Data & Innovation, Performance | Jun 29, 2020
At the English Institute of Sport and UK Sport, the Sport Intelligence team are striving to create a culture of data exploration across Olympic and Paralympic sports.

“Our mission is to help UK Sport, the EIS and Olympic and Paralympic sports understand how data can be used more effectively, and ultimately to help inform performance related decision making,” explains Sam Timmermans, Head of Sport Intelligence.

Founded in 2014, the Sport Intelligence team initially served to inform UK Sport’s investment decision-making. Its scope grew after the Rio Games and is now additionally providing data support to over 40 different sports.

“Data drives every part of life from what we buy to what we watch,” Timmermans tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “In sport, it isn’t a new tactic to throw in the mix or even a new discipline: it informs every decision we make. Those that adapt fastest will have a competitive advantage. We are a team of data science specialists, including analysts, developers, consultants and data management experts. Our aim is to build upon data use across the GB sporting landscape, to enhance and enable the application of performance data to inform decision-making, developing cross-sport infrastructure and analysis services, and to grow the knowledge and understanding of how data can impact athletic performance.”

A commitment to data excellence is a significant expedition and the landscape continues to become increasingly complex. However, Timmermans and the Sport Intelligence team continue to look towards the Games next year in Tokyo as well as to Paris and beyond. As he explains: “we envisage a future where performance planning is further enhanced by objective insight from data. Where athletes, coaches and practitioners will interact with timely, accurate and credible insights to adapt quickly and stay ahead in a rapidly changing competitive world. Our mission is to accelerate how sports adopt data to inform decisions to ensure we maintain our world-leading edge.”

Here, the Leaders Performance Institute explores how the Sport Intelligence team is helping sports across UK Olympic and Paralympic sport on their data journey.

A centralised approach to data

The Sport Intelligence team has the advantage of operating as a centralised team within the Olympic and Paralympic sporting landscape. This provides a unique platform from which they can provide targeted support to sports via projects whilst also identifying where common needs across sports could be met by a system-wide solution – in addition to encouraging the cross-sport dissemination of knowledge.

John Blenkharn, Sport Intelligence Programme Manager explains further, “sports are already on a journey in their use of data. We exist to enhance this by fostering a culture of data exploration through instilling consistent data approaches, sharing best practices, and developing data skills. Every sport and every environment is different.

“However, many data principles do not change, whether it’s data capture, structure or visualisation. We work with performance staff to encourage a consistent way of working with data, building on good existing practices and developing processes that are sustainable within each unique performance environment. Working with so many sports is a significant challenge but also provides us with a unique opportunity to stay ahead of our competitors.”

Targeted support to accelerate sports on their data journey

A huge amount of data is captured across the many Olympic and Paralympic sports within the Sport Intelligence Team’s remit, and each sport presents its own unique challenges in applying data science theory successfully.

As Sarah Domone, the consultant leading on sport-specific support, explains: “We collaborate with Coaches and Sports Science & Medicine practitioners to deliver targeted projects that seek to improve how performance data is managed, analysed and used to positively impact the performance of our athletes. We like to take an embedded approach to project delivery, focusing on building our understanding of each unique performance environment and the people within it. A good understanding of the skills and capabilities of the performance team is necessary to determine the most effective and sustainable solution so that whatever we create can deliver value and live on within the sport.”

“Many of the projects the team have delivered in the Tokyo cycle have been focused on increasing the efficiency of data capture and preparation processes, enabling practitioners to spend more time generating and applying the insight gained, therefore maximising the value the data can bring. For example, one of the areas we are looking into is how computer vision techniques might be employed to automate the video tagging process, often a lengthy job for many of our Performance Analysts.”

“Qualitative data is a relatively new area we as a team are starting to explore, driven most commonly by a need within sports to capture coach knowledge and the narrative around the athlete journey, adding useful context to all of the quantitative information and supporting the interpretation of its analysis.”

Swimming – mixed medley relay

Domone cites a recent project that brings to life how this targeted project approach has led to performance advantages. She says: “We worked with British Swimming to develop an interactive team selection tool for the Mixed Medley relay, a new event for Tokyo 2020. In this event, teams are free to pick either gender to swim any leg, team selection therefore presents a complex task that must consider what 16 other nations might choose to do with the swimmers they have available.

“Added to this was the decision about whether they could rest some swimmers in the heat and still ensure qualification so that, come the final, the team were as rested and fresh as possible. In collaboration with the analysts in sport, we developed an interactive tool for the coaches which simplified the data modelling process and allowed them to select different combinations of teams to simulate possible race outcomes.

“During the 2019 World Championships in Korea, the modelling suggested the Russians, with a slightly different team, could have been 0.2-0.3 seconds quicker based on their simulated time. Britain actually beat them for bronze by just 0.1 seconds, these small margins make opposition analyses such as these incredibly powerful.”

Over the Tokyo cycle, the Sport Intelligence team have learnt more about how they can add the most value to the sports they assist, recognising a need to support sports to transition to a more strategic way of planning their approach to the data related projects they take on. “All sports have a finite amount of resource and so it is critical that they are focusing their data efforts and resources where it matters most,” adds Domone.

