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Pod: Should Athletes Be Wearing Continuous Biometric Monitors?

NFL tackle Mitchell Schwartz discussed his experiences with such devices

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

The NFL Players Association recently struck a deal with Whoop, a fitness-tracking company whose wristbands monitor athletic training, rest, and recovery. Under the deal, NFL players can opt in to wearing such a device, and will be allowed to sell the data it collects. The devices — called continuous biometric monitors — record data 24/7, taking readings 100 times per second. That kind of access into not just the way athletes train, but the way they relax, has made some uneasy and has already generated controversy at other levels of the sport. Major League Baseball approved the in-game use of Whoop’s devices in March, though on Thursday, Ringer MLB Show hosts Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann brought in a football player — offensive tackle Mitchell Schwartz of the Kansas City Chiefs — to share his thoughts on the NFLPA’s deal.

“I think guys are a little skeptical at first,” Schwartz began. “Especially when [monitoring] comes from the team. In this instance it’s from the PA, [so] I guess that they would have the data and we would have to give our consent to give it out to Whoop and who knows what they’ll do with it?”

NFL teams have already begun using wearable athletic monitors, though it’s usually confined to the practice field.

“When I was in Cleveland, we did some different stuff,” he said. “[We were] wearing the Catapult and tracking GPS data and how far you’re moving [and] how much you’re running at practice. We did a couple of sleep studies, and like you said, you obviously have to agree to do that. It’s a way you can learn about your sleep and [whether] you need to go to bed at the right time or wake up at the right time.”

The Catapult isn’t a wristband — it’s worn around the chest — and so some Cleveland players would opt out if it felt uncomfortable.

“Some guys would not do it, just because it didn’t really feel good,” he said. “If you were a guy who wore a loose-fit shirt underneath, then it tugged at you and made the front of your neck feel uncomfortable, so some guys just wouldn’t do it. At the end of the day, I guess there was peer pressure, [the coaches] want you to do it, they obviously want the data to figure out what the guys are doing, but it’s something that I don’t think would negatively impact you in any regard. At the end of the day it’s just seeing how many miles you run in practice and maybe what your top speed is.”

And the wearables the Browns used did lead the team to make changes in its practice schedules.

“There were times where we were practicing really hard for consecutive days in a row and we realized, ‘Hey, we need to pull back a little, these guys are being overworked, we’re at more of a risk for injury.’ In instances like that, it helps you.”

But besides that, it wasn’t of much use to the players.

“I think it was more of a joke. We would just figure out who had the easiest practice and who had the hardest practice. … We would kind of figure out and see who would have the lowest [result and] make fun of each other [more] than anything.”

For Schwartz, a heart rate monitor is already more useful.

“When you’re only wearing something that figures out how fast you’re going and how long of a distance that you’re traveling, you can only do so much with that. Especially from an offensive line perspective,” he said. “I think it’d be much more interesting to have a true heart rate monitor and figure out how hard you’re working and figure out how strenuous this activity is. … It was more just a thing that they did just because they could. It could lead to some things where they get a general glimpse of overall workload, but until you measure heart rate and all of those other things, you can’t get a full comprehension of it.”

Whoop, though, is a different animal altogether. It’s not just a practice device — it’s used all day, every day. That may provide more benefits, but it makes some players skeptical.

“I’d imagine the guys who stay up late, potentially go out, would be a little more reticent to hop into that than a guy who’s in bed by 10:30 every night. I don’t have too much to hide from that perspective, but I do think that guys just have the feeling that the less info or the less they know about you, the better,” he said. “I feel like most players feel like, whatever you do on your private time is what you need to do as long as you’re performing on Sundays. As long as you’re giving the team the performance that you need to give them, none of the other stuff really matters. I think this whole data-collection movement is trying to figure out what of all that other stuff we can optimize and make more efficient. Maybe that leads to better training and results and you can practice harder and better and produce more. It’s a fine line to figure out what data would be useful, what would be applicable. And then, obviously, as a player, being comfortable to share that.”

Listen to the full podcast here. This transcript has been edited and condensed. For more on this topic, Lindbergh and Baumann interviewed Whoop CEO Will Ahmed in January.