By Dan Duffield
Some people in the human performance community assume that they can just take the model they’ve built for managing athlete data within sports teams and lateralize it to warfighters and special operators. But there are a lot of additional requirements and nuances when working with the military. In this article, I’ll explain these and demonstrate why it’s important for military units to partner with a vendor that has proven experience working with the Army, Navy, and other branches.
Safeguarding Security and Privacy
Security is one area in which the military has more stringent requirements than pro or college sports. While HIPAA and other standards must be observed with civilians and their private data needs to be safeguarded, there’s a higher level of information and privacy protection needed for individual warfighters, and for entire units. When it comes to human performance data, details like how far people run, their wellness status, and their sleep scores aren’t classified as either health data or personal identifying information. But if you identify an individual operator or warfighter, you’re instantly moving up to a higher tier of security, which is called the “impact level” by the military. Once you start putting personal health information into an athlete management system (AMS), you go up another couple of security levels.
Location-driven data can be a big problem for the military, as several high-profile data breaches have revealed the layout of bases within the US and even forward operating bases abroad. This is why the selection of wearables needs to be undertaken with caution and be based on the use case in the field. Such issues highlight the need for military units to partner with an experienced AMS vendor like Fusion Sport, who can help them select which wearables are best used only in training and daily duties, versus those devices that are appropriate for tours of duty. Doing so will help avoid putting lives at risk and compromising the integrity of missions.
Being in theater (another term for active deployment) makes it difficult to collect the same kind of performance and recovery data that can be obtained during normal daily duty. This is why a unit’s commanders need the assistance of an experienced AMS vendor to map out what the objectives of data collection, aggregation, and visualization are in each context, and then work backward to determine which devices and data sets are most desirable and practical.
Beyond security concerns, one of the things to consider is connectivity, or the lack thereof. When I first started consulting with military clients, I assumed every base on US soil would have strong WiFi, as this is the case with all professional sports and college teams I’ve worked with. I quickly realized internet connectivity is sparse on many bases, particularly the bigger ones that can span seemingly endless acres. When a unit is deployed in theater overseas or training in remote areas, their connectivity can be even worse.
As a result, it’s not always possible to use the same kind of devices in the military that I’d often recommend for sports teams. With this limitation in mind, we recommended wearables that still had broad feature sets but could gather the required information and integrate it into Smartabase without the need for a WiFi connection and that had the ability to disable certain features like GPS for security reasons.
Nailing the Basics
Sports teams at the pro, college, and national levels can afford to dive deep into data and find new nuances in how its presented, even when this involves the sports science team reckoning with complexity. But this isn’t the case in the military, in which the consequences of warfighters being unprepared are much higher.
As such, simplicity is key when it comes to sharing data with warfighters and commanders alike, not least because of how busy they are. For example, most military units decide to focus sleep tracking with devices like the Oura ring on hours spent in bed and total sleep time. While more advanced metrics could be useful, it’s these two simple measurables that offer the biggest potential to increase performance.
Such easy wins are the order of the day in the military. As far back as World War II, America’s generals have been concerned about the military readiness of its citizens, leading to changes in the training programs of new recruits, the extension of ROTC, and initiatives like the President’s Fitness Test. With the advent of fast food, social media, and video games, readiness is compromised to an even greater degree. This is why the DoD and leaders of each service branch are more concerned with personnel meeting basic benchmark standards in sleep, fitness, and nutrition than with advanced sports science. This means collecting, organizing, and displaying simple metrics that can be improved upon is more of a priority than attempting to measure the kind of advanced analytics we see in elite sports.
Force Capability vs. Match Day Results
We also need to consider how the desired outcomes differ between athletes and warfighters. While sports teams target improved on-field performance, the military needs to maximize availability, lethality, and survivability – all of which factor into what they call “force capability.” The right combination of devices, data points, and outcomes need to be decided upon by the vendor and the commanders they’re working with so force capability can be maximized.
In sports, there’s day-to-day training data and match data, as you want to understand how a player’s preparation during the week is impacting their performance individually and as a team on game day. The latter becomes tricky in the Army, Navy, or Air Force because the equivalent of match data is mission data. Collecting and assessing this requires the highest level of security on secret networks that cannot be hacked by unauthorized outsiders.
This is why commanders typically insist on issuing devices for in-theater use that aren’t connected to the internet, or that allow for GPS to be disabled while accelerometer data is still collected. Single-use or recovery-focused wearables like the Oura ring are also acceptable as warfighters can wear them only when they’re resting and sleeping and then take them off again when they go out on patrol. Such targeted data collection still allows commanders and performance staff to make correlations between sleep and wellness status and mission performance so that they can suggest informed interventions that improve individual effectiveness and the unit’s overall force capability.
One of the other factors that impacts the capability of a unit is how many of its members are available. Factors such as injury, illness, and mental health can either rule a warfighter out of going on a mission or compromise their impact when they’re on it. If everyone is healthy, then the commander assumes he or she has full availability, which, if paired with adequate training and preparation, should in theory result in optimal force capability. Monitoring warfighters’ daily wellbeing through a combination of surveys and recovery data can provide valuable insights into individual availability and that of the unit so that on-the-spot selection decisions are more accurate and timelier.
It’s difficult for a unit to go it alone on all the considerations we’ve explored in this article, and an inexperienced vendor can do little to help because they don’t understand the intricacies and idiosyncrasies of performance data management in a military setting. Commanders would do well to partner with a company that can demonstrate both experience and competence in this area and help sports scientists, strength and conditioning coaches, and other support staff better prepare warfighters and operators to perform their best when it matters most.
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