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Show 107 – Data Analytics In Sport

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In the fifth episode that we’ve produced in partnership with SAP UK, we focus on the use of data analytics within sports.

This specially extended show has six fantastic guests who share examples of how data and technology can be beneficial from grassroots initiatives to top tier professional sports.

Our guests were:

  1. Milan Cerny, Director of Strategic Partnerships, SAP Global Sponsorships
  2. Angela Ruggiero, CEO & Co-Founder, Sports Innovation Lab
  3. Chris Turner, CEO of Sports & Wellbeing Analytics
  4. Preeti Shetty, Head of Upshot, Football Foundation
  5. Dr Sarah Gilchrist, Performance Consultant
  6. Alex Cooke, Data Intelligence Partner, PwC UK

Milan Cerny

Our first guest was Milan Cerny, Director of Strategic Partnerships, SAP Global Sponsorships.

Chatting online with Milan Cerny (left)

Milan began by highlighting that if SAP enter a sponsorship, it’s not the typical approach that you would see in marketing in general. Sponsorship always means a partnership as well, in terms of collaboration, co-innovation and the usage of SAP technology. Therefore, SAP as an innovative and forward-thinking tech company, has the latest technologies to deal with huge amounts of data and provide added value back to their partners. This is the approach that SAP took with each of their sponsors.

The two areas that Milan is responsible for are tennis and more recently, esports as well. Both of those properties are making big use of the technology in various areas with the athletes, the players, the coaches and the media.

Tennis

As an example, in tennis, SAP started the journey with the Women’s Tennis Association, the WTA, in 2012. SAP really took the approach to speak to the so-called end users first, they got in touch with players and their coaches and asked the question, ‘What keeps you awake at night? What are you missing in terms of access to data and information in order to improve your performance on the court?’

Milan said that it was very interesting to see the different approaches that the different coaches would take. In terms of how they interact with the players, but in general, in tennis, you have an unchanged environment that each tournament and the data that can be generated from that environment can be used to do different kinds of analysis about the game. This is the approach that SAP took, looking at two data sources; One of them is the umpire tablet, which is used to put in things like scores. Second is an automated data source, which is the electronic line calling system, for example, Hawkeye, which is also being used for challenging umpire calls. This system mostly consists of eight to 10 cameras around the court, and they are receiving the raw data stream from that system. These cameras are tracking movement of the players and also of the ball; so, every hit point, every bounce point is running straight into their system, the SAP cloud platform, and they can digest the data and send back that information and insights to anyone who is in need, primarily the coaches on the side of the court. The most recent functionality that was added to the SAP tennis analytics suite is called Patterns of Play.  

Milan explained that the majority of people when asked what they were missing, said they were very interested in the sequences of rallies and then figuring out what a player or an opponent would be doing across multiple shots at certain scores. So, they really looked into that and put that into a user interface, which is easily usable by anyone. He said that they ran a first prototype last year during Wimbledon where they reached out again to the coaching community and showed them what they have. He added that it was funny because some of them wanted to use it straight away to prepare their players for their next matches, but it took a little bit more time then to really make it production ready. This is one of the examples to show how SAP really translate a requirement that they hear in the community and within the target audience and then convert into a piece of software which then can serve a wide array of people and gives enough flexibility for them to make their own use of it and create their own analytics based on the data that we provide.

Milan thinks that one part of the process of working on sports is also collecting feedback and getting in touch with the target audience. He said that it’s actually really surprising and also satisfying to get loads of different feedback. There will be people who will tell you that they don’t see value in the stats, they just want to watch the game and enjoy themselves, any additional information just makes it more complicated or harder to digest. That certainly happens and exists and that needs to be respected, but he thinks that any kind of additional contextual information about what you see on the screen is ultimately beneficial if it’s done the right way, that’s the decisive point here. It’s kind of a balancing act of not overwhelming the audience, but at the same time providing them with insights which really enrich their viewing experience. So, going back to tennis, if you could give the audience just the speed of a ball then it might be a fun fact, but that’s somewhat meaningless without a context. Or, for example, a second percentage for a particularly strong player can be interesting, but if you have no context there’s no point. However, if you then put it in context with the speed and maybe the scores at which the success rate is achieved, then all of a sudden there’s a story behind it and if it’s presented well, then it can be picked up by any fan because it’s intuitive and it makes sense or it can be picked up by a commentator and they can spin their story about it. It’s a fine line between finding the right stats, presenting them the right way and essentially boring and overwhelming the audience. So that’s an important thing to look at and it is why SAP are always in touch with the target audience as well.

