The Babolat Play Pure Drive tennis racket, the Zepp golf and tennis sensor.

Washington - I’ve made peace with the notion that I’ll for ever be a sad-to-middling weekend athlete. And yet I like to imagine that I could be better.

I’m not alone. Millions of plodding, athletically challenged, wannabe jocks out there scour YouTube clips for coaching tips, enrol for lessons from pros and buy bizarre and, frankly, embarrassing instructional aids.

The latest trend in sporty self-improvement: sensors that analyse your physical form and give instant feedback.

These consumer devices – packed with teensy accelerometers, gyroscopes and Bluetooth transmitters – promise to track the speed of your golf swing, the shape of your tennis stroke and the backspin on your basketball jump shot.

I wondered: could technology help? I tested a few products to see.

One must acknowledge a fundamental weakness with these sports sensors: simply knowing, say, how fast you swing your 7-iron does not at all translate into hitting a golf ball straight and true.

Improving in an athletic endeavour requires a collection of tiny, subtle adjustments. Tweaks to your stance, rhythm, balance, alignment, fluidity.

Only a trained eye would be able to watch the whole motion and identify its weak link.

Still, some of these sensor products are useful. Herewith my rankings on the country club ladder, from worst to first:


Babolat Play Pure Drive tennis racket

There’s something pleasingly sci-fi about a tennis racket with a mini-USB port hidden in its handle. Pop open the Babolat’s cap and it’s hard not to feel you’re peering into the future of sports. The promise is obvious: play a set or two, plug the racket into your laptop, and download an instant, detailed analysis of your performance. I couldn’t wait to take this thing out for a spin.

Sadly, the reality was far less fun. Despite repeated efforts, I couldn’t get this thing to work. Scads of online reviews confirmed my suspicions: the Babolat is buggy.

Although my computer recognised the racket, it failed to locate any data from my on-court sessions. I called up Babolat, which acknowledged the bug, promised me it’s working on a long-term fix, and gave me instructions for a short-term workaround. I followed those instructions closely, yet the racket still failed.

Even if the Babolat had performed smoothly, I see a core problem with its model. What if you prefer a racket with a larger or smaller head size? What if, mid-set, you’d like to be able to swop a back-up racket with a different string tension? Or what if, heaven forbid, you break a string?

Because the sensor is buried in the handle, and the handle is non-transferable, you have to play with this particular $400 (R4 350) racket if you wish to record your data. Seems like a fatal flaw. And one that could be easily obviated – as demonstrated by our next competitor.


Zepp golf and tennis sensor

The Zepp can be used – with various mounting accessories – to analyse a tennis shot, a baseball swing or a golf stroke. I first tried it with tennis. It slips into a rubbery housing that stretches over the butt of any racquet, even a cheap one. The sensor doesn’t get in the way of your grip. I soon forgot it was there.

Unlike the Babolat Play, the Zepp offered some results. I easily paired it with my phone, using Bluetooth. The Zepp tennis app immediately downloaded a snapshot of the set I’d played.

There were interesting nuggets in the data. The Zepp tallied 254 shots – 58 percent of them forehands and 35 percent backhands – over the hour I had been on the court. It showed I had struck my groundstrokes with consistent power over the course of the set, while my serve lost oomph towards the end as I got tired and my shoulder grew grumpy.

But I wasn’t convinced the details were wholly accurate. The Zepp said 47 percent of my forehands were sliced, which couldn’t have been right – I know I hit all but a few of these strokes flat or with topspin. More damning, it said I hit only 16 serves during the set, which was simply impossible. I hit nearly that many in a single long game that featured multiple deuces. Zepp acknowledged the flaw and said it was working on better serve recognition.

At a driving range, I slipped the Zepp into a mount that lets you affix it to your golf glove. Then I hit a slew of balls, alternating between a driver and a 7-iron. The sensor tells you your club speed (mine ranged from 124km/h to 166km/h as I cycled through differing levels of frustration and physical anger) and compares the tempo of your backswing with your follow through (mine mostly hovered around 2.5:1, meaning it took me 2.5 times longer to draw the club back than to swing it forward).

It also creates a beautiful animation of your swing, which you can rotate to view from different angles. This was the most intriguing feedback for me, as it let me compare the plane of my swing with the ideal plane that Zepp suggests. According to the sensor, I swing too horizontally (like a merry-go-round) and should get more vertical (like a Ferris wheel).

By watching the animated playback of my swing immediately after each drive, I nudged myself towards a more upright swing plane.

The problem: these more vertical swings produced terrible results – wicked slices that veered off my club into the side netting of the driving range.

Perhaps a seasoned golfer with good form and self-knowledge could use the Zepp to experiment with nuanced adjustments. But for a duffer like me (personal best round: 106), the Zepp’s feedback was like sparks thrown on damp kindling. I didn’t know how to use its suggestions, and I wanted the help of a golf pro to spot basic flaws in my form. Perhaps in concert with some human instruction, the Zepp could be a handy device.

The coach could point out my best swing, recording its data on the Zepp, and then I could check future swings against that ideal when I practised alone. By itself, the Zepp wasn’t enough to improve my game.


3Bays GSA Pro

This slick little sensor didn’t interfere with my grip. It’s mounted to a fixed spot on the base of the golf club. To me, that seemed likely to offer more consistent results than the Zepp approach, in which you wear the sensor on your hand and then tell the device the approximate angle of your grip.

I loved the ability to follow through on a drive, step over to my phone and immediately watch my swing recreated in vivid animation – with stats on my club-head speed, impact force, tempo and so forth. The GSA Pro seemed trustworthy: when I speeded up or slowed my swing, or changed its arc, the device recognised the difference.

My favourite feature: the sensor informed me I was almost always hitting the ball with the club face too open (instead of square on) and that my swing path was too outside the ball. This is useful and actionable knowledge. But putting it into play would be easier if I had a pro at my side to coach me through the necessary adjustments, instead of guessing how to achieve them.


94Fifty Smart Sensor basketball

I had high hopes for the 94Fifty, which embeds sensor technology and a Bluetooth transmitter inside a standard basketball.

The ball can measure how fast you dribble, how hard you dribble, how quickly you release a shot after receiving a pass, the arc of that shot and the backspin on the ball each time you shoot it.

You can’t use the 94Fifty during a game (the ball wouldn’t know which player did what, and it couldn’t automatically switch between analysing ball handling and shooting), but the accompanying app is perfectly designed to lead you through individual drills.

I tried it out with friends. The sensor seems highly accurate. It tallied my dribbles, told me the precise revolutions a minute on my jump shot and recognised whether that shot more closely resembled a rainbow or a clothesline.

As a diagnostic exercise, this seemed hugely useful. It was evident that everybody in my game was dribbling the ball with inadequate force, shooting at too flat an angle and not launching the ball with enough backspin – all of which rang true. Further proof: the better shooters in my game had the highest arcs and the most spin. – Slate / The Washington Post News Service