Data & Innovation, Performance | Aug 29, 2019
Karl Cooke of the Western Australian Institute of Sport explains that an evidence-based approach can complement athlete and coach intuition if everyone is comfortable saying their piece.

“I try to facilitate an environment where coaches feel comfortable with conventional ideas being challenged,” begins Karl Cooke.

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By John Portch

“But equally, the scientists and performance staff are also challenged around their ideas. They may be coming with data to support their ideas but that doesn’t mean it’s always 100% true.”

Cooke is the Performance Team Director at the Western Australian Institute of Sport [WAIS], a position he has held since joining from British Swimming in April, and his current remit sees him work across a variety of sports, each with their own ideas of what it takes to win and the metrics to get them there.

That presents its own challenges, as he will proceed to tell the Leaders Performance Institute, but having an evidence-based approach, based on the increasing sophistication of data collection, is not only promoting greater alignment across the team but helping to evolve notions of what it takes to win.

He says: “We’re trying to create a space where people are comfortable with questioning and challenging our pre-determined ideas and checking whether they are still accurate. Over time, our data management systems have allowed us to evaluate those.”

Cooke explains that one of his primary aims is to make data interpretation intuitive for athlete and coach alike, which requires education, understanding and perseverance. The ‘Holy Grail’, as he describes it, is for honest and open conversations that circumnavigate any tendencies towards groupthink in favour of pursuing the better-informed ideas around high performance.

“The thing I say to the guys here is ‘let’s not make assumptions, right? Let’s not assume that because one of us has been looking really closely that everyone is interested or fully aware’.” And so, we continue the conversation with the question of making data intuitive.

Karl, how do you and WAIS work to make data intuitive for athletes and coaches alike?

KC: I think there’s a really interesting field around learning preferences and personality preferences and then customising your data visualisation around your key performance areas, whether that involves the more visual learner or the person who is happy to read details. It’s still early days here, but if it’s not intuitive then under pressure and under stress that’s when people start to get frustrated with it. The goal, whether someone is working in tennis or swimming or different sports, it’s just trying to make that visualisation of the data intuitive so that almost anyone can pick it up and say, right, I get that this athlete needs to do something different or ‘that’s going really well’.

How have you coped with the challenge of moving from a single sport environment [swimming] to a multisport environment at WAIS?

KC: Every sport has its own technical requirements and every sport I’ve gone into you’ll have the conventional metrics for measuring performance; in racing sports it’s relatively straightforward in terms of times and splits and that kind of thing, but in team sports it tends to be more varied based on position and role in the team. You have to flick between those different technical requirements in sport and then align your core performance areas with them. That’s not easy in a multisport environment where you try to support a whole bunch of different sports but that’s the challenge and we have enough expertise to put the people around them to do that. Each sport will have its own unique performance metrics, when it comes to analytics and stats that’s the challenge; and it’s the challenge for the technology providers as well. You build a data management system and how do you make it flexible enough to work across all these different areas where each sport or team might want to measuring different metrics and relating and understanding the relationship between different metrics.

How significant is the education component of your work around data?

KC: We work continuously around making sure that everyone on the team is aware of the developments that are going on in each department. Culturally it’s really important that everyone on the performance staff is contributing; so it’s listening and questioning, being interested in what’s happening. We’re still aware that the whole team has different parts of it that are still evolving and it’s keeping everyone up to speed with that because actually there’s a lot of work going on in all sorts of areas. I might see it as the person who sits above a lot of it but we’re always working on coach vision and athlete awareness for sure.

What are some of your observations about athletes’ level of trust when it comes to data?

KC: One of the things that I really love about Olympic sports, and British Swimming was exactly the same, is that the commercial aspects of the sport are obviously dialled-down and they’re not such a limiting factor. But you still have to work on trust, you still have to work on creating a culture and environment of trust and transparency. That’s an ongoing thing because every athlete is mindful of how their information is shared, managed and stored and the protection around that.

In those team meetings you describe, how are you ensuring it’s a productive forum for all?