Esports

SAP work with Team Liquid, which Milan said is a very interesting organization. They’ve been around in the market for about 20 years, they were founded in the Netherlands and added that they are a really great partner to SAP. Esports as an industry has been around for a while as well, it was just somewhat under the radar for a long time. It started coming to the surface in recent years, with the big stadiums, 15,000/ 20,000 seater stadiums, attracting huge amounts of people going and watching players play games such as Dota 2 or League of Legends, which Milan thinks 10 years ago would have been unimaginable.

Esports is drawing in a huge audience. For SAP, the reason why they entered esports is twofold; The main reason is that they saw the opportunity to tap into that community of young people who are supposedly tech savvy, they typically have a background in some kind of computer science or informatics disciplines, which makes them very interesting for SAP as a tech company and as an employer. Milan added that it’s employer branding for them, to really get into the faces of these young people and make them aware that there is SAP in the market and they also have cool jobs and can offer cool careers. The second reason is esports is completely digital by nature. The amount of data that’s being generated in every single game is just vast, and SAP have the means and the tools to digest it and to process it. Making it a really good fit for them.

On Team Liquids website, they describe esports players as athletes, and when asked his opinion on this, Milan said that, that question would really provide enough material for another hour-long discussion, but he tends to be quite diplomatic about it. He said that people look into making that difference between e-sports and traditional sports. But in his personal opinion, he thinks there’s a world where both can coexist. Esports is a competition format which is drawing the masses and there are professional players doing it. The effort that a professional football player, for example, has to bring in is obviously very different than an esports player would have to bring into play League of Legends. It’s not the same physical effort. But then there’s the mental effort. There’s a little bit of a physical element to it as well, because you have to be very, very good at your mechanical skills with the mouse and the keyboard. Then it’s also a lot of understanding for the games’ complex mechanics and the competitive aspect to it. Milan explained, you’re really under pressure when you’re on stage and playing another professional team. This shows that there are a lot of joint elements between traditional sports and esports. The competition formats now really reach a level of professionalism, which is somewhat comparable. But of course, traditional sports have been around for a long time, and that’s also quite a significant difference between those ecosystems.

Milan said that it’s still to be seen and to be proven whether, when we really come out of the Covid-19 crisis, if the world is going to be changed, maybe not forever, but for a long time. When you look at the German Bundesliga, which at the time of recording were playing games to empty stadiums, they’re trying various things to spice it up a little bit. They started off with empty stadiums, then they put in some mannequins to simulate an audience. He added that he saw a news bite about the Danish league, where they just put up big screens where people could essentially dial in and it would be like a giant Zoom call. So, you would have people in the stands on the screen watching but then you have the effect of people in front of the screen. Milan said that he doesn’t think there’s a definite answer to fixing the problem. It’s different kinds of attempts and all of them are somewhat funny, somewhat valuable. Milan believes that there’s a long way until we reach a certain degree of normality again.

On top of this, the opportunity for esports is obviously there right now. As an industry, it has been hit by the crisis like every other industry as well, there’s no denying it. However, esports takes place virtually anyway, Milan then said that someone within the esports ecosystem made a comment about how it feels like five years ago in their industry, because now everything that was supposed to happen onsite in the stadium has transitioned back into being completely virtual with the players being at their homes, competing virtually and the broadcast being managed remotely. This is what it was in the past before they pushed into the arenas and now they have to kind of take that step back. But now with the experience of another five years of organising professional esports events, so it’s still a step forward, but it’s a different approach and different direction right now. He said that given the fact that traditional sports had to pause for a while and still has to pause and esports is ongoing, the viewership is good and the opportunity is there. Not just events like in Dota 2, one of the biggest esports titles with back to back tournaments, but there’s also the approach of taking traditional sports to a virtual event, which works better or sometimes worse than taking the approach of involving the actual athletes and playing that game on a PlayStation, for instance. People get creative in these times. He said that there is no definite answer and that we will just have to see how it evolves.

