If you have ever belonged to a Sunday League football side, chances are you have probably turned up to play the worse for wear.
Whether it was an unnecessary post-last orders beer or too many recent late nights in front of Netflix at the back of your mind, as you pop a paracetamol and go through the warm-up you are for once thankful that you are not a pro and do not have to deal with the intense scrutiny placed upon their every move.
I have certainly felt that way. So it was with some trepidation that I pulled on a Playertek vest fitted with a GPS-enabled pod to measure my every action in a 10-a-side match at Charlton Athletic’s training ground last week.
Playertek is the new consumer offering from wearable tech firm Catapult Sports, who have provided advanced kit to more than 1,500 elite teams in sport, from NBA champions the Golden State Warriors to European rugby kings Saracens, their football equivalent Real Madrid and the Australian cricket team.
For £199, Playertek gives amateur footballers the chance to analyse their game to a similar extent as the pros. Strapped up with one of these, the distance I covered, top speed I reached, number of sprints I made and other metrics would be transmitted from a small flashing pod on my back to an app on my phone, ready to be dissected on the final whistle.
Similar GPS performance-monitoring technology has been adopted en masse in other sports. Strava, the fitness-tracking app popularised by cyclists, had 161m rides uploaded to its platform in 2016 alone and claims to attract 1m new users every 45 days, while an Apple Watch or Fitbit are increasingly ubiquitous on the wrists of runners and gym-goers.
Yet a common characteristic among such apps is that they tend to be for solo sports. Strava revolutionised cycling by giving cyclists an audience — each other — and turning every ride into a competition. Rather than being left to boast to uninterested ears back at home, Strava compares your time on a route or a hill to every other rider who has ever been on it, while providing you with other data you can use to reach fitness goals.
Psychologists call the phenomenon the social facilitation effect and it is what makes apps like Strava so popular. If other people are watching, performance improves.
By contrast, any football match, no matter how small, already has an audience — your teammates and opposition — and a competitive edge.
At Charlton, simply saving face among fellow players would have been enough to provoke a performance out of me, while fear of a changing-room shellacking would be more than enough motivation in a normal Sunday League game. Furthermore, it is a goal-saving tackle or memorable strike that you really want to leave out on the field, not so much sprints and distance covered.
Or so I thought. Knowing that I had to answer for every action on the pitch changed the way I played and was more fun and less oppressive than I had feared — particularly as Playertek allows you to compare yourself to a professional footballer’s level.
What were once lost causes became something to chase, if only to get my number sprints up and notch a less embarrassing top speed on my app.
Yet even more prominent in my mind than my own stats was how they compared to everyone else playing. The Playertek app allows you to create leagues and leaderboards for certain metrics – and no one wants to be bottom.
This was the social facilitation effect in extremis. There is no hiding place, no way to gloss over a slump in effort with a nice shot or pretty pass.
It is a bonus for the professional clubs who use it too; an off-day in training could mean being bottom of the club’s leaderboard.
“The players know it’s for their benefit so the buy-in is good,” Charlton’s first team sports scientist Josh Hornby told me. “It can get competitive. We feed it back with things like top performers and they’ll all look at it.”
Thankfully, I finished 14th out of 20 when it came to distance covered, respectable enough to free me to dig into the pertinent data free of shame.
Playertek found that my performance was worth 31 per cent of a professional’s game. My distance covered of 5.2km in 44 minutes and a top speed of 6.74 metres per second were worth 52 per cent and 75 per cent of a professional’s game respectively. Less impressive was my seven sprints over 112m — worth just 14 per cent and 11 per cent of a player’s game.
More fascinating were my heat maps that revealed in chasing a 2-0 deficit at half-time I had pushed much further up the pitch — something I hadn’t been conscious of while playing. Similarly, my sprints picked up in the first half of the second period before tailing off massively towards the end.
Now I know exactly what to work on next time. And have a reason to decline a pint and turn off Netflix. After all, the GPS is watching.