Data, Sports Medicine / Science, Technology | Feb 26, 2016
The Future of Sport

I have played a part in winning cups and titles – but I’ve also experienced losing, including relegation and my team going into administration. Along the way I’ve seen how sport has changed; where progress and improvements can be seen and where things are held back by the traditions of a sport and its culture.

Sports science and monitoring

One area of change is sports science and monitoring. Our understanding of training and stress on the body has improved and the physiological basis of what an athlete does and when is constantly improving. The knowledge and expertise of sports science PhD minds in the areas of exercise, physiology, nutrition and sleep, to name a few, have transformed and revolutionised what we see on the field. Some teams now situate their labs at the training facility, where on-site testing and immediate feedback is available. With such a narrow margin between winning and losing, every advantage is vital.


There has also been a ‘data explosion’: GPS, accelerometers, heart-rate monitoring, wellness scores and RPE (Relative Perceived Exertion) have all come to the fore. The athlete and his daily routine are under the microscope like never before and we can now collect objective data, compared to just having the coaches’ and players’ subjective views. Today, the expert is a coach with both an analytical and a subjective mind.

With such a volume of data collected on a daily basis, comes the onerous task of analysing and studying it, before deciding what to actually do with it. Analytics conferences are becoming the newest sports science fad and these magic “black box scientists” are springing up everywhere, claiming to have THE answer to performance and injury prediction. Software has become the new coach.

Though I’m a fan of objective data and analytics, it doesn’t provide the complete picture on the field. Some teams collect over 1 million data points per season but have no real idea of how to use this information to have an immediate effect on the training pitch and in the performance of their athletes. Teams and professionals can become swamped by their own various different data collections. Data is only relevant in the field if it has a “cause and effect”.

For years, many coaches have been successful based on just intuition and experience. Now they need to get a better understanding of the huge technological resources out there. For modern technology to have a true effect on sport, it is the coach, and to a lesser extent the athlete, who needs to be educated by the sports scientist as to what the data means, how it can be analysed and how to use it. And if it has a positive impact, then it needs to be shown that this can be replicated for science and technology to have a true bearing on performance.

Of course simple physiological data sets, such as distance covered and heart rate, can give immediate and direct feedback to affect. But the athlete is a very complex individual, and looking at all the variables that can affect them we end up with a conundrum. From psychological to biochemical, to sleep deprivation, one needs to discover the specific variables that affect an individual athlete.

Mathematical geniuses

What is now occurring is the influence of computer scientists and mathematicians, who can take these large data sets and run regression analysis and form neural networks to see which data point is more relevant to that individual when looking at a specific outcome, for example winning and losing, or injury prevention. With their help and with computer modelling, performance can become very reliable as long as the data sets are valid and there are enough over a prolonged period of time. And the ability to run multiple simulations can duplicate scenarios hundreds of thousands of times with statistical significance to show the accuracy of the end result. Perhaps in the future, teams will not only have large sports science departments but also mathematical geniuses on their payroll?

The next frontier

The next frontier is the brain. We can now undertake brain mapping and assess brain waves and patterns when an athlete performs. This opens up a huge door as we can see the difference between an athlete making a mistake and one achieving a successful outcome. The brain is the most powerful tool any athlete has and it is a field which we have little understanding of. If we can understand its data sets and analysis, we could truly enhance the athlete’s capabilities.



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