The Long-Held Dream of Dominating J1―The Secrets Behind the Physical Training That Led the Team to Victory (Part II)

[The Power to Create the Future: Sports + ICT Vol. 2] A conversation with Fujitsu Kawasaki Frontale’s Kengo Nakamura and the team’s fitness coach, Yosuke Shinoda

Customizing Training Regimens for Each Player via Data Analysis

Kengo Nakamura training with his teammates. The players are wearing IoT devices under their training uniforms to collect data in real time.

(Continued from Part 1)

I heard that starting this year, Frontale has introduced vests with IoT devices attached that are used for physical training. These devices have been garnering much attention as major overseas clubs have led the way in introducing them, and their use is now allowed even in official matches. Please give us an idea of how they work and what advantages they offer.

Shinoda: These vests have built-in features such as GPS, heart-rate monitors, accelerometers, and geomagnetic sensors. By putting players through their training while wearing them, we can obtain data such as running distance, sprint counts, acceleration and deceleration measurements, turn counts, work-out loads, heart rates, and other data in real time. Frontale takes these data sets and compares them with actual videos to review matches. We use the results to design practice regimens for each player according to their unique characteristics and the load placed on their muscles.

IoT devices attached to vests worn by Kawasaki Frontale players. A compact GPS device sits in a pocket in the back, while the lower-chest area houses a cardiometer band.

Nakamura: As athletes, all we have to do is make sure we follow through with our prescribed practice regimen, so it doesn't really change what we do. But I do think it's great that the coach can use these devices to design more precise and effective practice routines.

Shinoda: One of the biggest advantages of using devices like these is that you can control muscle loads by looking at the data, which can help reduce the risk of injury due to excessive exercise. Of course, the data doesn't solve all of our problems. Traditionally, though, deciding on the right exercise intensity was largely dependent on the coach's experience and intuition. It's very reassuring to have data backing our assessment.

Nakamura: As more and more data get accumulated, I think it can be put to use for all kinds of purposes. For example, if we have data records of how an athlete recovers after an injury, it would be very useful information during rehabilitation. I reckon it's going to be very important going forward to keep obtaining and maintaining data for the long term.

The team's fitness coach Yosuke Shinoda holds the IoT device-equipped vest while explaining its features.

Shinoda: Many J.League clubs have begun following in the footsteps of overseas clubs in implementing these ICT devices, which I think have now become a global standard. As the development of these devices advances, I think they'll become more compact. I can foresee new features such as integrating actual footage, allowing us to view running distances and turn counts in real time just by clicking on an image of a player. These developments would allow us to instantaneously visualize data that teams need, and I think usability will steadily improve.

Embracing the Future of ICT in Training Programs and Fatigue-Measurement Systems

Fitness coach Yosuke Shinoda (left) discusses the benefits of ICT in the world of soccer with athlete Kengo Nakamura (right).

With the 2020 Olympics around the corner, the use of ICT is gaining rapid momentum in the world of sports. In what ways would you like to see it applied in soccer?

Shinoda: I'd like to see it used more to benefit the junior-league members. If we have data on the junior-league kids and their transition to the professional ranks, we'd be able to develop training programs that are even more effective. Also, if we can incorporate this technology in smartphones, we could use it to get a better understanding before training of our physical condition, the amount of sleep we got, nutrition intake, weight, how we felt when we woke up, and other data. This would allow for more precise condition management. This can also be used in health management for the general public, so I have great hopes for Fujitsu and the technology they will develop for this sort of application.

Nakamura: I'm hoping for some serious groundbreaking developments. Something straight out of science fiction, like an instantaneous teleportation machine. I know it sounds silly (laughs), but... Long-distance travel is a serious burden on us athletes. We are participating in the ACL (Asian Champions League) this year, so we'll be playing J.League matches in Japan, then getting straight on a plane to go overseas, training the very next day, and playing against a club in Asia the day after that. Schedules like this have become par for the course.

Kengo Nakamura talking about what he wants to see happen with ICT.

Shinoda: We might not see any teleporters in the near future, but we might see some kind of device that can measure the degree of fatigue that athletes experience.

