Data & Innovation, Performance | Jun 16, 2020
Practitioners from the San Antonio Spurs, England Netball, Wests Tigers, Tennis Australia and British Skeleton outline some of the ways in which data enable athletes and coaches to answer questions relating to their fitness, tactics and equipment.

Data must serve performance outcomes at every turn, which means it must meet the varying needs of athletes, coaches and performance staff alike.  

By John Portch

Here, our performance panel, which is comprised of sports scientists and a head coach, outline some of the ways in which data enable athletes and coaches to answer questions relating to their fitness, tactics and equipment.  

Xavi Schelling, Director of Sports Science & Performance, San Antonio Spurs:  

At the end of the day, the captain of the ship is the head coach. Our department tries to reduce complexity and help the decision-maker, who is the head coach, to make the best decision. It’s not on us to say, ‘he has to rest today because he’ll be in better shape for the playoffs and if you don’t do it, you’re doing it wrong’.  

We are giving the simplest and most objective information to the coach and the coach will manage that information. He or she will know if it’s worth resting this player tonight and saving them for the playoffs.   

There’s a third critical component: the player. You can have great ideas, but this has to involve the player at some level or point because it will be the player who plays. They must buy-in. Even if you want to rest them and they want to play tonight, they have to be part of that decision and it’s on you to convince them that this decision is in their best interest or the team’s interest.  

In that decision there are three components: one suggestion from the athletic performance department, which includes the medical people, then the coach judging what’s happening, and then finally the player. Those three components must find a collective agreement.  

Sometimes it’s the other way around: coaches are more protective, and the athletic department is suggesting to play the player. But it has to be the three sides in agreement.  

 Jess Thirlby, Head Coach, England Netball Roses:  

I enjoy embracing the analysis side, but always from a qualitative stance. I like working with our analyst and making sure that what we’re doing is purposeful. I think it can be so easy to get drawn into having lots of stats, lots of numbers, and quantitative data and nobody really knowing how to use it to best effect in terms of how to affect performance.  

In terms of the team, we’ve got some resource available to us and I encourage the athletes to be really informed and engaged in our platform on Huddle. It’s got all sorts on there from the world of netball and is regularly kept up to date and current. I’m a big believer in getting players to collaborate, present back, research, share with the group, present to the coaching group and vice versa.   

Our analyst in the last few months has certainly made a few comments to me about how engaged he feels they are; more so than ever they are using that resource to really good effect. It’s a good way for me to check understanding from the group and it helps inform how to set direction and invest my energy when I hear the playing group back and they’ve demonstrated really sound understanding of themselves and the opposition and, not only that, but coming up with ways in which we’re going to pit strengths against their weaknesses.  

A couple of key areas that I probe more with the analysts and probably drive them mad with developing new tools is around momentum and, I guess, identifying that momentum shift earlier and then me, from a coaching point of view, knowing ‘so what?’ What do I do with that information? Also, around what’s the differentiator between us and another team? What tends to be the trend as to why we either come out on top or we don’t? That’s something that I’ve certainly been reflecting on coming out of this last competition cycle. There are starting to be certain key trends about what we do well against a certain style of play and what we don’t. That really helps to focus the mind and set the direction as to how and where to invest our time.   

It’s also something that you shouldn’t get so distracted by that you miss a trick about what those teams might look like in four years’ time. I think doing some forecasting about what the backbones of some of these nations will be, come the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. That informs what we want to do in terms of our research, how does that translate into the stats that we’ve had recently and historically, and therefore, where do I pay most attention?  

Machar Reid, Head of Innovation, Tennis Australia:  

Not so long ago, tennis was rated 24 out of 25 in terms of the professional sports on the planet terms of how effectively we were using data – essentially the second-worst out there. We were essentially using similar statistics to what we were using in the 1970s and the dial hadn’t shifted in the best part of three decades. We were interested in partnering with a group to try and challenge the status quo in that regard. At the time, and till this day, partnered with Victoria University, establishing what we termed the Game Insight Group [a programme focusing on science and technology in tennis].  

Part of its remit is using data to help tennis players identify the best racket and string combination for them. Unlike sports say like cycling, or eve golf for that matter, where, over time, they’ve refined their approaches to customising equipment for the individual player, tennis has fallen a long way behind and we’ve got about 200,000 different combinations to choose from, which makes it a really vexed problem.   

With the benefit and support of Vic Uni and the Game Insight Group, essentially established a set of algorithms to help the marketplace make more informed decisions regarding equipment. That’s called Tennis Lab; that’s proven very effective internally within the organisation to help ourselves and the coaching group get their heads around how they can best leverage equipment for a player’s benefit.   

Equally, in conversations with manufacturers, helping us to shift the conversation around how we can better customise equipment solutions for professional players and talented juniors.  

Andrew Gray, High Performance Manager, Wests Tigers:  

Rugby players have changed over the past 20 years. We’re continually trying to make our players take responsibility for their training, physical status and career. We have a real philosophy of trying not to use the word ‘weakness’; we’re showing players, with the use of data, where their biggest opportunity to improve is because that’s where they should be spending more of their energy on; the low-hanging fruit, they’re the easiest things to improve.   

One of the biggest data strategies that I’ve used in my performance departments is ‘here’s what ideal look like; we know what ideal looks like across a winning organisation and here’s where you are; these are the parameters and these ones here are where you’re well below standard, advanced or elite or benchmark’.   

We’re scaling these things with colours so that everyone understands where everybody is in every physical aspect; that creates a fair bit of competition and nobody wants to be left behind! That creates a bit of drive.   

We also want to see our staff delivering the analysis, the education, the equipment and the opportunity; but to improve themselves, the guys have got to bring the drive to that and the discipline.  

Danny Holdcroft, Head of Performance Innovation & Applied Research, British Skeleton:  

Our purpose to is to use data to ask questions that one would not identify or ask questions to challenge what we’re currently doing. One of the straplines to our programme is ‘doing the impossible’.  

People don’t think we should be winning Olympic medals because we’re not a winter nation and do not having a home track; and to make sure we’re getting better we have to consistently innovate. In my eyes, innovation is not just thinking but having the confidence to implement it and try it; and to be able to work in that way and consistently evolve we have to do everything we can and data is a massive part of that; to ask questions that we hadn’t thought of and we must be receptive to it.   

Would we be successful without any data capture now? There would be some chance, but we’re looking at Milano Cortina 2026 not just Beijing 2022, so we’ve got to evolve quicker than the Olympic cycles. We run almost two programmes concurrently. We’ve got our 2026 athletes in the programme already so we need to be consistently evolving, so the more data and the more avenues we can explore, the better.  

This chapter was taken from the latest Leaders Performance Institute Special Report, Analyse This: Managing Your Metrics

It features a variety of sports organisations, from the San Antonio Spurs and England Netball, to the Wests Tigers and Tennis Australia, via British Skeleton. Download it now.

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