Human Performance, Performance | Sep 12, 2019
Athlete monitoring technology continues to attract the interest of creative scientists, innovative athletes and savvy investors.

An NBA case study brought to you in association with Leaders Performance Institute Supporters

KINEXON is the leading Tracking System in the NBA, a status earned through its ability to provide reliable and comparable data analytics that combine NBA game data with precise practice data. Teams are able to have all this data from games and practices synchronized and harmonized in one platform and, therefore, gain a holistic picture of player performance and load throughout the season.

By John Portch

Player monitoring has never been of greater value and importance in the NBA.

In their motivation to improve player health and fitness, teams are starting to explore ways to meaningfully incorporate state-of-the-art sensors and monitoring equipment in their pursuit of excellence and a vital edge over opponents.

“As little as ten years ago our ability to track how a player moves on the court during games and training sessions remained technologically challenging,” Dr. David T. Martin, the former Director of Player of Performance Research and Development at the Philadelphia 76ers, tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “Whereas today, sport scientists can access fairly precise data streams that quantify how players move when they play basketball.” With those challenges being surmounted, data validity and reliability is leading to an evolution in the way teams approach practices, games as well as the notorious NBA travel schedule.

Player health and fitness, whether that means player availability or a return-to-play protocol for a convalescent player, are seen as the key areas of growth across the NBA. Chad Gerhard, the Applied Sports Scientist at the Orlando Magic, has witnessed this evolution and excitement from the inside. “There is so much data available right now and not just performance data but basketball-specific data,” he tells us. “We have a really robust analytics staff here that I work closely with and the information they pop out is very much absorbed by the front office, which is fantastic.”

Despite the growth in the use and understanding of player monitoring tools, there are some significant hurdles. First, is the persistent air of mistrust across the league, with players fearful that data could be used to hinder their contract negotiations or even cut them from the team. Second, as both Martin and Gerhard tell us, is that an NBA season is by its very nature a chaotic environment of continual travel coast to coast, 82 games, and teams of coaches and support staff with performances priorities of their own.

The NBA, however, is waking up to the possibilities of player monitoring, as Martin explains. He joined the Sixers in 2015 fresh from 21 years spent as a Senior Sport Scientist with the world-renowned Australian Institute of Sport. Although Martin worked with many Olympic Sports, he specialized in cycling. “In the late 1970s and early ‘80s scientists working with elite cyclists had access to small onboard sensors that were allowing power output during cycling to be quantified during training and racing. Today, three decades later, new, exciting technologies are finding their way into mainstream North American sports like the NBA,” he says. “It’s a brave new world of accelerometers, biological sensors, computer vision, and ball-tracking technology that is starting to find its way into professional team sports, which, for some reason, have only recently attracted the attention of sport scientists and coaches that are working in professional sport.”

The value of player tracking in the NBA

In 2016, the Philadelphia 76ers cut the ribbon on their $82million, state-of-the-art practice facility in Camden, New Jersey. The practice gym offers 20,480 square-foot of court space and includes two full-size NBA courts, a further six baskets, and, as the more eagle-eyed observers may note, 12 Kinexon transponders dotted around the walls in locations that allow for accurate collection of data from small chips positioned in the waist band of the players’ shorts.

“During practice we now have the ability to not only track players movement but because Kinexon can interface with RSPCT shot-tracking technology we can also quantify the type of shots taken and calculate a player’s shooting accuracy,” Martin explains. “New shot tracking technology not only counts whether shots are made or not, which is a discrete variable, but also measures how close was the ball to the center of the rim, which is a continuous variable. There are many advantages to continuous variables when trying to establish how well a player shoots a basketball.”

Kinexon is the leading tracking system in the NBA, a status earned through its ability to provide reliable and comparable data analytics that combine NBA game data with precise practice data. Teams are able to have all this data from games and practices synchronized and harmonized in one platform and, therefore, gain a holistic picture of player performance and load throughout the season. As the NBA is gradually coming to understand, such comprehensive datasets allow teams to effectively monitor and manage player health and performance.

“Kinexon also has the ability to interface with heartrate monitoring making it possible to evaluate the physiological response to relevant movement patterns,” adds Gerhard. “The heartrate can reveal who is coping really well with the challenges of the game versus who are struggling to keep up.”