Nakamura: Yeah, that's something I want, too. The way we feel fatigue differs depending on the individual. It might be a psychological thing, but some players will try to cover up their fatigue even if they've gone past their limit, and say that they're okay. If we have devices that can measure fatigue, managers and coaches can look at the numbers and make calculated decisions on who to put on the field. That would help prevent injuries, I think. Although I have to say, having my mind read like that is a scary notion.

Shinoda: There are devices that can measure the degree of stress using saliva or urine samples, but I want easier and more accurate methods of obtaining that data. For example, if a system is developed that can measure the degree of fatigue via the bedding while you're sleeping, and can help you recover more efficiently, that would be truly groundbreaking.

Balancing Human Instincts with Technology - Paving the Way to a Bright Future for Soccer

It will be fascinating to watch how ICT will help drive the evolution of soccer. Finally, please tell us about your goals for the future, and what future you hope to see in the world of soccer.

Nakamura: My goal for this year is to win championship titles in all tournaments. To achieve that, I plan to give it my all in training every day while avoiding injuries, and show results in matches. I'm not thinking too far into the future, because every year demands my full focus. That's what I want to continue doing as long as I'm an asset to this team.

Shinoda: I'm in a supporting position for the team, so from that standpoint, I want to help boost the stamina and strength of players even more than last year, and keep improving their physical condition.

Nakamura: As for the future of soccer... Who knows what will happen? Soccer has changed so much even since I started, so I can't imagine what it will be like in the future. But I do think that it's not all just about grit and willpower anymore. Going forward, I think you'll need to incorporate ICT in order to be competitive. Of course, mental factors like grit and willpower are still necessary, and will remain so. But we're already seeing results after implementing ICT, and it's also becoming a global standard, so I predict the rate at which we use technology will keep accelerating.

Shinoda: It doesn't mean that the mentality behind soccer or the old ways of training are no longer valid, but by adding scientific backing, I think we can create even better things. Although, of course, none of us can predict the future.

Kengo Nakamura spares no effort in his daily training to produce results in matches.

Nakamura: I agree. But the future is so appealing precisely because we can't predict it. We're constantly slashing our way through a jungle where we can't see what's directly in front of us. I've lived my life that way, and put my heart into practicing every day, so that I can play in matches and produce results. I feel like this is how I've been able to expand my potential bit by bit. By the time the kids today become adults, I imagine it'll be an age where various facets of our lives will be precisely controlled and neatly organized. That said, if we rely too much on data, I fear that we might miss the intrinsic talent that we see in athletes. I think it's going to be important to strike a good balance between technology and the intrinsic capabilities of humans. That, I think, would lead to an interesting future for soccer.

What do you want to achieve with ICT?
Shinoda (left) "Improve athletes' performance with ICT!"
Nakamura (right) "Quantify fatigue with ICT, please!"
Kengo Nakamura
Kengo Nakamura was born in Kodaira, Tokyo on October 31, 1980.
He joined Kawasaki Frontale in 2003 while studying at Chuo University. He's a veteran player who's remained with the club for 16 years. Nakamura was also a key player in the Japan national team, and won the J.League Most Valuable Player award during the 2016 season. One of Japan's leading soccer players, he is known for his ability to spot weaknesses in his opponents, and employs his superior techniques and strategized maneuvers to exploit them. At 37 years old, Nakamura's cunning tactics that exhibit extraordinary effectiveness at decisive moments have not faltered in the slightest. Last season, he finally won the long sought-after championship title for the first time. He will continue to play in the new season with the backing of fans and others who have supported the club.
Yosuke Shinoda
Yosuke Shinoda was born in Utsunomiya, Tochigi on September 19, 1971.
He learned the fundamentals of medical science, exercise physiology, and sports psychology at university and graduate school in the US before launching his career as a sports mentor. In 2004, he became the fitness coach for the Yokohama F. Marinos. Leveraging the many years of experience he cultivated during his career, Shinoda became the fitness coach for Kawasaki Frontale starting last season. The unwavering trust he receives from the athletes helps him to keep them at the top of their game.