An amazing phenomenon recently occurred at an afternoon basketball practice for the Chargers of the K-8th grade Brooklyn charter school Achievement First Endeavor: all the kids were focused. Even the seventh and eighth graders—whose season had recently ended—were into it, not just the fifth and sixth graders whose team was still in the playoffs.
After a two-minute layup line drill, fifth-year coach John Pettaway pointed out to the kids that they only shot 48 percent. The kids admonished one another that they could do better. The next go-round, the kids concentrated much harder and bumped up their percentage to 64. What was different at this practice was that the Chargers motivated one another after seeing real-time data from ShotTracker, a new technological gadget that allows users to create, monitor, and manage various basketball workouts, drills, and shoot-arounds.
"The kids were flocking over here, checking out their shooting percentage, then lining up to do better," says the 38-year-old Pettaway. "That never would've happened if it was just me telling them their stats. In the past, I literally created Excel sheets and had players keep track of shots with a partner. But it's not relevant to today's kids, they want tangible, real-time data. It gives the kids cognitive recognition and ownership of what it takes to get better. If I could display this feedback on a wall-mounted iPad? Hell yeah, I'm sold. I want it."
The ShotTracker consists of three main components: a ring affixed to the back of a net that senses when a ball drops through the nylon; a wrist sensor that is worn via wristband or shooting sleeve; and an app that tracks and records all of the shooting data. The algorithm is "trained" to the player's jumper and keeps track of every shot—even airballs. In a nutshell, if a player takes 50 three-pointers, the device will relay a shot chart, makes/misses, time it took to get up the jumpers, and the shooting percentage to the player's mobile device. Players can see how they did that day, over time, and against anyone who uses the ShotTracker. There's an internal activity message board, and of course, everything can be posted to social media.
One ShotTracker device costs $150, and to fulfill its optimal potential, every member of the squad needs one. Even with the ShotTracker team discount--10% off ten or more--a team of 15 players would end up spending more than $2,000, a significant amount of money at a time when public school coaches are having to dig into their own pockets for equipment. (The Chargers only had access to ShotTracker because VICE Sports provided it to them for the purpose of reporting this story.)
"I think it would be quite difficult for a local New York City public school to obtain ShotTrackers for their teams," says Pettaway. "There's always budget crises or some bullshit with where the money gets spent. As a charter, we're lucky that there's a lot of philanthropic types who want to drop stacks on us."
So even as technology slowly creeps its way in every aspect of our lives—in this case sports youth development—the bigger question is whether these advances will be available to everyone. Or are we headed toward a future where the wealthier kids reap the benefits of the latest gadgets while the poorest fall behind developmentally?
What was clear, at least at this practice, is that the ShotTracker isn't just a flashy doesn't-actually-do-anything technology. The digital wizard got the kids improving on the court without a coach getting horse for the umpteenth time. Sure, it's a new gadget and the novelty will wear off. However, it has the video game appeal of allowing users to play with and challenge friends outside of the adult realm, one of the things that's lacking in modern-day youth sports. Not for nothing, but the ShotTracker is cool as hell.
And that's part of the problem: This thing is really cool as hell and it works, so it's natural every kid would want one, even if they couldn't afford it.
Golden State Warriors star Klay Thompson will hold a virtual shooting clinic where lucky ShotTracker owners can win prizes. Photo courtesy of ShotTracker
ShotTracker's mobile device app is free, but fully utilizing it requires that every kid have an iPad or an iPhone. (Pettaway said among the low-income student population at Endeavor, that wasn't the case.) It may be a non-issue at the collegiate level, and probably not much of one at the elite varsity high school varsity rung, but that's no longer the marker. Like every other aspect of this country, youth sports have fallen victim to income inequality that plague this country. The overall expense of youth sports presents a major barrier to entry.
"Fitbits and other wearable devices are not being worn by the people who need them the most, people who are inactive or obese," says Tom Farrey, director of the Aspen Institute's Sports & Society Program and an enterprise reporter at ESPN. "They're worn by people who are already fit, and have the resources to be fit with plenty of options for health clubs and otherwise. It's a general fact of technology that it costs the early adopters money. Eventually, the price comes down. It happens with every technology, but it takes a while. It doesn't surprise me that a new product at an early stage, like this one, is expensive."