Angela Ruggiero

Our second guest to the show, Angela Ruggiero. A four time Olympian and a gold medallist in ice hockey, Angela was the first female non-goalie to play in a men’s professional hockey league. She’s a member of the 2019 USA Olympic Hall of Fame, the 2017 International Ice Hockey Federation Hall of Fame and the 2015 Hockey Hall of Fame. She’s sat on the International Olympic Committee executive board for almost a decade and served as the Chief Strategy Officer for the successful Los Angeles bid to host the 2028 Olympics. She’s an author, a brand ambassador, an investor, a motivational speaker, a podcaster and she’s also just recently returned from maternity leave following the birth of her second child. She is also the CEO and co-founder of the Sports Innovation Lab that works with brands on their fan experiences through data driven technology insights and industry leading research.

Chatting with Angela Ruggiero

Angela explained that Sports Innovation Lab are a Market Research and Strategy Company. They focus on the intersection of sports and tech, ultimately what they are aiming to do is help their clients create breakthrough fan experiences through technology. She said that they believe that technology has unearthed massive opportunities in the sports industry, and with so many new technologies coming in, the market is shifting. There’s an opportunity to innovate, do things differently with the ultimate goal of the fan, of the consumer. With her background on the business side and as an athlete sitting on international boards, Angela saw an opportunity to help the industry understand the technology so that it can move forward and ultimately support those clients that are looking to actually create these breakthrough fan engagement or experiences.

Angela added that most of their clients are actually technology vendors that are looking to break into the market or have a capability outside of sports, now they’re coming in. But on the sports side, they service the whole market from agencies to leagues, to teams, to technology companies themselves, to brands, all using tech in a different way. She gave a recent example of a new league called Athletes Unlimited, who said that they wanted to start from scratch and not be beholden to the old way of doing business in sports. They wanted to know what that league might look like if they’re really looking to leverage technology and restructure this?  She said that Sports Innovation Lab actually helped to create a league called Athletes Unlimited that launches in September around women’s softball, and they’re thinking how to lean in and do things differently.

Angela explained that the current situation and the possibility of big stadiums not being able to be full, is a massive problem for the sports industry currently. She said that the economic impact of not filling those stadiums from a ticket and revenue generation perspective means that every league team is trying to figure out other ways to create additional revenue streams. Tech could drive that, but, there are a lot of leagues, such as the Premier Lacrosse League in the U.S. that are fully quarantining themselves in a campus in Utah and UFC recently announced their Fight Island again, a fully quarantine space for their athletes and for their support staff.

She posed the question, without fans, what are the ways that they can continue to drive engagement at home, continue to get fans to interact and love their brands and do things that ultimately drive revenue? She said that we’re seeing a lot of return to play protocols; number one, are people safe and then assuming they are, can we post games? And then on top of that, what can we do to connect at home? She said that if we imagine that fans are able to come back at around 20/30% of full capacity, there’s a massive opportunity that they are seeing in the market to help with these ways that keep fans safe and have trust.

She gave the example of Venuetize, a company that really focuses on a full suite of solutions; that could be something as simple as cashless, clear facial recognition, ways that you could minimize the potential impact of COVID, assuming that fans are coming back still with social distancing in mind.

There’s a lot of these companies that are creating a way that you can watch at home and be more engaged now at home than before in pre-COVID, because if we can’t get up and go, we still want that sports experience. But then when we move into another phase, where a limited number of fans are coming back, it’s all about trust and technology actually is a cornerstone of that.

Fluid Fan

In a blog post, Angela wrote that the future of sports is digital, going on to talk about the concept of a Fluid Fan.

Fluid fandom, she said, is the core of what her company does. The pillars to a fluid fan are open to change, these fans don’t look like they used to. She explained that they’re not the diehards, they’re empowered to choose. Angela said that they have essentially given them more ways than ever to engage with properties to reach them because of technology, think of all the platforms out there and they’re continuously evolving, you think you know them one day and they’re very different the next. So, fans today look very different. They’re no longer tied to geography, they may follow players rather than teams, they’re super tech savvy, they can find your content anywhere with multiple screens. They may actually vote on values. They might follow a team that is eco-friendly or diverse versus they’re simply the best team out there. So, they want these accessible, immersive experiences that culminate in a very social, accessible, interactive experience that looks very different than the traditional fan that we’re used to serving. She added that with the diehard fan you have to do little to nothing to entertain, just put on sport. This New Age fluid fan absolutely wants to do more; they may want to bet; they may want to interact with the content. They feel like they have a direct connection to the to the athlete, so you have to create ways through technology to allow them to be fluid, to find your product, to engage with your product and to engage with one another. At the end of the day, she explained, we say the diehard isn’t completely dead, but they’re dying. Whilst the majority of these fluid fans are younger, anyone can be a fluid fan for simply using a second screen for example. So, fluid fans are the future of sport and we have to remember that we can’t do things the same old way. We have to innovate. We have to engage. We have to give them more than what they’re used to.

