An Irish start-up is changing how the world's top teams think about sport injuries

Premier League, NFL and NBA teams to turning to Kitman to solve professional sport's biggest problem...

Real Madrid, Gareth Bale, Cristiano Ronaldo

Real Madrid's Gareth Bale, right, gestures to teammate Cristiano Ronaldo after he got injured during a Spanish La Liga soccer match between Real Madrid and Malaga at the Santiago Bernabeu stadium in Madrid, Spain, Saturday, April 18, 2015. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

When Portugal and France take to the pitch in San Denis on Sunday night to compete to be crowned European champions, one question will hang over the Portuguese - just how fit is Cristiano Ronaldo?

"Modern fans still don’t have an appreciation for the amount of work that goes on behind the scenes to keep athletes' bodies healthy and performing well," Kitman Labs co-founder Stephen Smith told Newstalk.com.

"They look at games and see these superstars who are not performing well and they can’t understand why. In many cases they are banged up and put back out there, hoping that their talent beats all," he adds.

The former-Leinster strength, conditioning, and rehabilitation coach believes that the reality is that championship and tournaments are often won and lost in treatment rooms.

He points to the two NBA finals series between the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors as perfect examples of this happening in a blog post on the Kitman Labs website. Both series were ultimately defined by the players who didn't make it on the court, and he concludes that at an elite level you ultimately "can’t win without having your key performers out there."

Ron Schwane / AP 

Data gap

While working with Leinster, Smith completed a program of research in football injuries and noticed that no one had developed a sophisticated system to link players' fitness data and biometrics. After spotting the gap, he began to build analytical models to recognise degenerative changes in athletes before they develop injuries.

Every sports fan has had that moment when a key player goes down with a 'wear and tear' injury like a pulled hamstring, something which is almost accepted as 'part and parcel' of competing at an elite level - but Kitman Labs aim to change that.

After testing the concept with Leinster, Smith realised he would need to work with more teams to build up a large enough dataset to prove his theories, a process he started in early 2013. Fast-forward to 2016 and the firm has attracted masses of venture capital funding, and is working with some of the world's biggest teams, from the Miami Dolphins and Detroit Pistons to Everton FC.

Kitman Labs has also been named as one of the finalists in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year's Emerging Category.

Last month, the co-founder had the surreal experience of watching the Irish rugby team go head to head with South Africa's Springboks - two Kitman customers.

Applications

The CEO says that teams are desperate to avoid injuries, and to treat problems before players pull-up: "Every team is plagued with injuries every year - those injuries cost teams wins and they cost them trophies. So when we get out there and have that conversation we are striking on a real cord - and we are solving a real problem."

The Irish entrepreneur hopes that the data sets compiled by the firm can work as an operating system to analyse and optimise human performance beyond sports:

"We have an opportunity to change the world," he says, "and to change how people think about risk and how we reduce injuries and how we help people to perform better. It’s incredibly exciting and it’s easy for me to get up every morning and to get stuck into what we are doing every day, because it has the capacity to change the world."

Smith admits that he has always been a risk taker, and while it was a big decision to leave his dream job at Leinster to lead Kitman, he has no regrets:

"I’m getting to chase a dream. I’m getting to do something that I’m passionate about every single morning. I speak to many of my friends and they’re not working on things that get them excited. They aren’t working on jobs that they are incredibly passionate about and it’s difficult for them to go to work every day. I don’t want to leave the office - I just want to keep going," he adds.

Image: The Ireland team line up ahead of the third test against South Africa Springboks, at Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium Port Elizabeth. ©INPHO/Billy Stickland

Future proofing

The chief executive believes that if you are driven and have an innovative idea, then you don't need to run away to Silicon Valley to make it big:

"I think the environment everywhere across the globe is the same. People decide to do something like this, people decide that what they are going to do is going to change something, and the mission they are on personally is going to impact some area of the world.

"I don’t think that happens in Silicon Valley, I don’t think that happens in small niche areas around the world. That’s on people to actually take that responsibility to go and do something that they are passionate and excited about. Ireland is just as good a place as any."

As the professional sports continue to realise the impact that smart data can have on their teams' results, Kitman hopes to continue to attract more teams while developing more complex data models in its ongoing mission to improve human performance.

The founder says he is not prepared to let the company, which now employs 33 people, rest on its laurels:

"What we do today isn’t going to be good enough tomorrow. That’s what we spend a lot of time thinking about internally . How can we continue to drive innovation? How can we continue to look at these problems in different ways and find new solutions to push the entire industry forward?"

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