From an ownership perspective, Martin argues that they see their investment as a portfolio to be carefully and expertly managed. “They will be asking hard questions and they don’t just want an opinion – they want hard data and they want thoughtful responses to their questions. They’ll want to see trends, they’ll want to understand risks and, if you’re not measuring the players in a sophisticated, comprehensive and meaningful way then those conversations could be very awkward and unfulfilling.

“When a professional player signs contracts for more than $100 million those that take care of the player essentially take on a role that is analogous to a financial portfolio advisor. If the player support group make a wrong decision a player can get hurt and miss games and that equates to a large financial loss. However, if the player support team manages the player well, it is possible to develop talent that hasn’t been realized; and through technology, monitoring, evaluation and strong relationships, you might encourage a player that didn’t cost much to become a superstar that’s worth a lot of money. In a nutshell, sports technology today can help ownership groups manage and understand the status of their investments.”

Importance of communication and relationships

Martin is obviously excited about new technology such as Kinexon and speaks of athlete monitoring with enthusiasm, but recognizes that even more important than the technology are the relationships between key stakeholders. He says: “Strong relationships are always critical to success and can not only enhance the collective awareness of how the player is coping with training and competition but also facilitate intervention that help the player improve.”

The point is thrown into sharper relief by the NBA schedule: 82-game regular season games played in six months, with three to four games played each week, sometimes it might three games in four days or five games in eight – and more than half of those may be on the road. It shapes the way Gerhard and his colleagues at Orlando operate. “Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do to change the schedule,” he laments. “We need to around that and the lowest-hanging fruit for us is the shoot around and days off.” A day off is mandatory after back-to-back games but there may be other occasions where it proves beneficial to a player. “Those are things we can try to manipulate to try and give the guys as much recovery and rest as possible. There’s a few ways of doing that and it’s communicating with the coach. It’s very basic stuff; we’ll start by asking: ‘how many minutes has a guy played in four days?’ or ‘how many minutes has he played in the last eight days?’ That’s easily digestible from a coach’s perspective because that’s how they live – they continually think about minutes played – when we give it back to the coach it sinks in.”

Most of Gerhard’s conversations will be with his fellow performance staff, who are the recipients of his detailed reports. “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.” These reports are, as Gerhard says, “analytically heavy” and so it is incumbent on his boss, Orlando’s Performance Director David Tenney, to bring a digestible version of the report to the coach. “Dave has a good relationship with the coach 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.

Tenney’s reports are having their impact and it is not uncommon for the Magic’s Head Coach, Steve Clifford, to include Gerhard and the team’s analytics staff in team meetings. “The information you impart has to be very precise if I am going to tell the coach that this athlete needs to make this change; I need to be as positive as I can be that that’s the right thing for that athlete to do or for the team. It comes down to analytics but also every once in a while you’ve got to get your head out of the computer screen and look at the players. You don’t always need data to see when a player is struggling.”

While Gerhard stresses that a relationship of mutual understanding with coaches at Orlando is very much in its infancy, there are signs of a growing accord. “When a head coach comes in and brings a staff of maybe nine coaches, they are basketball coaches who might not have relied on data and numbers,” he says.

It does, however, spark curiosity when they see Gerhard at practice. “I’ll watch the team practice from a corner, sitting there tagging a practice, and it’s happened a few times where a coach has come over and said, ‘hey, I saw so and so who looked like he was jumping more or less’. They’re inquisitive and it sparks a little bit of conversation, but that’s still very much in its infancy.”

At this stage those conversations tend to be with fellow members of the performance or medical staff. “I get excited when people come to me asking questions because I get to dig and find out answers for other people. It’s one thing to dig by yourself and look at things you think are important but if it’s not important to anyone else then it doesn’t really matter.”

Not that it is always plain sailing during the natural course of a season. Martin, reflecting on his time at Philadelphia, describes the scene as demanding, inspiring but also at times chaotic due to rapid growth and many unforeseen non-desirable ‘events’, but upon reflection he relished the challenge. “I welcome the chaos and the unexpected,” he admits. “I like to brainstorm across a lot of different areas when I am problem solving.  You figure out very quickly that in professional sport it is not about making the right decision but instead making decisions right.  In other words, group buy-in is very important.

“When it comes to the delivery of messages to coaching staff and players, complex discussions and data sets need to be tremendously simplified. Most importantly, messages need to have unified, collective support because you can’t have specialists within the support team rolling their eyes back when you deliver a message to the head coach as if to say, ‘that’s what David thinks but we don’t agree at all’. You need to discuss what has been observed, what we feel confident about, what we do not feel confident about, what we want to message, when should we deliver it, and who should be the spokesperson.”