Fluid fandom is everywhere, it’s global. An example of this could be the wave of new Tottenham Hotspur fans, who have flown all the way from South Korea to London, simply to support Heung-min Song who is the South Korea captain as well as playing for Tottenham. These fans have followed the player across the globe as opposed to directly supporting a specific English team. Angela explained that suddenly, with globalization, with the ability to trade players across geographies to watch content, there are no boundaries and fluid fans can pick and choose more easily and athletes are a beneficiary of that. She said the leagues are creating the structure and revenue opportunities, but the athletes are now building their own brands, that is a fundamental shift. They have the power to go direct to consumer, to be their own brands, to be the voice of the league and whether they get traded or not, the fans for the most part, don’t care, they will still follow that player. So, with that new enhanced power that these athletes have, the question becomes, what kind of data, what kind of information is that athlete going to share as a brand? She explained that they’re going to want to build up their social and digital following and there are a number of technology companies that are doing that on their behalf. But there are other opportunities; think sports betting where maybe you want to follow and understand their performance, their heart rate, their sweat production, these other data points that might actually give you another window into these athletes. So, the question of who owns their data is absolutely a hot topic right now.

In her prior life, Angela served as the chairperson for the IOC Athletes Commission, she got to listen to all the athletes globally. The market is opening up and Angela believes that athletes will be the primary beneficiaries of this. It’s not a zero-sum game, if the leagues and the technology properties and the athletes understand that, the pie could be bigger for everyone. She added that this data is super valuable, and we’ll all benefit in the long run. Ultimately, what they talk about at Sports Innovation Lab is the fan. The fan will benefit because they will be enabled by technology to actually connect to the athlete, to the brands that support those athletes, to the leagues and the properties and they will get access to more across the globe. So, it’s an exciting environment to be in and they are really proud to be leading the way with this kind of research that’s very data driven, it’s a really big piece of what they do at Sports Innovation Lab versus just seeing trends. So, all of their research is backed in this kind of information.

Chris Turner

Our next guest was Chris Turner, CEO of Sports and Wellbeing Analytics.

Chatting with Chris Turner

Chris explained that Sports and Wellbeing Analytics is a start-up, they started a couple of years ago and are focused on using the latest technologies and scientific research to enhance player welfare – safety in performance fundamentally. Chris said that the focus right now is on head impact, they’re doing that in elite Rugby Union at the moment, although obviously they have spent some time at university level. They have developed a product called Protecht, and that is a mouthguard with a set of electronics built into it in order to monitor and use and manage those head impacts from players. This mouthguard contains a number of sensors which measure linear and rotational acceleration of the head;

  • Linear – straight line impact, forwards and backwards
  • Rotations – the full rotation.

Chris added that the reason they look at both of those is the types of impacts that they get. They want to know how severe that impact is, which direction that is coming from and to be able to look at that, because different types of impacts have different types of characteristics. For example, if you look at professional rugby, because people are typically passing balls to the side, there is a lot of rotational movement in that. When we are talking about something like an NFL game, for example, there’s a lot more linear acceleration because the impacts are typically more generated from the side. That doesn’t mean it’s a universal truth, but it does mean that that’s a characteristic difference. He said that what that then allows them to do is first of all, look at impacts that are seen and more importantly, see the impacts that are not seen. Typically, in a game you’ll see lots of people around the side of the stadium watching players and they’ll therefore look for those impacts that they have. He said that they often see some of the biggest impacts happen when people have missed them entirely because they’re at the bottom of a ruck or some other kind of pile up. This allows them to do all sorts of different things, because they can then start to look at the timing of tackles, technique, they can see what things are actually creating the largest impacts, they can look at using this to see what they can do in terms of changing the way people train. Chris said that the biggest point is that they do all of that in real time, looking at the impacts as they occur. They’re not looking for things to be delayed or looking at things after an event, they will be able to react to those impacts, at the side lines, as they occur. This is particularly important for those unseen impacts which would have otherwise been missed.

