports are beautiful. Visually striking, poetic, and lyrical.

While there will always be art in sports, today it is science that is dominating the genre. Science is shaping how athletes train and perform. Science is guiding how teams select players, develop game plans, run practices, and scout opponents.

The digital transformation seen in so many areas of business and society is coming to athletics. Digital sports is playing an ever-increasing role in how athletes game and keep a competitive advantage.

What’s driving digital?

To understand how the digital athlete is possible today, it’s important to understand the trends that allow the transformation to happen.

Hyperconnectivity allows us all to be connected at anytime from anywhere via mobile devices. Cloud computing and supercomputing make it easier to collect, store, analyze, and retrieve vast quantities of data. Analytics programs can interpret information and offer athletes and coaches insights, all in real time.

All that data is made possible by the Internet of Things (IoT), the vast network of objects connected to each other. These objects can detect, collect, store, and send data thanks to embedded sensors, software, and wireless connectivity. Lastly, advances in cybersecurity keep data on athletes protected.

The digital athlete

What does the digital athlete look like? First, she is outfitted with wearables that track performance measures such as speed, agility, respiration, and heart rate. This information is fed in real time to coaches and trainers.

Mobile apps let her and her coaches review data and recommendations on the fly. Platforms collect the data from myriad sources, the athlete, and her teammates. Structured data, such as that from wearables, and unstructured data, such as video footage, can be captured and analyzed.

The collected data gives a comprehensive, 360-degree view of the athlete. Her trainers can identify the strain of workouts or potential damage due to improper form. Doing so can prevent injuries, or help injured athletes return to competition sooner. Coaches can pinpoint advantages that can be exploited during competition. Training regimens can be created to suit specific conditions, opponents, or competitions.

Our digital athlete can gain insights far faster than before. Video footage does not need to be broken down. Instead, insights are delivered in real time. The same immediacy is possible with data, collected either from practices or even within a contest, allowing for immediate adjustments.

The athlete also has more insights on her competitors. Scouting reports on opponents can contain richer arrays of information. Data interpretation happens faster. Virtual reality and gamification let athletes simulate situations without risking injury, getting more practice without fatigue.

The digital athlete can relay information about opponents during the competition to staff. Acting on that information allows coaches to recommend new strategies in-game.

Barriers to usage

The art of sport will certainly continue. There are nuances and intuition that will guide many decisions. But incorporating science into sports may take some time, particularly among teams and coaches who may prefer traditional approaches. That reluctance is an advantage to early adopters who seize upon the opportunity in these early stages of digital athletics.

Athletes, coaches, and owners may resist these innovations for other reasons. Jobs, revenue, and public opinion are on the line each season. Sports receive far more media attention than most any other industry. Many sports professionals may prefer to take a wait-and-see approach and reduce perceived risk.

Digital athletes will benefit most when teams, leagues, and owners focus on simplifying procedures. Complexity impedes adoption when data cannot be interpreted and used without complicated steps in conversion, uploading, and storage. To work effectively, data collected from multiple sources in different formats needs to be reconciled quickly to be useful.

In many cases, athletes do not have the luxury of time. The next competition is often just days or hours away. Preparation and practice time is limited and must be maximized. Opponents may not be known until the last minute, leaving little time to create, implement, and perfect a strategy. Collection, analysis, and retrieval of data needs to happen quickly.

The future is here

In many cases, digital athletics and athletes are already here. In a 90-minute singles tennis match, technologies can record 60,000 to 70,000 discrete records. During an hour of football (soccer) practice, 77.7 million data points are generated. By 2019, IDC projects there will be 111.9 million smartbands sold worldwide. One Major League baseball game produces 7 terabytes of uncompressed data.

Consider a recent decision by the Women’s Tennis Association. Players can now access real-time performance data during matches. Coaches can instruct players during match play based on the provided information.

In coming years, more athletes will be wearing sensors during practice and competition. Sensors connected to baseball bats, tennis racquets, and polo mallets will tell coaches how strong players are striking balls and how accurate their impacts are.


Athletes are always looking for a competitive edge. Today, digital transformation provides advantages to athletes that were the stuff of science fiction earlier. Armed with detailed information collected from multiple sources and analyzed in real time, digital athletes will soon be the norm. Those athletes and sports organizations that see the potential possible through digital innovation will remain a step ahead, a few seconds faster, and have more wins in their record book.

To learn more about digital transformation in the sports industry, click here.

Stefan Wagner

About Stefan Wagner

Stefan Wagner is Global Manager of the Sports & Entertainment Business Unit at SAP. Through intensive contact with international premium customers and many co-innovation projects, Stefan’s team supports the sustainable development of this nascent branch of SAP. Of key importance is the close collaboration with SAP’s development teams. In his free time, Stefan is an avid skier, tennis, and rugby player.