Can data help sport performance?

10 September 2019

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Question

How can data help to improve performance in sport?

Answer

Mathematician Bobby Seagull and exercise expert Dan Gordon crunched the numbers of this question from Matt, who got in touch via Twitter...

Bobby - That's a good question, because in America a film came out a few years ago called Moneyball. And it showed how they used something called sabermetrics, where they looked at players that were undervalued compared to what the market rated them. So it transformed baseball, so actually every team in baseball started using this - to the point where actually it lost its competitive advantage. What we've seen in football is that there is a bit of resistance, because sometimes you see - like I play a lot of football - managers, coaches saying, “ah, it’s all about the gut feeling, you can tell if a player's good or not.” But there are also other teams like Brentford Football Club, they use a lot of data and metrics, they actually get data scientists in. And I think it's one where, for young players perhaps you can use it for, like, how many kilometres you’re running in a game, and the amount of passes. And it's definitely helpful, but I think football and sport… it’s still where there are other things like guts and honesty, integrity, someone wanting to, like David Beckham in 2001 running the extra yard because he really wanted something, where... I think it's hard to metricise sport like football.

Chris - There's a huge human factor. Is that what you were gonna say?

Dan - Well I was partly, but I was going to say actually a lot of sports really are buying into this. We know for example now rugby uses this kind of approach, it came from American football. I mean it is data, data driven. And now what they're using is GPS monitoring, so live GPS monitoring, and you have these guys who are performance analysts. It's not just about the physicality, they're starting to now get into trying to look at… and Bobby will know the terminology better than I do, but they’re starting to do this kind of analysis about movement patterns, so the way in which these individuals swarm. To the point now they've looked at this in Tour de France cyclists, so the Australian Institute of Sport have been looking at this. It's the same kind of research they've been doing on when you watch these swarms of birds. And they've been taking that same approach to say, “well actually the peloton in the Tour de France will swarm in this kind of way. And when it swarms in this kind of way we know these things start to happen.” So it's being used in multiple different ways in different sports.

And Bobby's point’s right, there are certain sports which I think are slightly reticent about using this, and still perhaps go with the older, the gut feeling approach. But this kind of performance analysis is really pretty much embedded, I mean dare I say, even teams like Cambridge United are using this approach; because actually it gives you enormous information. Very briefly I was out in Brazil recently, and I was at two of the big teams in Brazil. And they were showing me how they are using this performance analysis data to now be able to work out and say to the manager, “right, based upon this data that we're getting, this player is now at a risk of injury.” And so what they've been able to do is then take that data and then link that to metrics that they've got in terms of measures, actual measures of injury, and it ties up really nicely. So they can look at this on-field data and say, “right, based on this data you need to pull this player out of the game.” And Cruzeiro, which is one of the big clubs in Brazil, have been using this, and it's proved to be really quite successful.

Chris - Bobby?

Bobby - I think the sports where they're individuals, let’s say running or swimming, I think you can use data because then you can work on individual performance. But when there's multiple factors it becomes very complicated. I think football, even rugby, I think the more there are multiple variables, I think the more difficult it is to use computer science to help predict.

Eleanor - Do you think this is having any impact on the mental health of the players? I can imagine if you're being monitored like that, it would certainly make me feel uncomfortable.

Dan - I mean that’s a fascinating question, isn't it? And I think the mental health part is huge in sport, and I don't think we've ever really... we haven’t ever looked at that kind of association between these kind of metrics, but there is so much monitoring going on now with players, and they have a role…

Chris - But everyone says this, don't they. That they feel they're in a surveillance society. And it does have an impact. But maybe it might improve performance?

Dan - Well we're doing it because we think that it helps with performance. I mean, I know British Cycling been using this for years and years and years.

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