How NBA teams are using eye-tracking to enhance performance

Sports and technology have become inexorably intertwined in recent years, with teams relying more and more upon analytics to build their rosters and then decide on what style that roster will play. Every team in the NBA now relies on analytics to varying degrees, and the use of advanced data that was not available until recently, in their decision-making as they try to gain an edge over the opposition. This week, the Washington Wizards announced that they are making a move furthering that trend by partnering with Silicon Valley company SyncThink in order to implement eye-tracking technology that will aid in evaluating player fatigue and quantifying injury risk.

When SyncThink was founded in 2008, the Eye Test technology had not yet been fully developed, but creating the test equipment was a definite goal for the company upon its founding. SyncThink’s founder, Dr. Jamshid Ghajar had done research focused on eye-tracking, which was funded by the Department of Defense, in the hopes of assessing soldiers’ brain health through the analysis of eye movement. The company was founded after looking at the results and seeing its potential to be useful in other areas as well.

While the company was not founded with the specific intent of servicing athletes, the company’s EyeSync technology has been able to meet a need that made transitioning into that world a natural move, though they still focus equally on the clinical side of things. The company first partnered with Iowa University and the University of Texas and has branched out further from there. SyncThink now has a number of clients in the sports world, from the PAC-12 who uses it to track concussions, to three NBA teams and a few other colleges who use it to track fatigue.

The three NBA teams who use SyncThink’s technology — the Golden State Warriors, Atlanta Hawks, and now the Washington Wizards — are all seeking to turn such information into on-court success, aiming to manage their players the best they can in order to field “the most optimized team.” SyncThink’s CEO, Laura Yeceis, believes that as they work with the technology more, over a longer course of time, they will be able to learn and track how the test results correlate with the players’ performance so they will be able to more accurately pinpoint what to look for, and how to remedy fatigue moving forward.

The first NBA team SyncThink partnered with was the Golden State Warriors, a natural partnership because of SyncThink’s location in Silicon Valley, just an hour away from Oakland, and connections the company had already established. The Warriors were successful with the product and word spread, helping the Hawks and Wizards to gain interest as well. Of course, the fact that the Warriors have won three of the last four championships and that every team is eager to close the gap between themselves and Golden State is likely to have played some sort of role as well.

The Eye-Sync eye test developed by SyncThink is used, largely, to assess the brain’s predictive capabilities. “When we give you the stimulus, you’re following the light in a circle and we track how quickly, how accurately you’re able to follow that stimulus… Different brain health conditions have different types of error which we can pick up in the eye tracking,” said Yeceis, meaning that the results — and the specific things the athlete misses while taking the test — point to particular problems that can be addressed a number of ways.

While still developing the EyeSync, the developers noticed a certain type of error that kept cropping up due to fatigue. While doing research with soldiers who were sleep-deprived, they noticed that these soldiers had recurring problems with spatial perception. With observations such as this, the Eye Test allows users to compare their results to a baseline, which allows them to track increasing or decreasing fatigue. According to Yecies, the results are “really quite actionable” once you become familiar with the data, helping teams to decide what steps need to be taken to help players return closer to their desired level of alertness and perception. Perhaps there need to be changed in a player’s sleep schedule or playing time or diet that can be addressed by trainers and coaches that help return them to a more desirable status, making it more likely that they are able to perform as well as possible once they enter the game.

In addition to trying to nail down the player’s anticipatory abilities, Yecies also believes the test may help to lower an athlete’s risk of injury. As the test assesses a player’s ability to react along with their spatial awareness skills, it makes sense to assume that if their dynamic vision is not at its peak, that they will also be less likely to be cognizant of their actions as well as those of their opponents as they would be otherwise, leaving them more vulnerable to harm. Injuries are to a certain extent random and inevitable, but any steps a team can take to prevent them is worthwhile and being able to track a player’s fatigue — both in a particular moment and progressively — may be a small step with big results. Also, as teams decide to rest players more on back-to-backs, and as they recover from injury, it’s possible that eye tracking could help inform decisions on who to rest, and when.

The teams accumulate the information independently but do have the option to give SyncThink access for consulting purposes considering their clinicians have more experience in the field. However the information the company receives is both aggregated, and they do not have access to even this de-identified information without permission from customers. The company is therefore not fully aware of what uses teams make with their information as the teams, seeing such information and its uses as proprietary info they don’t want opponents accessing, opt to keep it close to their proverbial chests. This also helps avoid privacy concerns related to a player’s personal health data.

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How the Warriors, Hawks, and Wizards collect and utilize this data remains not entirely clear, though to be fair, that’s probably the way they like it. Nevertheless, their partnership with SyncThink makes clear in a new way just how much the worlds of technology and sports are now overlapping and will continue to do so in the future. We are far from any sort of stopping point, but assuming something as simple as tracking a player’s eye movements can indeed help improve a player’s performance while decreasing their risk of injury, then such a trend can come to easily justify itself.

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