Vikings Make Playoff Push, With Help of UWB to Track Player Performance and Health

Published: November 28, 2023

The ultra-wideband MotionWorks solution from Zebra Technologies enables team trainers to view each player’s activities in practice and games.

The Minnesota Vikings are the latest NFL team to leverage ultra-wideband (UWB) technology to enhance the training of its players.

The Vikings launched the MotionWorks solution from Zebra Technologies for the first time this summer when the team reported to camp at the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center in Eagan, Minn. Team officials said it was being implemented to better understand player performance and conditioning they believe would improve safety and help prevent injuries.

The use of the technology is part of a league-wide trend to use UWB to help with player performance–MotionWorks has been adopted by about one-third of teams in the league to detect the movement of players during practice. The technology is intended to provide real-time player data and analytics based on speed, distance, accelerations and decelerations, says Dominic Russo, Zebra Technologies’ football command center specialist.

Use in the NFL

The use of player data by teams that goes past offensive and defensive statistics such as passing yards and tackles has been expanding in the NFL in the last decade. The UWB technology has been employed at all NFL games and used for NextGen Stats since 2015.

The Vikings considered a variety of technologies that could provide wireless data about player performance before choosing MotionWorks.

“This is a pretty competitive space at the moment, with each company offering specific advantages and, or, disadvantages,” says Dan Ridenour, the Vikings’ assistant player performance and sports science coordinator.

Tracking Players

Ridenour said each member on the performance staff had interacted with different technologies, including global positioning systems, local positioning systems and inertial measurement units. The team searched for a solution that would provide data they could trust.

“Decisions and changes are made quickly based on loading information we get on these guys,” Ridenour says. “So we need to be able to both track the practice live, and keep tabs on where guys are, in addition to zooming out and adjusting based on who may be running hot on a given week, or who may need more work out there moving forward.”

Because MotionWorks is already tracking player performance during NFL games, the Vikings staff was familiar with the technology. Additionally, performance director Tyler Williams had used the company’s system when he was employed by the Los Angeles Rams.

“There was a lot of familiarity there,” says Ridenour about what was a major consideration to selecting a technology-based solution. “The fact that we could get the same data used in games as well as mitigating some logistical hurdles, seemed to make the most sense.”

Indoor and Outdoor Visibility

Since July, the Vikings’ training area has been equipped with Zebra’s ultra-wideband anchors that capture transmissions from area tags. The site includes an indoor field and two outdoor fields, with 36 anchors (known as receivers) outdoors, around the perimeter, with an additional 14 anchors deployed in the inside facility.

Each player wears two UWB tags in their shoulder pads, while defensive-line players have a third tag attached to the center back of their shoulder pad so that their position can be captured and properly triangulated, even in a downward stance. Each player has a unique tag ID linked to the MotionWorks software.

The UWB tags transmit signals in the 7.5 GHz frequency band to Zebra’s anchors at a distance of up to 325 feet. The anchors measure the time distance of arrival (TDOA) data to determine the tag’s precise location via X and Y linear position.

According to Zebra officials, MotionWorks can pinpoint the location of players and tagged balls within about six inches. The technology captures tag location 12 times per second for players, and 25 times a second for balls.

How Used by Vikings Staff

Since the deployment at the Vikings’ training site this summer, “we are able to operate with a high level of trust on what we are getting each day,” says Ridenour.

The Vikings have used the technology data at every practice, rehab session and running workouts, says Ridenour. Since the data is identical to the details coming from games, “we know where we have to work backward from, in terms of planning for workouts or rehab sessions.”

Additionally, the training staff can keep an eye on specific athletes who have be identified as either needing more or less speed exposures or yardages, based on their actions on the field.

“After a session, the data will be placed in context with our previous loading so we can determine how athletes are trending and identify any outliers in the group,” explains Ridenour.

Advantages of Zebra technology

The team values several key features of the technology, one of which is the long-term life of the battery which keeps system management efforts to a minimum.

“This specific technology removes many of the logistical difficulties because managers don’t have to insert and remove trackers from shirts or jerseys every day before and after practice,” said Ridenour, specifically citing that batteries do not need to be charged every night. “More of our energies can be channeled toward the athletes and the decision-making from the data.”

For each team, Zebra installs all anchor hardware and provides tags in a two-week time period. The anchors are permanent, once deployed. They can sustain outdoor conditions so that the infrastructure stays up all year. After the technology is installed, team management is trained on its use as part of their daily operations.

The data is typically stored on a local–or Cloud-based–server owned by the team and only available to the team.

The Challenging Environment of Practice

Russo noted data collection can be more challenging in practice environments than in an actual game. At a practice, there are about 15 more players on the field then the 48 who dress on Sundays.

At games, all activity centers around individual plays that are more structured than activity on a practice field and a smaller amount of players are on the field during a play in the game.

“In practice you have upwards of 70 guys,” Russo explains, as well as multiple balls, all of which are being tracked. “Knowing where the footballs are and when they’re being used in individual sessions is almost as important as the players.”

Sharing With Players

Teams using MotionWorks for practices are focused on monitoring how athletes recovering from an injury are faring, and ensuring they aren’t overexerting themselves. The ultimate goal for the Minnesota staff is to have their players at their optimal level for game day—the Vikings are fighting for a playoff spot this year, with a 6-6 record.

Some teams make the Motionworks practice performance information available for their players as part of their game plans—including which are the fastest quarterbacks, running backs or receivers. Many players appreciate the competitive advantage the data collection can give, stated Russo.

“We’re in a data-oriented world now and the players are looking for that kind of [information],” he said.

With the technology in place, running at low power with long-lived batteries, the staff is more available to help the athletes prep or recover from practice.

“Extra hands aren’t needed to charge, place and collect up to 90 units every single day,” said Ridenour, adding that the team’s staff can focus more on the players and their health and less about the technology in the team’s drive over the next five week’s to make the playoffs.

Key Takeaways:

  • Minnesota Vikings are tracking player performance and safety during training with MotionWorks from Zebra Technologies.
  • The NFL team says the solution provides reliable data without requiring frequent maintenance or battery changes.