KC: I think the biggest thing is that your risk is your groupthink; you’ll be in a team, you’ll meet regularly, you’ll talk about your athletes, you’ll check your data across those metrics on your athletes and there will be groupthink like, ‘yeah, we all agree, for Johnny, this is the most important area for us to keep an eye on and if all of those are flagged green and they’re good to go then Johnny will be fine’. The risk is a bit of confirmation bias, a bit of groupthink, and that’s just human nature. And the beauty of data and some of the systems that are out there evolving now is that they don’t have those human cognitive biases, they’re just like ‘the data says this’ and that’s where you’re challenging your thought processes because that’s ultimately what it kind of comes back to, at the core of it whether you’re talking about predicting performance in a Moneyball kind of way or whether you’re trying to just optimise physical performance and keep a grip of athletes healthy and on the court it’s the same thing, you use your expertise that you’ve got in your team but you want to challenge it because you know that you’ve got human cognitive biases ultimately that need to be challenged from time to time.

Where is the balance struck between intuition and data?

KC: Even in a relatively linear, straightforward sport like swimming, you’ve got all the different factors, you’ve got the drag of the water on the swimmer, you’ve got the amount of power that they’re creating from their technique into the water, you’ve got changes in other conditions and other factors around the athlete; you can’t just mentally compute as a coach or a performance staff how all those things are going to interact and so you actually need data and analytics to summarise it and say: ‘when you put all these different factors together this is what ends up being the most important and this is what’s going to make them faster or slower’ because even the smartest brains in the world can’t compute that in real time and certainly not when you’re in the competitive environment of an Olympic Games or a World Championships or the finals of a league competition.

That’s theory, and the other thing that’s tricky sometimes, and I guess that’s where roles like mine come in, is the messy emotion and tension and all the logistical challenges sometimes around being in that competitive environment. It’s making sure that the team’s processes and communication strategies are good enough to be able to accept that because if they’re not then that’s where it can fall down as well; we have communication strategies in swimming around when you finish the heat session before you went to final session, how you communicated around any change in the injury or fitness status of an athlete because that affects the coach’s decision on who swims maybe the relay in the evening at the Olympic Games and those are pretty big decisions when that determines success or failure for the next four years, so you need actually really well understood pathways of communication just to make use of the information that’s available to you as well.

How do you ensure you’re making better use of the data and technology you already have?

KC: I think every team will be looking at their technology kit list and ask the question is this still the best, is this still giving us the information that we want? No one wants to be behind the curve, right? But a lot of teams have been historically challenged by the fact that new technologies have come along and they’ve adopted them without being clear at the outset what they want to get out of it. So best practice in terms of data and analytics is being really clear about what are the questions for you as a team and a staff that you want to answer and you want the data to inform and how and when are you going to use that because there’s so many technologies that try to help and inform that if you’re not really clear about that at the outset you can just get lost in it.

What does the immediate future hold for the use of data and analytics in sport?

KC: First of all, software, and the analytics available within software, has come a long way. There are lots of good companies out there doing good work to help teams manage their software and manage their data much more effectively as they can streamline their workflows a lot better. A lot of our information is about medical and physical performance, for the future will give us insight into the psychological aspects of performance. The sensors that kind of pick up stress, changes in stress state, arousal, optimal decision-making; these are areas that are ultimately what determines the very best from the good; the great athlete is making good decisions and performing optimally under the most intense pressure and we never to this day been able to create any insight around, certainly not in the competitive environment, and my hope, my view, is that will become realised in the not too distant future. We’ve already seen it in different ways of measuring stress through heartrate variability.

I think that technology will get miniaturised a bit more and more wearable in the competitive environment and hopefully will be able to give us some insights around the stress that athletes experience or not and how some athletes seem to be able to cope while others crumble under the pressure of competition, so the psychological insight for me is a huge one. Neuroscience and interpreting psychological performance is going to be huge and once we actually measure that area that will make a big difference to a whole bunch of areas, from talent identification to mental practices in the competition environment and supporting athletes with that. For me that’s where I’d like to see that go and I think there’s enough hope there to suggest that technology will develop and will become available over time.

Looking for more insight into using data and analytics?

Karl Cooke featured in our recent Performance Special Report: Navigating the Data Maze, in which he spoke alongside the Texas Rangers, Orlando Magic and Harlequins.

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