Chris explained that at the heart of it is an SAP HANA system. They use the real time and the Internet of Things capabilities within that to collect that data from the mouthguard. He said that we can think about the mouthguards as individual sensors that are transmitting their data to the sideline in real time. That data is then put into a HANA database, they then do a lot of analytics on that to allow it to respond and decode all of that data. From there, they push that into the cloud when there’s a whole load of analytics, that they can then do as a post event set of work.

Chris said that Sports and Wellbeing Analytics have spent a lot of time working with the Ospreys rugby team in Wales, collecting a lot of data from them. He thought that the big things that are really interesting, is they are able to see what’s happening during the training event, how players are interacting when they’re training. Some drills will be more contact based than others and at those contact based drills, they want to know who’s getting the biggest impacts and whether those impacts are necessary or unnecessary, whether they’re planned or unplanned, if they’re unplanned, they can look at, with the club, the drills and determine whether or not to change those drills, to reduce those impacts. Chris gave an example of a drill called a jackal drill, which is a player on the ground who is passing a ball back to be distributed out, but to make that realistic, they put people trying to take the ball off that player known as a Jackal. He said they found that when that was occurring, the player on the ground was the only person getting any impacts. The problem with that is that the player on the ground was the person that was not supposed to be getting any impacts because he was supposed to be out of contact and resting and the idea was that that wouldn’t be a requirement. You can tweak things around like that. They are also able to get things like positional data, so they are able to use the data that they get off of, for example, individual positions like a winger or a lock, and use that data to work out what a normal load for that player looks like. Then they’re able to look at what an abnormal load for that player looks like by the same token. Chris said that they found that some players were getting impacts later in the game that might be bigger than they were getting the earlier parts of the game, because the way that they were reacting to that. However, what was actually happening was that their neck strength was running out. So, when they hit the ground, they got much more whiplash than they would have got before. As a consequence, the size of the impacts went right up. So, the consequence of that is you can either train a player to last longer, have their neck strength last for the whole 80 minutes, which may require a change in their strength and conditioning routines. Or you can say, okay, that’s how long they’re going to last, and I’ll take them off after 60 minutes and preserve them for the rest of the game.

Chris emphasised that this technology is applicable to any contact sport, whether it’s ice hockey or boxing or mixed martial arts or NFL. He said that they have got some exciting projects that they’re working with in boxing and mixed martial arts already.

Chris said that there is some concern about the potential for more injuries when players return to contact sport after the Covid-19 lockdown. He gave the example of the NFL in 2011, who had a lockdown when the players were negotiating salaries. When they returned to play, injury rates spiked dramatically because they weren’t adequately prepared during the pre-season to return. He added that the same thing has happened in the Bundesliga as they returned after the COVID interruption a few weeks ago. In the first week or so the rate of injury spiked to four times what it was before the lockdown. There is some considerable concern about that. One of the things that they have tried to use their data for is to look at how they can help players return to that level of contact much more safely. Chris said that they have actually found some really exciting insights in the data that allow them to help those clubs to build out those returns to play. They are working with a number of premiership rugby sides in the UK, to help them with that return to play approach, as a result, they have built a ‘Return to Contact’ white paper that allows them to help clubs to detail out the processes that they can go through to achieve that.

When players come back to play, they need a certain amount of adaptation to get them used to what a normal contact load is in a game. At Sports and Wellbeing Analytics, they have actually been able to use their data to determine what that normal contact load looks like, and they’ve been able to shape the training program to allow the players to address that level of detail or contact exposure. So that by the time the players exit the program, which is typically eight to twelve weeks, depending upon how conditioned the players are when they come into the program, they are ready for normal levels of contact. Chris explained that they are able to simulate some of that contact, even whilst players are in lockdown, so they don’t actually have to do everything with other players. This means that they can start that conditioning process to get themselves back up to the right initial starting point, even though they are not able to grapple with their fellow players. And that’s a big plus. That’s something that allows a lot of the clubs to shorten that return to play process from what would otherwise be a twelve-week program down to eight or potentially less weeks.

