Athletic Performance, Behavior Science, and Technology

By Sara Kupferschmidt

BAQ Columnist

Note: This article was originally published in the July 2016 issue of Behavior Analysis Quarterly, Vol. 2, (3).

In any sport, performance is related to form. How we hold our body affects the outcome whether we are serving the tennis ball or tackling our opponent on the football field. Traditionally form has been measured through observation. Recent advances in wearable clothing and technology are attempting to innovate how form in sport is measured and in some cases how feedback is delivered. This article describes two companies that have developed wearable technology that are being described as tools for measurement of form in sport and a framework for Behavioral Coaching is discussed.

One company that is attempting to innovate how form in sport is measured is XSENS. They have a variety of different products but most relevant to this article is their 3D motion tracking technology. Specifically the MVN BIOMECH. It was designed using specially developed, and very small motion trackers that are able to capture small twitches to high dynamic movements on the body. These data are captured in real time and exported into a graph and a 3D character visualization. These graphs and visualizations can then be used to: 1) provide feedback to the person wearing it and/or the coach/trainer; and 2) develop models of optimal performance for training. For more info check out the site here.

Another company that develops wearable technology and claims to measure form as it relates to yoga poses is Wearable Experiments. The NADI X are “smart yoga pants” designed to improve form for a person’s yoga pose. The pants have tiny electronics woven into the fabric at the wearer’s hips, knees, and ankles that communicate with one another to determine where the sensors are relative to the others. Once the wearer settles into a pose the sensors do a scan and provide haptic feedback. For example, if the wearer’s hip is rotated too far in a pose, a vibration will move across the hip in an outwards direction. The frequency and intensity of each vibration changes based on the body position and angle. Using an accompanying app, the wearer may monitor form and adjust accordingly. The app also includes illustrations on correct alignments and postures. For more information you can check out the site here:

While these tools may sound very exciting, they must be considered with a high level of caution. There is limited research on the actual impact that they have in improving athletic performance. Moreover, in the case of the smart yoga pants (NADI X) the poses were calibrated by speaking to yoga instructors which may not account for individual differences. It would be great to be able to customize it to suit an individual’s unique body type or to evaluate whether using them improves individual athletic performance and/or form. This would require that the wearable clothing are calibrated to individuals, and then used with that individual to compare his/her progress as opposed to being used more generally and in the same “fashion”, for lack of a better term, for everyone.

The wearable technology industry began with biometrics data (e.g., heart rate, galvanic skin response) and have now moved beyond to actual behavior or performance. Traditional measurement of these overt behaviors consisted of direct observation but may now be able to be measured in real time using the clothing on the person. These data can then be exported to develop customized feedback which in some cases includes actual animations of the error that was made juxtaposed beside the correct form. Furthermore, depending on the product, the clothing itself can provide haptic feedback to the wearer in real time. While these new wearable technology devices are becoming more and more common in large sports team franchises (e.g., Dallas Mavericks) it would be great to evaluate how performance might be affected or enhanced using these devices in conjunction with what we already know about maximizing athletic performance using the principles of Behavioral Science.

Behavioral Science has long been investigating interventions to improve athletic performance in a variety of different sports. The evidence to date suggests that an effective intervention to improve athletic performance would necessarily include some or all of the following strategies: 1) positive reinforcement; 2) goal setting; 3) modelling; 4) selftalk; and/or 5) individualized performance feedback Stokes & Luiselli, 2010). In fact when these have been included in interventions, athletic performance has been shown to improve in the following sports: 1) tennis (Buzas & Ayllon, 1981), gymnastics (Wolko, Hrycailo, & Martin, 1993), swimming (Shapiro & Shapiro, 1985), figure skating (Hume, Martin, Gonzalez, Cracklen, & Genthon, 1985), football (Smith & Ward, 2006).

Some have argued that packaging these interventions into a framework would be helpful. In fact, there are those that would describe these interventions as “Behavioral Coaching”. However, as described in Seniuk 2013 beware of the term “behavioral coaching” as there is no formal criterion as to what behavioural coaching consists of. In fact, it would serve us well to establish criterion for and to evaluate such a framework. Indeed the authors argue for the following characteristics which were selected based upon the work of Martin and Hrycaiko (1983): 1) frequent and specific measurement of performance; 2) emphasis on positive reinforcement procedures and that it includes a plan for acquisition and maintenance of the new skill; 3) athlete’s performance is measured against his/her own performance; 4) use of evidence-based procedures; 5) that the coaches themselves are also using feedback to improve his/ her behavior; and 6) that social validity measures are included. In the end whatever standard or framework is developed it will likely be critical that it is able to be customized to suit each individual athlete’s unique strengths, and areas of need. The inclusion of wearable technology is worthwhile considering as it would only enhance such a framework.


Allison, M.G., & Ayllon, T. (1980). Behavioral coaching in the development of skills in football, gymnastics, and tennis. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 13, 297-314.

Balcazar, F.E., Hopkins, B., & Suarez, Y. (1985). A critical objective review of performance feedback. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 7, 65-89.

Boyer E, Miltenberger R.G, Batsche C, Fogel V. Video modeling by experts with video feedback to enhance gymnastics skills. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 2009;42:855–860.

Buzas, H.P., & Ayllon, T. (1981). Differential reinforcement in coaching tennis skills. Behavior Modification, 5, 372-385.

Hume, K.M., Martin, G.L., Gonzalez, P., Cracklen, C., & Genthon, S. (1985). A self- monitoring feedback package for improving freestyle figure skating practice. Journal of Sport Psychology, 7, 333-345.

Ming S, Martin G.L. (1996) Single-subject evaluation of a self-talk package for improving figure skating performance. The Sport Psychologist, 10:227–238.

O’Brien, F., Azrin, N. (1970). Behavioral engineering: control of posture by informational feed-back. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 3, 235-240.

Seniuk, H.A., Witts, B.N., Williams, W.L., & Ghezzi, P.M., (2013). On Terms. The Behavior Analyst, 36, 167-172.

Shapiro, E.S., & Shapiro, S. (1985). Behavioral coaching in the development of skills in track. Behavior Modification, 9, 211-224.

Smith, S.L., & Ward, P. (2006). Behavioral interventions to improve performance in collegiate football. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 39, 385-391

Stokes J.V, Luiselli J.K. (2010) Functional analysis and behavioral coaching intervention to improve tackling skills of a high school football athlete. Journal of Clinical Sport Psychology, 4:150–157.

Wolko, K.L., Hrycaiko, D.W., & Martin, G.L. (1993). A comparison of two self-management packages to standard coaching for improving practice performance of gymnasts. Behavior Modification, 17, 209-223


Email Subscription

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.