The world of martial arts can seem to be very intimidating to some. Not only because of the hard blows a professional can throw, but also because of trainers who run their gyms like a military drill sergeant and seem to guard over the mat or ring like a rottweiler does for his boss's house: "This is my property and you enter at your own risk.”
Think of trainers like Mike Passenier, Thom Harinck or, on the big screen, Sylvester Stallone in the boxing film Creed. All of them “have been around the block” in the fighting business and have a proven method with which they create champions. They will probably never deviate from what they know. How then would you, as a recently graduated kinesiologist, convince them that you might have one of the last missing pieces in their puzzle to shape the most optimal preparation for a fighter in the run-up to his or her fight? That you might be the blind spot that the trainer didn't think he had?
Nilas van Woersem, co-founder of Next Round, had to ask himself that question when it was his turn to do the rounds around all the gyms in the Netherlands with his product, the intelligent punching bag Next Round, and pitch his innovation.
An innovative product for the world of martial arts
The Next Round Punching Bag is a bag with built-in technology (so-called Impact Sense Technology) that can measure the impact of punches and display accurate data from it. For example, this data can be used by a boxer to see how conditionally fit he or she is leading up to a match of how well they really are tracking in terms of strength. All aspects that can only partly be picked with the naked eye, even those of experienced trainers, but can have an impact on what to focus on during the training camp and, ultimately, the strategy for the match.
Is it uncomfortable to pull up outside these trainers’ gyms and try and convince them that you could be the missing piece in their training method? Nilas: “We definitely came across a lot of resistance in the initial stages when we were looking for partners and trainers who wanted to try and work with our product. You feel that the more experienced trainers have not been involved with the introduction of technology at any time in their career and find the introduction of it into their sport a little too exotic”.
However, Nilas and his other co-founder Tim van der Vaart are not the types who shy away from a challenge and be shown the door after the first no. Instead, they invite those boxing coaches for a quick “sparring session” to hopefully convince them of the positive effects their technology can bring to their training methods.
Rest assured, readers, Nilas and Tim didn’t literally suggest getting into the ring with every boxing trainer who had questions about his product but they did act as a punching bag for all the proverbial blows they received such as critical questions, doubts and other scepticism that the people they were speaking to might have had.
Nilas: "Let me be very clear that we never had the intention with our product to create something that would replace the boxing trainer at a certain point or that we would know better than the same boxing trainer, that is not our intention." "We see ourselves as the trainer's sidekick to enable people to train better, but also to contribute to a wider range of training courses for a larger audience." "Martial arts is so much about the finesse that technology cannot replace."
Nilas studied kinesiology at the VU in Amsterdam and during his studies he joined a research group that was investigating innovation opportunities within the martial arts. Nilas: “We were all interested in martial arts but also saw that there was far too little innovation. We were determined to change this. "At the end of the day, the sport works like the rest of the business world, if you see an opportunity somewhere you have to jump on it."
He continues: "This group started looking for ways to get data from martial artists, but we only ran into very limited materials: sensors on the wrist or a power plate on the wall." "Any product we saw would take the athlete out of his natural movement and therefore not work properly."
The team's first step was to talk to martial artists in particular and learn about training methods and other practices: "They were positive about the fact that it should be a punching bag." hitting and kicking them hard. ”
The punching bag in such a version did not yet exist, so this group started working with this product. Nilas: "The product really didn't look good at first." "There were several cables hanging out, it was too expensive, and, above all, very impractical." "However, we did see the potential." The next question for Nilas was whether there is an actual market for an intelligent punching bag and, if there is, can we offer the product at a reasonable price? Nilas: “This is the opportunity I jumped on and once we had figured out the potential and our business plan, we started talking to customers." "My fellow researchers from that group then dropped out and I asked Tim, the other co-founder, to join them."
The real next round
The company initially started as Strike FX but was soon transformed into Next Round to help both competitive and recreational martial arts participants move to the next round in their careers and fitness. “The beauty of a punching bag is that you use your whole body and you really feel like you're giving something up and shaking it off. It's perhaps the closest thing to actually hitting someone and while we obviously don't want to recreate that idea it does give people a great deal of confidence that they can do it and then confidence again.
Since gyms were the first real audience for Next Round when they launched, it was a big laugh when the pandemic brought society to a standstill. Suddenly it seemed like the whole market was gone. But, it also offered extra time to refine the product and present itself better. The Next Round punching bag is already being used in more than 30 gyms in the Netherlands.
It is now up to the team to stay focused and not be distracted by the thousands of suggestions they receive to improve the product. Nilas: “Of course we collect all feedback, but it is very important to stick to what we started with. For example, we want to develop the gamification aspect of the punching bag more and hopefully also enter the international market.