Preeti Shetty

Our next guest was Preeti Shetty, Head of Upshot at the Football Foundation

Chatting with Preeti Shetty

The Football Foundation is the UK’s largest sports charity. It’s a partnership between the Premier League, the FA and UK Government. Preeti said that their role is to support and build grassroots football facilities, basically transforming communities in terms of more people playing better games and ultimately stronger impact. Upshot is a start-up business, an online monitoring, evaluation and learning system that the Football Foundation founded in 2009. As a funder, Preeti said that they were looking at all of the data that they were collecting, they would ask for an annual report from their grantees and, back in 2009, they were getting that back in a variety of different formats, lots of paper at the time. She said that they felt as if their internal teams were just collating data but not really doing anything else with it. They wanted to move towards understanding the ‘so what’ question, for example, ‘we’ve given you some money and you’ve engaged with a thousand kids this year, that’s great, but so what?’ They felt like the organisations they funded, their clubs, community groups, schools, varying sizes, predominantly volunteer led, didn’t really have the resources or the capacity to be able to answer that question. So, Upshot went down the route of building an online system to help them collect better data, report back, but most importantly, focus on the outcomes, being able to understand whether their interventions are working or not.

Predominantly Upshot is looking at any outcomes they think sport can have within a community or to individuals. A few years ago, the government released their new sports strategy that focused on five key outcomes:

  1. Physical Wellbeing
  2. Mental wellbeing
  3. Individual development
  4. Social and community development
  5. Economic development.

Preeti said that they are trying to understand, if a young person or a group of people or people from a certain demographic are playing more sport, what does that mean for them? Are they having an increase in confidence? Are we seeing community cohesion? Are we seeing a drop in crime rates? However, it can be very common across sport that this kind of analysis is quite anecdotal and there wasn’t really any hard data and evidence that sat behind it to prove that sport does make a difference in all of these different ways and not just in terms of health.

Preeti said that in 2012, they realised that while they had built Upshot initially to work in-house for their grantees, lots of other sports and charities out in the sector had exactly the same problems as they did. Everybody was starting to look at technology as an answer to their problems, she said that they had done quite significant consultation with the sectors as they were building Upshot. So, they were quite well-placed to offer it out to other organisations. Upshot launched commercially in 2012, where they licenced themselves to anybody who wanted to use it. These other organisations tend to predominantly be sport for development organisations or national governing bodies of sport or universities, local authorities, where they want to see an impact on society. Upshot currently work with just over a thousand organisations and the range has grown quite significantly. As well as working with different sports, they work in 32 different countries, with the system in four languages. She said that they work with tiny organisations in Iraq that use football to tackle landmine awareness, for instance, a brilliant organisation in Brazil that uses boxing and martial arts to tackle crime and violence in the favelas and MLS clubs. This all have something in common, and that is trying to do something predominantly using grassroots sport to be able to make a difference to their communities.

Preeti explained that they use is a straightforward cloud-based system, it helps collect all of the data from the sessions. Data such as; who’s turning up? Where are they from? What do you know about them? What are their attendances at your sessions? Then it starts to go into quite a lot of detail around tracking individual journeys, for example, have you seen that the family situations have changed, or they’ve got qualifications since they’ve been with you? It also collects quite a lot of qualitative data such as, photos, videos or case studies. It also gives you the ability to conduct surveys and then really close that feedback loop. She explained that you can then share that learning with your funders and stakeholders through a reporting suite that enables you to understand if an intervention has worked or not and how well your you’re doing against your key performance indicators. Upshot recently launched two different apps to help facilitate the data input. Preeti said that there are many stories of volunteers and coaches working really hard all day and then at the end of the day, they go to the office or their home and they have to type everything in. She said that for Upshot it was moving away from that and saying, actually, we all use the phone, why can’t you have your phone out at the session? You take a photo, do your register and your attendances and job done, delivering a really good service to the people that you work with.

