Data & Innovation, Performance | Jul 31, 2020
Views from the worlds of the NBA, rugby league and international netball.

What does the future hold in store for your sport when it comes to data?

By John Portch

We posed variations of that question to three practitioners – a head coach, a director of performance & sports science, and a performance manager – to chart their thoughts on the evolution of data analysis, what can be gleaned from study visits, and if there is any hope for injury prediction tools in the near future.

Here is what they had to say on the matter.

Using data to track how performance evolves 

On occasion, as Jess Thirlby, the Head Coach of England Netball explains, data can be used by players and her coaching staff to track where the sport is going heading into the cycle for a major competition. 

“I think looking at those trends and where the biggest differentiators are and, therefore, where we focus energy is a really interesting piece,” says the Head Coach who took the reins of the England Netball Roses last summer. 

“We’re looking at rule changes and what impact that has on the game; we’re also looking at winning and losing margins. I think we’re in a great place now.” Thirlby’s team are the reigning Commonwealth champions – arguably the most prestigious competition in the sport – and are well-placed to challenge for future honours after decades spent as also-rans as the powerhouses of Australia and New Zealand ruled supreme. That Commonwealth gold, delivered in beating the Australians on home soil at the 2018 Gold Coast Games, was a high watermark that Thirlby is tasked with matching. 

“For the last five or six years are getting a lot closer,” she explains, while also emphasising that the fine work of England Netball extends back more than a decade. “England used to fall into that bronze medal playoff on the back of a losing margin most probably of at least ten or more goals against Australia or New Zealand and I think we’ve made a massive impact in that area now, but we need to be comfortable and better at living in that space.  

“I still don’t think we’re there and if and when we reach more finals, we’ve got to be good enough to compete in those finals, not just make a final; and what you often see with a team that hasn’t lived in that space is that they then fall away and it’s not competitive.” 

What worked in 2018 will not work at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham and data will form an integral part of continuously establishing what it takes to win. “We need to be getting ourselves ready, not just to get in a final but actually then be able to go goal to goal; that’s definitely something I use to shed some light on.” 

Questions to ask yourself on a study visit 

As the San Antonio Spurs’ Director of Performance and Sports Science , Xavi Schelling has conducted numerous study visits to elite sports organisations across the globe during his six years with the team. 

The Spurs, who are one of the most respected organisations in world sport, have a good handle on best practice in performance, but that does not dim their eternal curiosity. “In English, you say the grass is always greener on the other side’,” says Schelling with a smile. “You visit someone else and they have this toy, that toy or some other toy and a recurrent question is: ’why we don’t have it?’ We don’t have it probably because we didn’t need it or we didn’t have that question yet and we have enough questions of our own already. Let’s try to answer the questions we already have in place and try to minimise the amount of technology, because, if you keep adding stuff to your room, and collecting new data, it’s going to lead to a paralysis by analysis; you have so much to digest that you’re not capable of acting properly upon that information, nor systematically because there is too much to comprehend.  

“I think it’s better to keep it tight, efficient, so that everything is part of your day to day operations instead of having a lot of assessments that you can’t implement because you have no time. Learning and growing with the organisation enables you to implement progressively what is needed instead of copying whatever they have in another organisation.” 

In that case, what question does Schelling ask himself on a study visit to, say, the English Premier League or Australian Football League? “There are two questions that are key for me regarding data management and technology, and I’ve been lucky enough to visit some of the top sporting organisations in the world,” he begins in reply. “But the most important recurring questions are what’s the workflow? When the player walks into the facility, what is the day for them, from the player’s perspective? With whom do they interact in terms of people? With which technology do they interact? And how do players, and staff, digest the information that is being collected? What’s the level of interaction with staff and technology? How do they digest the information? Is it reported on-demand or available for everyone once a day, week or maybe it’s never. 

“The other question is: what’s your criteria for implementing new technology? Technology not just being a device but a reporting tool, for instance. What is your reason for introducing whatever tracking system you use?  

“I think that knowing the perspective of the player and knowing your criteria gives you a very good picture of what is the reasoning behind whoever is leading the department. You can extrapolate that question to, ‘OK, if you are more focused on front office or more focused on coaches, then it’s useful to ask what the daily workflow is like for a coach?’ Because that will give you lots of information. ‘Is this coach someone who, likes to have every morning a report on his desk on yesterday’s session? No, this is a guy who likes a tablet or a video or he hates numbers and just wants one meeting?’ 

“‘Or the front office, how are decisions made in the front office? Is this a collective decision or a report-based decision?’ If you try to ask whoever you visit: ‘OK, tell me how the stakeholder lives one day and how  you implement reports, technology or devices, it’s going to give you a good picture of how organisations are run.’” 

When will we finally be able to model injury? 

Athlete availability and game readiness are priorities for performance teams, with recovery and injury the greatest physiological concerns. But how close is sport and data to being able to predict injury occurrence? 

“I think we are a fair way away from being able to model injury,” admits Andrew Gray, the High Performance Manager of Wests Tigers, who has worked with a number of teams across Australia, and is the Founder and Director of the Athletic Data Innovations consultancy. “I don’t know if that will ever happen and I have issues with modelling injury. The variability in the data and the fact that not enough injuries occur these days to give any data model enough power there.  

“What I do think we need to do is understand change. Using tech and data to understand change and then using experience to understand what that change might be from and then intervene on the change; I think that’s what’s most important.  

“If you intervene on the change then you’re more likely to keep the right path rather than just waddle through injury and think the model is going to take care of everything. If you’re modelling for change and you’re working on each individual player’s area of weakness, then I think over time you’re going to keep a better path and create more resilient, robust athletes. Hopefully, they’re also going to take more responsibility for their own preparation.” 

Looking for more performance insight?

Performance 21 is available for download now and leads with a selection of insights lifted from our At Home With Leaders podcast series, which has featured the likes of England Rugby’s Eddie Jones, the Toronto Blue Jays’ Mark Shapiro, and Chelsea’s Emma Hayes speaking directly from their home offices.

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