Farrey was speaking in generalities, he hadn't heard of the ShotTracker, and found the concept intriguing. Regardless, the soaring costs of youth sports are a huge problem, and every new "must-have" adds up. Farrey says there isn't even a hard dollar figure because it's in aggregate—league fees, uniforms, equipment, hotels, gas, meals, personal trainers, etc.—but it's a multi-billion-dollar industry with costs that rival the pros. The sad fact is however, that for all the money being spent, there has been a significant drop-off in kids participating in sports. Since 2008, the decline of kids 6-12 has dropped in soccer by 11%, baseball by 14%, football by 29%, and softball by a whopping 31%. Even basketball, which at its core requires only a ball, hoop, and ten players, is down 4%.
According to 2013 statistics provided to the Aspen Institute from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, participation rates among youth from households earning $25,000 or less is roughly half of that among kids who comes from household earning $100,000 (16 percent compared to 30 percent). Two years ago, Farrey's organization launched "Project Play," an initiative to reimagine youth sports with a focus on health and inclusion. Their report from last January bluntly states, "Overall, the dominant model in American sports lacks a commitment to inclusion and is shaped largely but not exclusively by money, leaving many children, families, and communities on the outside looking in."
Project Play aims to build a new model that embraces children of all socioeconomic backgrounds, and includes some simple technological solutions to help ensure the needs of kids are being met. A basic example is a digital platform that would allow users to find nearby sites for their sport of choice with integrated maps and a crowd-sourcing element for quality control. It's one of multiple strategies to change the direction of American youth sports to be inclusive and inexpensive.
"We're seeing a greater divide between the haves-and-have-nots," says Farrey. "Somehow, poor kids all over the world play soccer, but here at home, we've turned into a game that costs $3,000 a year to advance in the system."
ShotTracker may not be cheap, but it's hardly the poster gadget for runaway youth sport spending either. The devices can be recalibrated to new players, so coaches could use them again and again. And the test run at Endeavor showed a whole team can use a single device, although every shot will be tracked in relation to the shooter who wears the gadget's wristband, making it impossible to track individual shooting percentages.
The idea for the ShotTracker came from Bruce Ianni, who reached out to Davyeon Ross, a former college basketball player who majored in computer science. The two co-founded a company in June 2013, developed the product over fourteen months, and launched their first batch of units with beta customers in December 2014.
"We've got one guy who has already put up 25,000 shots," says Ross, "And a couple other kids who are posting their workouts back-and-forth on Instagram. I know what it's like to shoot 500 shots by yourself in an empty gym, we make it way more fun and competitive."
Sure, there's potential for Big Brother overkill, at least for younger kids who might want to skip shooting 100 jumpers and hit the beach on a 100-degree day. But the flip side is also true. ShotTracker gives younger players' their own agency to do off-seasons drills when and where they see fit, like say sunup or sundown at the nearest playground. A high school player, say Endeavor's soon-to-graduate Jamari Simmons—the Charger who shot 76% on 34 free throw attempts (ahem, DeAndre Jordan)—can get his summer reps in without a coach breathing down his neck.
"It would be cool to know right away what I need to work on with my shot selection, and to be able to take those shots on my home court," the fourteen-year-old small forward says.
ShotTracker should also help coaches convince players to take better shots, especially youngsters who only have a rudimentary understanding of basketball. As Pettaway puts it, kids are normally interested more in volume than efficiency. Using raw data on a mobile device to explain to a developing player that he/she is better off shooting the corner three, rather than a straightaway triple, would probably be more productive than yet another round of suicides. And that goes double for the parental "why ain't my kid getting the ball?" crowd. Sorry Pops, numbers don't lie.
Seeing the ShotTracker's functionality in action is mesmerizing; Coach Pettaway wasn't the only one enamored with the wearable tech. It would be a fun doodad to use at home, a surefire way for aging pick-up ballers to get a little more life out of solo shooting jags, or to keep their own kids engaged. If I still had a backyard hoop, or a backyard to hang one, I'd want a ShotTracker to make "Around the World" way more compelling. I got a kick out of it, and that was just dicking around, not some serious training method.
Yet I still kept coming back to one question: At $150 a pop, is the ShotTracker really for everybody?
When you see a gym full of middle schoolers flock to their coach after a layup drill, crowding around him to see if they moved that digital needle, you start thinking that it should be.