Preeti added that they can see impact from this at every level. She explained that for a coach, team or a club that’s delivering sessions on a regular basis, it’s very much around organisation and effectiveness, helping them plan better sessions. For example, do they know who’s turning up? Do they know where they have to be when they have to deliver? Do they understand their audiences? It can also be seen at a management level. For example, setting KPIs, understanding whether you’re doing well or not, informing future decision making. Then it can also be seen right at the top. A lot of the work that Upshot does, feeds into national and international strategies. She explained that it’s being able to say, well, how does the work that I deliver on a local level or with a particular demographic of people, how does that feed into my national government’s strategy? What impact am I making on crime rates in my local area? A lot of the work that Upshot do, links into things like the UN Sustainable Development Goals. What is sports role within that? How do you know that you are making a difference in these areas? But what it comes down to is about having really good data, telling you what’s working or what’s not. If it’s good, then you replicate and scale. If it’s not working, you tweak and adjust. Preeti added that the key thing is knowing it in real time, she said that’s what’s made the biggest difference to their organisations, they’ve been able to catch something that isn’t working early on as opposed to waiting till the end of the project and then having to start all over again.

Impact of Covid-19

The current crisis has had a huge impact on the organisations that Upshot works with. Preeti said that some of the organisations, their bread and butter is delivering out on a field or in a community somewhere and they haven’t been able to do that, they haven’t been able to reach their audiences. However, she said that they have really seen resiliency within the sector and quite a lot of delivery has moved online. She told a  wonderful story about one of their organisations, that said, ‘your coach is like your mentor, a bit like a psychologist’. You don’t just work with them, but you talk to them and for lots of vulnerable, at risk people, not having that interaction can be hugely detrimental. She said that they are seeing a lot of their coaches and volunteers really starting to look at this very differently, move their work online, use the phone. She said that it is going back to where we were before, just picking up the phone and having a chat with somebody. For Upshot, the most important thing, is about real time data, it’s enabled their organisations to understand who are the most at risk and who are the hardest to reach because they have all their details stored, they can access it from home. It has meant that they haven’t had to stop delivering and it’s meant that they’ve just had to adapt how they deliver. She said that there have been may examples of these organisations reaching new audiences, as we’ve seen all around the country exercise and sport is essential, it’s as important as food and medicine. Therefore, how do we ensure that we are reaching people who don’t have opportunity or access.

Esport

When asked about the impact of esports, Preeti said it was an interesting question as she believes you have your sport purists that believe that esport isn’t sport. But she also said that we can’t dispute the reach and the investment that esports has at the moment. She added that if you’re trying to tackle complex social issues, it would be remiss of us not to take them into account. She explained that we’re seeing some good examples already where traditional sport has started to partner with esports, and while they are reaching very different audiences, it’s about messaging. It’s ensuring that no matter who your fans are, you are putting out the right message. Preeti believes that it can have a huge impact in it in terms of social and community. She said that we talk about young people that don’t want to play sport because they don’t like it or they don’t feel that good at it, but actually, they may be really good at esport. We’ve seen this really strongly in times of COVID, just a simple message, wash your hands, socially distance, things like that can be communicated to a much bigger audience. Preeti said that her concern slightly is, if we go down this the separation route, then esport becomes its own thing and we end up in competition with each other, which she doesn’t really think that would help communities in any way.

Dr Sarah Gilchrist

Dr. Sarah Gilchrist is a performance consultant who brings 20 years’ experience to our podcast, and that has included a leadership role at the English Institute of Sport, as well as supporting British Rowing to multi gold medal success at the Beijing, London and Rio Olympics and Paralympics.

Chatting with Dr Sarah Gilchrist

Sarah began by stating that the use of data between all three of the Olympics and Paralympics she has been through has changed an incredible amount. She said they started using data within rowing in the Beijing Olympic Paralympic cycle, but the High-Performance System as a whole moved throughout those three cycles to utilizing data intelligence, employing more practitioners who were solely responsible for looking at data and feeding the insights back to coaches and athletes, to a place where now they have specific roles called data scientists, who didn’t exist in that in the Beijing cycle. Sarah added that it’s quite common nowadays to perhaps combine a sports science degree with a maths degree or even computing science, so we’re even moving away from the traditional physiology, biomechanics, psychology, of sport science, to looking at people with insights to computer science and computer technologies to combine with their knowledge of what it takes to help an athlete cross the winning line.