“We have developed a process whereby we embed in the sport for a short period of time to map their data landscape, understanding as much as we can about how data is being collected, stored and used by practitioners, coaches and athletes to support performance. But, just as importantly, we take time to learn about each unique performance environment and philosophy, embedding ourselves in the day to day training setting, understanding the context within which data is used, making sure the recommendations and insight we provide is relevant and applicable in situ. The insight is used by the sport to develop a data vision and step by step plan to get there, providing the basis for all future work that we do with each sport, so that we are in a better position as a central support team to provide tailored advice, guidance and support in the build up to Tokyo and beyond.”

Sustainable insight as a service: cross-sport infrastructure and analysis

In addition to tailoring solutions to the unique needs of individual sports, the Sport Intelligence team identify, develop and run centralised data infrastructure and analysis for common sport needs, provided as a service.

“Our aim is to provide quality, sustainable services that can be used by all sports, taking care of the entire data life cycle from data capture to sharing insight in some cases,” says David Gallimore, Sport Intelligence Manager leads this strategy for the EIS. “I see it as providing some of the building blocks that make up every sports’ data infrastructure, enabling staff to focus on using the data, not processing it.

“These initiatives are large, complex and long-term so they need dedicated expertise and sponsor commitment to succeed. Because they are done centrally for all, we can achieve more impact for the resources and sports can access these services free of charge.”

EIS Athlete Health strategy

“Athlete health has been a major focus area due to the consistent need across sports and clear benefit in enabling the EIS Athlete Health strategy. Prior to 2015, there was little basic information available to quantify the injury and illness burden across Olympic and Paralympic sport. It was impossible to find the data to inform decisions such as where the EIS should focus its resources in terms of athlete health research, recruitment, development and projects.

There is no doubt the EIS service delivery was having a big impact on athlete health but finding quantifiable data to evidence this was a challenge. “Since then, we have been on a journey to fundamentally redefine the way we capture, process and gain value from athlete health data – creating a sustainable platform and specialist team to maximise the return on this investment for the long-term,” says Gallimore.

“We have enabled the day-to-day data capture for 500 athlete health practitioners and provide instant access to key insight from 25,000 injuries & illnesses such as a breakdown of the impact this has on training and competition availability.

“The EIS’ recent focus has been to create a dedicated Data Warehouse – that turns raw data from our Performance Data Management System (PDMS), a bespoke medical records and health surveillance platform, into information – and to enhance the dedicated data science expertise that produce valuable insight from this information, which can be shared through a dedicated platform to medical practitioners in all sports. The result is that medical practitioners can focus on using the insight, not producing it.”

The Sports Intelligence team is currently conducting research on all Olympic and Paralympic Athlete Health data in line with International Olympic Committee (IOC) guidelines that will produce insight to drive research, practitioner development and Athlete Health focus for the next cycle.

“Data-driven insight will continue to permeate every aspect of our world,” adds Gallimore. “If we continue to invest in people, processes and technology aligned behind key High-Performance System strategies, valuable and sustainable insight will be available to all.”

Empowering an inspired and data literate team

When working with Olympic and Paralympic sports, Blenkharn explains that the Sport Intelligence team are not only looking to support sport-specific challenges but also grow the knowledge and understanding of how data can impact on performance. This is not merely with a view to developing technical skills around data application but also to instil a forward-thinking mindset around the role of data in decision-making.

To this end, Blenkharn and the team are creating a data knowledge building workstream to support staff on their data journey. He says: “Our goal is to build an inspired and data literate community across our sports. It is vital that we possess the skills required not only to meet the demands of interacting with both quantitative and qualitative data today but also for a future world where data mastery will become an increasingly valuable expertise.”

“We are trying to achieve this through different data pathways for coaches and practitioners. For example, developing baseline data skills for those at a foundation level, with a focus on core data structuring, analysis and visualisation principles through to those who are taking more of a data leadership role in a sport where a proficiency in advanced analytics and a deeper understanding of the role of data plays in comprehending the various facets of human performance is key. We are also supporting senior leaders, who are generally the recipients of data insights, to grow their capabilities in reading the story from data and ultimately where data fits in their decision-making processes.”

“However, technical learning alone is not enough to move towards a culture of data exploration. In a rapidly changing environment, it is crucial to understand more about where the data world is heading. Underpinning our plans for these development pathways is a desire to expose our teams to other world-leading, data-informed organisations. One of our core beliefs is that spending quality time away from our day-to-day environment and engaging with different ways of thinking can be a catalyst for the next great idea.

“Over the past 18 months, we have facilitated a number of knowledge exchanges for staff across our sports with other elite sporting organisations in Europe and the USA in an effort to inspire critical thinking about data, to challenge existing views and, as is often the case, to reinforce best practice. Experiential learning has also been a successful platform for staff across our sports to connect with their peers around data challenges and philosophies. Growing a data community and enabling staff across our sports to interact with and inspire one other on their data journeys is a crucial element to achieving our vision.”

The long game

Success in creating a culture of data exploration is a long game. The Sport Intelligence team are only part-way on their data journey with Olympic and Paralympic sports and the job is far from complete.

As Blenkharn concludes: “a commitment to data excellence requires patience and a steadfast belief that putting in the right building blocks today can enable future data enlightenment.”

More from the EIS:

How the English Institute of Sport is Seeking to Promote Positive Mental Health

How the English Institute of Sport is Optimising Performance for its Female Athletes

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