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Meet LAFC's Newest Teammate: AI That Keeps Players Safe
Last November in an interview with broadcaster Piers Morgan, worldwide soccer superstar Christiano Ronaldo revealed that the reason he was leaving Manchester United only a year after his return to the club was at least in part due to the team’s lack of “technology, especially in terms of training, nutrition and condition.”
There certainly were other factors motivating Ronaldo to leave Man U – but overall, he spoke to a larger issue that soccer as a whole is facing: adopting technology to help its players compete at the highest level of the sport.
The MLS championship-winning team Los Angeles Football Club isn’t one to be left behind, though. LAFC recently welcomed a new teammate – an artificial intelligence that’s tasked with making sure its human counterparts are in top shape as they begin their new season next month.
Created by Seattle-based genetic testing startup 3x4 Genetics, the product is called Genefit and it claims to be the “world’s first” software built for large-scale use of reviewing physiological data and genetics to predict injuries. Though 3x4 Genetics has been around since 2018, its Genefit division, which hopes to help advise coaches and players on training and recovery, launched in May 2021.
How does it work? The process begins with players giving a cheek swab to Genefit, which sends it to a lab for analysis—a process that currently takes several weeks . The players then receive a private copy of their genetic profile and then can meet with Genefit’s team of doctors who analyze and explain the results.
LAFC’s head of performance Gavin Benjafield said that initially, he was skeptical of the technology, but soon found it a useful addition to the club’s existing suite of medical devices. “We link out some of our wearables with their platform, and [Genefit is] taking our training load numbers, our sleep numbers, and combining that with [their] genetic profiling,” Benjafield said.
The soccer club began a test run with nine players nearly a year ago. But LAFC has since added all but one person who didn’t feel comfortable sharing their genetic data to Genefit’s platform.
“We were pleasantly surprised that a lot of [Genefit’s] information lined up with information we have grown to collect [on our players] over time,” Benjafield said, noting however, that he couldn’t share specifics.
The tech comes at a time when soccer is quickly embracing new technologies; the 2021 FIFA Arab Cup saw the introduction of new player motion-tracking systems and the 2022 World Cup introduced motion sensors in “living” footballs from Adidas to aid refs with offsides calls.
Benjafield said LAFC put Genefit through a rigorous approval process before deciding to partner with the genetic testing startup. Genefit was vetted by LAFC’s legal team and the Players Union, who stipulated that the club had to agree it wouldn’t use genetic data to make contract decisions.
According to Benjafield, player data isn’t stored on LAFC servers and players receive a physical and digital copy of their reports that’s “triple-encrypted” and stored across multiple countries, said Genefit CEO Tony Hsu. “I don’t have access to those reports, and they are only between the clinician and the player,” Hsu added. To his point, players choose which members of their coaching staff can see their genetic reports.
In addition to working directly with pro sports outfits, the company also offers direct-to-consumer genetic testing. Hsu told dot.LA the company’s core business is actually pairing a licensed practitioner with a patient to go over their genetic report once the company receives a sample.
For LAFC players, the genetic data also can be linked with information from the suite of wearables that the team already uses. Two examples of this are heart rate monitor belts by Firstbeat or sleep monitoring rings by Finnish company Oura, Benjafield said.
Hsu called Genefit “the world's first genetically based platform that incorporates personalized genetics with any wearable data.” And though right now LAFC is the only MLS soccer club using Genefit, judging by Ronaldo’s comments, it’s clear that the pros are eager to see their clubs invest in more technology that aids their performance and recovery.
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