Data & Innovation, Performance | Sep 25, 2019
There is room for subjectivity but avoid politically-charged scenarios, and here's why you really shouldn't avoid that low-hanging fruit.

While it is easy to think that the data you have in hand is a game-changer, it counts for little if the message is not packaged in the right way and sent by the right messenger. Here are ten steps to consider on the path to building trust with coaches and athletes alike.

By John Portch

1. Have the right conduit

Detailed analytical reports might be the order of the day for performance staff but these can very quickly get “analytically heavy” as Chad Gerhard of the Orlando Magic says. “There are several levels of reporting, obviously, and the reports I am pushing out are to be digested by sports medical, sports performance, high performance personnel.” Therefore, it is incumbent on his boss, Orlando’s Performance Director David Tenney, to bring a digestible version of the report to the coaching staff. “Dave has a good relationship with the coaches and is the one who talks to them more or less every single day and he’s the one who interprets it and packages it in a way that makes sense to the coach.”

2. Reach for the low-hanging fruit

You will never be able to address every point on your list so go for the easiest, most accessible datasets. “We play 82 games in six months,” says Chad Gerhard. “We play on average three or four games per week. Unfortunately, there’s nothing you can do with that schedule and we need to work around that. The lowest-hanging fruit for us is the shoot around and days off. Those are the things we can manipulate to try and give our guys as much recovery and rest as possible.” The easiest way, he says, is communicating with the coach. “We start by asking how many minutes a guy has played in the last four days? Questions like that are very digestible from the coach’s perspective because that’s how they live; they see the game in terms of minutes played before you get to any fancy metrics.”

3. Allow for subjective elements

As performance staffs proliferate, the emphasis on subjective metrics of wellness and fitness grow, which means data collection must be completed with this trend in mind. “Baseball is not an industry full of dummies,” says Ryan Murray of the Texas Rangers. “We’re very smart people and it’s evident that not only objective but subjective information is becoming more and more involved in our modelling and predictive software. It’s about using that to our advantage rather than just ad hoc conversations or an objective way of thinking about a problem.”

4. Simplify for the coach

When it comes to placing data in a coach’s hands it had better be simple. “You’ll see a lot of graphs that look really simple and clean, but they’re underpinned by complex datasets that we have to boil down and clean up,” says David Martin, formerly of the Philadelphia 76ers. “You can easily have around 100 parameters available to look at after a game and we’ll try to identify parameters that correlate to one another very tightly. We would take the variables available to us and try to boil them down to a couple of metrics that tell the story. We’d then ask, ‘do you have any questions, coach?’”

5. Have exit strategies

As an analyst, a coach will not heed your suggestions on every occasion and it is best not to take it personally. “We are advisors in professional sport; advisors to the coaches, the players, the front office,” says David Martin. “The way that you provide that advice has to have exit strategies so that if they don’t take your advice you can’t get upset about it. If they don’t understand your advice you can’t say they are stupid or unintelligent. You need to come up with a new infographic or you need to find another time to talk to them or you just need to recognize that despite your best advice that for whatever reason the team is not going to take onboard your recommendation. If it’s not taken onboard you go back to the drawing board and get ready for the next issue.”

6. Be visual

Heuristic data – where coaches and athletes can educate themselves – particularly when it is visual, has proven a valuable tool in the military and is starting to make inroads in performance as sport wakes up to the possibilities of a visual approach. “I saw a very interesting presentation given by DAARPA,”says David Martin. “They were creating advanced infographics that would allow a platoon to rapidly understand a number of characteristics. They were creating pictures and you would be trained to read those pictures.” Expect to see more visual representations of data across elite sport.

7. Try to speak to the athlete on their terms

“Some guys, if you have that conversation, you can get what you need out of them and with other guys you can’t,” says Chad Gerhard of his situation at Orlando Magic. “That’s where you have a blend of data and information and you report it saying, ‘you look like you’re struggling, you look like your ankle is affecting you a little bit, and they might say that you’re fine, but if you actually look at it there’s data to support that you take three times as many jumpers off your left than you do from you right and every time you sprint you cut to the right. I think you’re compensating a little bit – what’s going on?’ it’s really those conversations where the data really comes into play and really helps guide the conversation.” It is essential that those conversations be game-related. “It has to be basketball-related because if it’s not then it doesn’t matter. You always have to bring it back to, ‘this is what you look like during a game’.” Also, in basketball, as in numerous sports, athletes will listen when you stress ideas that will extend their careers and, as a consequence, their earning potential. “‘I’m here to help you have a longer career,’” Gerhard will tell players. “‘I can’t make you any younger but we can try to change and adapt your training and maybe you’ll get another contract. I want to keep you in the league as long as I can.’ When you put it in terms like that it starts to make sense to these guys.”

8. Public praise can go a long way

Data can be powerful when used to praise athletes in front of their peers. “Guys love hearing what they do well,” observes Ryan Murray. “At the beginning of Spring Training, we have small group sessions with subsets of players. You lift them up in front of their teammates, you start getting some momentum going.”

9. Be aware of the piggy bank

No one department can mopolise an athlete’s time and analytics is no different. “There’s zero time in the NBA and that’s the toughest part,” says Chad Gerhard. “You really have to pick the big-ticket items; ‘if I only have five minutes with you then this is what you need to do in those five minutes.’ I look at it like the athlete’s piggy bank and everyone is trying to take money out of that piggy bank. I am trying to take money and so is the athletic trainer, the physical therapist, the masseuse, the chef, the head coach, the general manager, the media. They only have so much money to give and you have to ask yourself ‘how much money do I want to take?’ and of course you want to take all of it but I can only take a small piece.”

10. Avoid politically-charged scenarios

It is all too easy for an analyst to be drawn into personal agendas and that is to be avoided at all costs. “If a player comes to you with a question that is politically-charged,” says David Martin, “a question such as, ‘am I moving quicker than the person that substitutes in for me?’ because they’re worried about their job, you might say, ‘it’s an interesting question and we can look into it but we should get your coach in on this discussion.’ You don’t want to be used as a pawn or a piece of leverage in some agenda and you need to be careful about that. Equally, an assistant coach could come and ask for data that directly undermines the head coach or the owner might ask you for data that gives them the excuse to fire the head coach. You have to be very careful about those situations.”

This exclusive feature has been extracted from our latest Special Report: Navigating the Data Maze. Download the full report by clicking below, and keep an eye out for our next Special Report landing in just a few weeks time.

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