The most overlooked (but important) opportunity for startups entering the sports app market

16th Apr 2020

In the past decade, any moderate to highly ambitious athlete has definitely noticed the rise of the sports tracking apps. Entering the 2020s, the adaptation of those apps has moved from being embraced by the innovators and early adopters to the majority of people. But whereas the initial majority of apps were clearly focused on training and developing sports performance, the same apps also try to or promise to support the (route to) health of today's consumers.

But the key question is: can sports apps actually keep - or make - us fit and healthy?

“Perhaps in the future, but not today” says Sports Innovation Manager and SportUp’s Program Manager Kristof De Mey… but there are clear opportunities for startups with the ambition to build tomorrows next successful sports app.

Lots of competition, but also lots of opportunities for startups developing new sports and health technologies

No need to beat around the bush: there are hundreds of startups around the world actively creating and marketing technology within the sports industry.

German based organisation SportsTechX’s database already includes approximately 2250 startups worldwide who are providing some kind of wearable or tracker, software platforms with exercise material, fitness and training applications and virtual environments that enhance the experience of exercising. I.e. systems that focus on stimulating physical activity or optimizing sports performance.

But what do we know about the effectiveness of such systems when looking at them in the entire population?

Most of today’s sports and activity trackers are not accurate enough to generate relevant data.

First and foremost, research concludes that most products lack accuracy in collecting behavioral data of the user. Studies conclude that most sports and activity trackers are not sufficiently accurate to generate relevant data (activity level, quality of sleep, exercises that may or may not be performed properly, etc.). The more intensively we move, the worser it gets.

Apps are gradually improving in this area, but for the time being it is one of the main reasons why people stop using such systems after a few weeks or months, according to research done by Ghent University and iminds (now merged with imec).

Apps are often too focused on promoting performance instead of promoting health.

Many applications look good and have a smooth user experience, but issues occur concerning the actual content. American research has shown, for example, that few or no commercially available sports applications contain the guidelines for medically guided training. Most apps often focus on performance rather than health promotion.

Let's take a look at a sport like walking or jogging, where the number of injuries is still increasing, despite the extensive knowledge about injury prevention. There we see that of the approximately 100 available wearables, apps, virtual coaches, etc, none have yet been able to prove that they can reduce the risk of injuries because of overload. In conclusion, some manage to generate relevant data and create a fun experience, but they rarely make an effective difference.

Apps are neglecting scientifically proven behavioral strategies to improve user results.

Another important aspect is the role technology can play for those who do not yet participate in sports: people who are already under-active or even sedentary. The research community seems to be unanimous: a purely biomedical approach does not seem to work. The key is found in the psychology of behavioral change. This means that all well-intentioned initiatives regarding online fitness, personal training, etc. have a good chance of missing the ball. After all, it is not because you can make it clear to people whether they perform exercises correctly or incorrectly, that they will change, start or improve their overall movement behavior.

To make digital products even more impactful, behavioral scientists argue that specific motivation strategies such as setting your own goals, asking for and receiving feedback, seeing progress, experiencing social support and fun, building knowledge, etc, should be an intrinsic part of sports apps and products, especially with a sedentary target group. It is therefore curious to note (and this is a worldwide fact) that such features are often not or only partially integrated in the products that eventually enter the market. However, knowledge is becoming more available and many tools would improve if this knowledge would be implemented in a proper way. The same knowledge applies to the results of similar technologies for medical and therapeutic applications.

To be successful, startups will need to reach out to other fields.

The major challenge of this sector therefore lies very much in better cooperation between experts from different disciplines from both the private and the public sector. Sharing knowledge and technologies can result in more personalized tools with an increased effectiveness for specific target groups, which is something that ultimately concerns everyone. A growing overlap between the sports, health, and medical (technology) field is therefore desirable and even more than now to be expected in the coming years.

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