April 20, 2024

Why some amateur athletes are giving up smart watches

Measure the number of steps you take each day; tracking your heart rate, pace or average climb while jogging; memorize the total distance you cycle over the course of a year and share it with an online community. These practices have become common in the world of sports, even for fans.

This digitization of physical activity is developing against the backdrop of a global proliferation of self-quantification tools used to measure productivity at work, track calorie intake, blood sugar levels and weight, monitor sleep regulation and more.

The market for these tools in sporting activities, alone, is lucrative and competitive. As Finnish researchers Pekka Mertala and Lauri Palsa report, the digital sports technology business is estimated to be worth $12 billion a year, with more than 10,000 wearable digital devices just for running. About 90 percent of amateur runners currently use a smartwatch or mobile app.

Tracking your body with numbers is associated with a series of promises to become more active, happy and healthy, and the concept of empowerment. Due to its objectivity and transparency (compared to the approximate nature of bodily sensations), this knowledge is considered the basis of a personal self-optimization project.

These integrated devices are also used as motivational support, to encourage regularity and assiduousness and to put an end to lifestyle habits considered unhealthy. Being part of a community of athletes can also increase motivation by interweaving systems of mutual encouragement and competition.

However, we are currently seeing a slowdown in this market linked to a massive phenomenon of discontinuing the use of digital devices or, at least, using them for short periods.

The discontinuation of connected devices.

First of all, we must remember that the adoption of connected devices for sports is not distributed evenly among the population. It is overrepresented among urban men, with a high level of education, socially advantaged and physically active. Furthermore, the age group of 30 to 39 years is the most equipped with smart bracelets and watches.

While certain population groups have less access to these integrated technologies, others who have acquired them will stop using them, usually after a limited period of use. The mechanisms that lead to this are extremely varied and include logistical overload, the time-consuming dimension of transferring and interpreting data, a lack of precision and reliability in data collection, and difficulty in interpreting and using data, among others.

Being part of a digital community could help motivate people to play sports.

We believe that the rejection of these devices may be a consequence of a deterioration in the quality of a sport’s experience when using them. For some participants, putting numbers on an activity actually leads them to experience it more as forced labor than free, self-determined leisure.

Intrinsic motivation (the pleasure of running for its own sake) then tends to be supplanted by extrinsic motivation (rewards, comparisons, mutual monitoring). The context of a constant call to improve can generate an anticipated fear of failure, as well as a feeling of shame and guilt in case of poor performance. Cognitive overload and distracted attention can also lead to a disconnection from the here and now of the activity itself and the bodily sensations related to it.

Viewed another way, the smartwatch recall could be an act of resistance with strong political, philosophical, or even spiritual meaning. It may be a desire to break with what is perceived as a pervasive system of surveillance, to emancipate oneself from the pressure of sports social media, to reject a materialistic career due to excess equipment, or even to re-emphasize the Body sensations in sports training. .

The attitude of rejection can be linked to the emergence of minimalist values ​​such as sobriety, voluntary simplicity and frugality. It is about rediscovering a form of lost freedom, lightness or even resonance.

Adherence to quantification tools.

Not all amateur runners who have started using a digital self-quantification tool have stopped using it. While abandoning tools is a significant and explainable phenomenon, the reasons for sticking to them must also be considered. What are the conditions that allow amateur runners to continue practicing and numerically quantifying their performance while deriving pleasure and well-being from the activity?

We showed that amateur runners who persevered in the use of digital tools were those who developed a high level of expertise in self-quantification. More specifically, they managed to improvise and incorporate a series of tactics, or even “everyday tricks”, as Michel de Certeau said, that allowed them to interact with their digital device without altering the quality of their sports experience.

A first approach to this is to differentiate and alternate the uses of the smart watch over time. To begin, they modulate the intensity and types of tool use to adapt to changing life conditions (for example, suspending the goal of exceeding performance levels during a year when family life is demanding). They also learn to leave aside certain areas of quantification (sleep, for example) to focus their efforts exclusively on running.

Regarding the training cycle, these runners differentiate their modes of interaction with the tool (frequency of consultation of the tool, nature of the data collected) according to the type of training session they perform. For example, intensive use is reserved. Use the smartwatch for interval training sessions, but only check it occasionally during recovery runs, marathon pace workouts, or technical sessions. Finally, during a given running session, runners focus on certain key moments when they check their watch. Others never look at the clock during the race, but only afterward, or the other way around.

Woman running with a connected watch
Runners who are skilled at self-quantification adjust their interaction with digital tools based on life circumstances.

A second tactic is to agree to adjust, revise, or even abandon goals along the way, depending on the runner’s perceived fitness and/or environmental conditions. This flexibility reflects the development of a relationship of self-care and benevolence toward oneself.

Finally, a third everyday tactic leads amateur runners to systematically take care to contextualize what they consider counterperformance. Far from considering the figures only in their raw form, they use them to understand the mechanisms underlying the process of producing compensation (bad nights, professional stress, etc.).

The nature of the file attached to the device.

We wanted to better understand the connections runners form with their digital tracking device. To do this, we asked them to take it off during a single running session, while they described in real time, using a dictaphone, how they felt. This change, which was out of the ordinary for most of them, proved particularly destabilizing and revealed how deeply embedded their use of and attachment to the tool was.

All of the subjects we studied initially admitted to feeling very apprehensive at the idea of ​​running without a watch. They tried to deal with it in different ways: postponing the departure; walking a course they had just completed with the watch, to use numerical reference points; using the dictaphone to estimate the duration and pace of the race; and, finally, hiding a watch in a backpack so they could record the amount of running they had done.

Most participants then felt a void of motivation caused by the absence of the watch, which, when worn, functioned as an incentive to act and a way to challenge themselves. They felt that the session without a watch was longer, harder, more painful and even useless: why put in the effort if you don’t know the exact result and it is not recorded or stored?

Runners also found that simply wearing the watch led them to focus too much attention on the numbers to the detriment of their running technique, the outside environment, or their bodily sensations.

The absence of the clock was also considered physically destabilizing by some. Deprived of their tool, the runners felt naked, unbalanced and asymmetrical and, in most cases, could not inhibit the reflex gesture of consulting it, proof that the object and movement associated with its use had been assimilated into habits. runner’s body. Finally, some of them found it extremely difficult to regulate their running and reliably estimate common variables such as length, distance, speed and heart rate.

Ultimately, there is nothing spontaneous, magical, or automatic about interacting with your quantization device in a functional way. You have to learn it and build it with patience. Physical and sports education in schools must adopt a formative role in this area, since digitalization is becoming inevitable in the world of sports.

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