Why Australia leads sports world in wearable technology

Australian rugby players help each other out with their tracking units before a 2011 training session in South Africa. Australian teams have been trendsetters in the use of wearable technology. Phil Walter/Getty Images

In April, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Matthew Dellavedova was quietly instructed by the NBA to stop wearing a device called a Whoop on his wrist because the league bans the use of wearable technology during games.

It should come as no surprise that it was Dellavedova, a native of Australia, who was pushing the boundaries by wearing a fitness-tracking gadget during games. And not just because Cavs teammate LeBron James' longtime trainer was hired by Whoop as an adviser.

Teams and leagues Down Under have long been ahead of the curve when it comes to using wearable technology to maximize performance and decrease injury risk.

In fact, one might call Australia the birthplace of sports science. And it's still the epicenter of the movement for a variety of reasons. The genesis of the industry was the proud sporting nation's struggles at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, where Australia failed to win a gold medal -- a result that spurred Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser to set up the Australian Institute of Sport.

"The establishment of the AIS implemented a sports-science approach to performance, which was unique globally at the time," said Adir Shiffman, executive chairman of Catapult, a leading athlete tracker company headquartered in Melbourne. "Australia took to sports science as a profession long before any other country in the world."

Shiffman credits that head start for Australia being the leader in the field -- at least for now.

"U.S. pro teams were slow to adopt the technology relative to Australia," Shiffman said, "but now they have, they're accelerating at a rapid rate in terms of use. Because of this, a lot of Australian sports scientists are joining pro teams in the U.S."

In recent years, the Golden State Warriors and Philadelphia 76ers have hired scientists from the AIS to oversee their medical, performance and injury-prevention teams, while two Australian sports scientists joined the Milwaukee Bucks' performance and medical departments.

Dellavedova, when he was 16, trained at AIS, as has Ben Simmons, the projected top pick in the upcoming NBA draft.

"It's a little different overseas, as fewer players are aware of the technology and teams are only just starting to understand the benefits," Shiffman said, referring to the sports world outside of Australia.

U.S. professional leagues have limited wearable tech to practices largely because they are hesitant to introduce the potential for a new competitive edge without feeling fully comfortable with the possibilities and consequences. Members of the NFL's competition committee, for example, are concerned that teams that are quicker to study and understand wearable tech will gain an advantage. They're not ready to accept technology that could impact the outcome of a game.

For that reason, the NFL has buried two years of data derived from players who have worn RFID (radio frequency identification) chips during games. In May, the league finally provided each team its own data, but it's not clear when -- if ever -- it will allow real-time access to such information.

Major League Baseball approved two devices for use during games for the first time this season, according to The Associated Press: one that measures stress on elbows and another that monitors heart and breathing rates. In addition, two kinds of bat sensors were approved for use during workouts.

With several high-profile teams and athletes realizing the benefits of the data-driven science, including Florida State's football program, the awareness is growing.

"It's not the reason you win," said Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher, who credited the technology for helping the Seminoles stay healthy during their run to the 2013 national championship. "But it takes a lot of the guesswork out of how your team is feeling, how individuals are performing and how you moderate practice."

It's not just the head start that has kept Australia ahead of the game when it comes to wearable tech; geography and demography also play a role. Australia, by area, is approximately the same size as the continental United States, but it has a smaller population than Texas.

"That means," Shiffman said, "teams and leagues are desperate to keep their athletes fit and on the field as much as possible, rather than being happy to simply cut an injured player and replace them with one of the many other athletes available."

Even semiprofessional and junior leagues, as well as top-level umpires and officials, use wearable technology in Australia. The devices have been embraced for two key reasons: to minimize injury risk and maximize performance.

"Players wear small GPS units in pouches that are located just below the collar on the back of their jerseys or in specially designed bibs worn under training shirts," said Troy Thomson, elite performance manager for Australia's national rugby league team. "The players also wear heart-rate monitors which are able to send data to the GPS unit. Players wear this technology during all training sessions and games."

The data is then fed back to a computer for sports scientists, coaches and players to access.

It's high-tech stuff -- some 900 data points per second are captured for each player wearing a unit. Data is aggregated by algorithms, and the results appear on a dashboard that helps experts understand what the athlete's body is going through.

"The key metrics which we look at are total distance covered, high-speed running, meters per minute and maximum velocity," said Will Stuart, athletic performance coach for the Australian rugby sevens team. "We use [the technology] as one of our key injury-prevention methods."

The high-performance team for Port Adelaide of the Australian Football League (the country's top Australian rules football circuit) uses the technology in myriad ways -- including tactically during matches.

"Individual player training and match data is recorded and available live to enable adjustments in real time -- for example, on-field positional moves and player rotation during matches," said Stuart Graham, the club's head of sports science.

Graham said the data is also archived in custom databases that warn the club's fitness and medical team when a player is at risk. For example, it can let the team know if a player's workload has been too high or if he's training at a lower-than-usual level, indicating he could be prone to injury or poor performance. Port Adelaide's players get regular feedback from the club's high-performance team before, during and after training and games.

Another aspect of wearable technology is that it can be used by clubs to tell when a player might be slacking off. Nick Riewoldt, ESPN columnist and captain of AFL club St Kilda, wrote about it in March.

"There's far more science behind it [training] now -- players have nowhere to hide with any part of their preparation," Riewoldt wrote. "Everything is monitored to the nth degree; there's new technology, new science, and new theories. We ... wear a GPS unit every session. Anything to find an extra 1 percent. The accountability is so much greater now, which leads to better-prepared athletes."

Mason Cox played basketball at Oklahoma State before taking up Australian rules football. He made his AFL debut in April playing the ruckman position for Collingwood and has been impressed with the team's use of technology.

"It's unreal how much information they have," Cox said. "We didn't have anything [at the college level]. We just went out and played; it was pretty simple. One of the biggest changes was how in-depth they are with each player, getting personalized programs. It's so individualized here."

It's not just players, coaches and training staffs who can benefit from all the information collected from wearable technology. The data also has the potential to add another layer to the fan experience.

Port Adelaide, for example, became the first AFL club to display real-time data on the scoreboards during games at Adelaide Oval.

Catapult, meanwhile, is experimenting with "clear sky technology" in the hopes of allowing broadcasters to deliver real-time data to TV viewers sometime this year.

"This is the type of thing where we can enhance fans' understanding of the game," said Shiffman, Catapult's chairman. "We're really excited about that, [and the] level of enthusiasm from broadcasters and leagues is huge."

Shiffman foresees a future in which the viewer experience -- whether at home or at the game -- won't be complete without the information provided by wearable tech.

"And in three years' time, fans won't believe they were missing all the richness of understanding that this technology can deliver," he said.

ESPN.com's Kevin Seifert contributed to this report.