On other occasions coaches have come to Martin looking for evidence that supports a recommendation they want to propose.   He says: “The data from Kinexon tracking may be suggesting that things are going very well but, for political reasons, just based on perception, the coaching staff may feel that things are not going well and the players should take a break.”

Naturally, not all advice is taken onboard, and Martin has this tip for young sports scientists and analysts: “We are advisors in professional sport; advisors to the coaches, the players, the front office. I like to have exit strategies when I provide advice so that if my recommendations are not accepted I don’t get upset or stuck. I just go back to the drawing board and get ready for the next challenge.”

Players and their perception of technology

Gerhard describes the transition from his work with athletes the US Ski & Snowboard Association to the NHL and, more recently, the NBA, as a “big wake-up call” in terms of the acceptance and understanding of athlete monitoring. He says: “At US Ski I worked under our Sports Scientist Troy Flanagan, a mentor of mine, and he created a setting where the athletes couldn’t absorb it quickly enough. They want information, they want to know how to get better and how to adapt their training. I worked with the cross-country ski team and those guys are so tuned-in that they would be telling me their blood lactate before I took it and they were accurate to within the tenth of the minimal because they are so switched on.”

The NBA was different. “You go from that setting, of national athletes making no money, working part-time jobs and doing full training, to the NBA where there’s a lot more money at stake. These guys are on millions of dollars and they don’t want to jeopardize that, so there’s a little bit of uncertainly around why I am asking them certain questions. It’s just a different culture and I’ve come to appreciate it.

Not that Gerhard will have too much time to labor the point. “There’s zero time in the NBA and that’s the toughest part,” he accepts. “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.”

Martin underlines the importance of empowering the players. It is often said across the performance space that athletes in this day and age need to be empowered but there are firm practical reasons, particularly in an elite sporting context. “You don’t want to create co-dependencies, a situation where a player is relying on another individual like a fitness trainer or psychologist to produce the desirable performance,” he explains.

Martin suggests that professional athletes in team sport can be both insecure and manipulative as they reach out for advice. “Whenever I am asked by a player for some feedback I look on it as a teaching moment and, depending on the question, I might say something like, ‘if you want to talk about how you played in the last game versus how you played against the same team earlier in the season and how it pertains to you fitness then we can have that discussion’. If, however, if you are coming to me with a question that is  politically-charged, a question such as, ‘am I moving quicker than the person that substitutes in for me?’ because I am worried about my job, then I might say, ‘it’s an interesting question and we can look into it but we should get your coach in on this discussion’. It is important to be aware and very careful in these situations.”

The future of player monitoring

There have been exponential leaps in the past decade when it comes to player monitoring but what can one expect to see in the next year or two? Martin is excited about data visualization: “Instead of users conforming in how they look at a graph, we’re seeing software packages that allow graphs to change to meet and connect with the user. If you don’t understand the data in one format you might understand it much better in another format.”

Accessibility will go hand in hand with improved visualization, with lessons learned from the military. “A few years ago I saw DARPA do an interesting presentation around the use of advanced infographics in combat,” he continues. “They adopted a gestalt approach where they were training service personnel to understand infographic pictures that would reveal complex data in images that were very simple to understand and respond to. I think we will start to see very thoughtful approaches to how data are presented in pro sport as opposed to reports with lots of data crammed into small spaces. We’ll start to see pictures, colors and patterns that reflect what’s going on in the game and in practice. It will become easier and easier to understand trends and player status.”

This will enable ever more constructive dialogue between performance staff, players and coaches. “I think you’re going to hear a dialogue that goes something like: ‘I don’t know a lot about you right now but we have some sophisticated technology that’s going to help me learn about you quickly. I’m going to look at how you respond to different loading patterns, I’m going to look at your training history and I am working with software that will give me insights into how you as an individual respond and adapt to training. Very quickly we’ll establish what weight and body composition, lifting schedule, playing schedule, conditioning drills, sleep patterns and diet work for you; and we’ll get there quickly with the right monitoring technologies and training environment that works for you. When you as an athlete are fit and prepared and motivated we believe you will be in a good position to contribute to the team in the most meaningful way and that’s going to help us all achieve our performance goals.”

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