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Are Lasers Set to Disrupt the Field of Sports Science?

The tech revolution in sports, in case you weren’t aware, is already well underway. From the performance technology and broadcast enhancements we’ve seen at the pinnacle of professional sports to the advancements in equipment safety and digital video that are influencing the amateur levels, the sports sector has fully embraced the science of elevating our athletic competitions.

One of the most fascinating concepts in the field of sports science is the use of lasers. Laser technology – or “light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation” – seems more at home in a Star Wars or Austin Powers movie, or in the labs of Ivy League campuses, than around a bunch of sweaty jocks. Are lasers really poised to disrupt the field of sports science?

The simple answer is that they already are. At the NFL Combine, for instance, the league has been using fully automated timing (FAT) – a laser technology employed in the 40-yard dash and shuttle run test – to augment its prospect evaluations for more than a decade.

The same technology that’s being used to gauge athleticism among football players is being applied to sports ranging from basketball to lacrosse to ultimate frisbee. In track and field, where tenths of seconds and fractions of inches can be difference makers, results from many events are measured using the Laser Leading Line – which debuted at the 2013 NCAA Division I Outdoor Championships.

Lasers already have made an enormous impact in how NFL fans enjoy the games on television. The “yellow line” that marks the distance needed for a team’s offense to gain a first down – the vivid line graphic that’s superimposed over your TV screen? Yeah, that’s laser technology at work.

Expect sports organizations and affiliate partners to continue exploring new ways to take advantage of lasers, including embracing them as part of their competition. In 2016, the Los Angeles Dodgers caused a stir by using a laser rangefinder to aid their outfielders’ positioning based on individual batters. Although their opponent filed a complaint to Major League Baseball, there are no rules preventing positioning markers and ultimately the Dodgers weren’t reprimanded. Last May, the PGA dropped all pretense and officially made laser-based rangefinders legal for the first time in tournament play at the PGA Championship.

The Premier League, though, might be the sports entity most prominently embracing LiDAR technology. Several of the league’s clubs are utilizing LiDAR to better understand and evaluate players’ movements in certain situations. The technology can help these clubs understand which players are moving more quickly while the ball is in the air, who best to send back to defend a counter-attack, which runs are most effective at creating space in the final third of the pitch and much more.

Because lasers can detect motion across multiple planes, they’re providing increasingly more and better data about individual cuts, movement at angles, change-of-direction quickness and certain efficiencies (and inefficiencies) that make or break athletes in every sport. And because it’s technology that’s already in use for similar purposes, expect to see lasers employed to measure even more granular and aggregated data, while taking on a greater role in officiating and broadcasts.

We’ve likely witnessed only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the use of laser technology in athletic science. If it can be measured or marked, whether by speed or distance, lasers have the ability to enhance our sports in seemingly endless ways.


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