April 14, 2024
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Strap These Sensors to Your Shoes to Play Soccer Better

PlayerMaker’s artificial-intelligence device tracks pass completion with both feet, number of touches, how many balls were lost or received and more.

What makes the difference between a good soccer player and a great one? Skill, of course… and, increasingly, technology.

Players regularly train with GPS sensors strapped across their chests. The GPS captures distance and velocity, giving players and coaches invaluable information about how they’re moving and reacting.

Israeli sports-tech startup PlayerMaker makes a small device that tracks much more than GPS can. Worn on a player’s shoes during training, its sensors and proprietary software detect every ball touch and build an accurate player “gait profile.”

“The sensors know if you make a pass, a run or interception,” said CEO Guy Aharon. The device can track “pass completion with both feet, number of touches, how many balls were lost and received, as well as things like passing metrics that will help coaches.” Captured at a rate of 1,000 samples every second, this data is synchronized via Bluetooth with PlayerMaker’s analysis platform.

Applying artificial intelligence to a sport where every percentage point counts is no longer a nice-to-have feature—it’s become a necessity in the competitive soccer arena. And because most soccer injuries occur in lower limbs, it makes sense to have a sensor located in that area.

For professional teams, injury prevention “has been the Holy Grail for a long time,” Moran Gad, PlayerMaker’s CTO, told ISRAEL21c. “If a player costs $100 million for a team and spends half the season on the bench, that’s a big waste of money.”

The PlayerMaker sensor package is encased in durable silicon on a flexible strap. Gad says they’ve never had one break, no matter how hard the ball hits.

The software and sensors are sold as a subscription package to teams. (You can’t buy it off the shelf in your local Best Buy.) Gad said the company tailors its packages to pro, semi pro and amateur players.

PlayerMaker’s device, on the market since the 2017-2018 season, counts 80 soccer clubs as customers, comprising 200 pro and amateur teams. Among them are Maccabi Tel Aviv in Israel, the Philadelphia Union, the San Jose Earthquakes, the University of Pittsburgh’s women’s soccer team in the United States and others.

Atlanta United FC’s youth academy is using PlayerMaker as a development tool to help coaches assess adolescent players.

“Technical mastery for a young player is everything,” said Tony Annan, academy director at Atlanta United. “Being able to track that and give instant feedback as soon as they come off the pitch is very important. Showing the players what they should’ve done, could’ve done and what they actually did while they’re still thinking about the session is huge for us to push them forward.”

Soccer stars like Lionel Messi often have videos taken as they play, but even then, “someone would have to manually label each touch you make,” Gad explained. “PlayerMaker does it all automatically with very high quality.”

PlayerMaker has also built what the company describes as the world’s largest database of soccer player movements. “The database holds all the raw data the system can produce,” Gad explained. “We now have around half a million motion events.” All that data helps improve the software, which in turn produces more data—a beneficial development loop.

PlayerMaker is based in Tel Aviv, where 20 R&D staff are located. Another seven employees are in London, eight are in the U.S. and three are in Germany.

Could a PlayerMaker sensor set get hacked—say by an opposing team looking for a competitive advantage?

“Our database is extremely secure,” Gad insisted. “You know Israel’s reputation with cybersecurity. We have some ex-IDF specialists on our team. We feel very confident.”

Will PlayerMaker find its way into other sports—tennis, baseball, running, maybe eventually even kayaking? Gad says the company has “some internal work we’re doing in other sports fields.”

For now, the focus—or perhaps we should say the “goal”—is entirely on soccer. And that should keep PlayerMaker’s developers running around for quite some time.

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