Sarah continued, she said that data was a huge part of what she did on a day to day basis for the British Rowing team. She said that they worked in a multidisciplinary team, so they had coaching information, telemetry on the boat from biomechanics – the science side of things, the physiology, which was Sarah’s area. She said they were particularly looking at the data that the human in the boat provided the athletes. They also had data from also from the medicine side. They had sports science, sports medicine and coaching technologies providing data that fed into a mother ship of all the data. It was then how they used that data to provide them with insights as to, from a physiological point of view, how the athlete was coping with the training program, moving through the training program in a four year cycle, were they getting to the point where they needed to be to cross the finish line first.

Sarah said that they were in the lucky position that they knew what the gold medal standard was. They had all the information of boat speeds, of the water and predictions that they could make, which was difficult being an outside sport, but predictions that they could make within reason as to how fast they thought the boats needed to be to win the races in whatever conditions were thrown at them on the Olympic Paralympic final day.

She reminded us that there are different boats as well, with different numbers of people in and you have rowing and you have sculling. All of these combinations of factors meant that they had an incredible amount of data, they had to make sure that they chose how they use the data. It was insightful and Sarah added that they weren’t just using the data for the sake of it and just producing data and feeding it back to the coaches who wouldn’t actually look at it so it then never actually made an impact on the training program or the decisions that the coaches were making. It was a very much a team effort. That changed as well over the various Olympic Paralympic cycles to the point where, certainly between London and Rio, they started working with SAS, a computer software company, purely to look at data management. That also transferred into the governing body as well. Sarah said that SAS helped British Rowing with membership for example, which is another database with large numbers in it. It’s had a real impact in terms of mining the amount of data that the team produced.

Sarah explained that you have to be careful when you’ve got data coming in from the science and medicine and then you’ve got coaching technology data, coaching technical data. She said it’s very easy to have ‘death by data’ in the sense that you’re just seeing numbers. You need to remember that there’s a human being on the end of the product that you develop, so whilst the information of the boat and the boat speed and the telemetry of the boat is really important, ultimately, it’s an athlete, a human being that’s making that speed happen or a combination of humans if you’ve got more than one person in the boat. So, the dynamics of how you use the data and inferences you make from the data come back to the art of coaching science. That’s where the relationship that you have with the coach is really important, and the relationship that the coaches and the athletes have is really important. It becomes a collaborative, collective decision as to what changes to make in a training program to make sure that you’re adapting and responding. She added that it comes back down to the skill of the coach and the scientists and practitioners involved to be able to take step back and say, okay, this is what the data saying, but look into the eyes of the athlete; what are they saying? How are they responding to the program? Usually they’re an experienced athlete who’s been through multiple Olympic Paralympic cycles, they know how they should feel at this stage of the cycle, but equally, if this is a young developing athlete, that’s when you got to be really careful, because they’re overly keen and they don’t want to show weakness. So, you’ve got to make sure that even if the data’s saying all the right things, you’ve got to make sure that you’re taking the human aspects into account as well.

Impact of Sleep

Sarah explained that her interest in sleep came about through a number of ways, mainly the fact that nobody addressed sleep and athletic performance or sleep and downtime and athletic performance. There was no normative data or current normative data on elite athletes and sleep. So, it came from questions raised from the rowing team in relation to their sleep. On top of this, the year before 2012 Sarah explained that they knew that downtime was being impacted, athletes were getting pulled into London for media commitments ahead of the home Olympics. She said that they wanted to capture data on how that was impacting on their recovery. So, there was a whole host of factors that led her to choose sleep as the main focus for her doctorate, but essentially, in terms of data, it was like they had got an opportunity to create a database on athletic sleep. She said it started with British rowing, but it transcended into other sports across the Olympic Paralympic spectrum in British High-Performance Sport. She expressed that she was lucky enough to have a PHD student working with her as well, meaning there was two people gathering data, working in different ways in relation to see performance. Sarah said that her way of working was more about the culture and behaviour change and getting people to understand and educate them as to why this is important and the fact that whilst they had determinants of performance from physiological, psychological, technical, and all sorts of different aspects that determine performance, that the real crux of it was that sleep was an impact factor on those determinants of performance. So, if sleep was being compromised in some way, then that would have, ultimately over time, over a four-year period of an Olympic cycle, that could potentially have an impact on an athlete’s ability to deliver on the day.

Sarah said that managing an athlete’s sleep schedule can be difficult, although it is dependent on the sport as well as coming down to a player’s own responsibility. Being educated on what they need to do, in terms of their sleep to ensure that they can perform optimally at the time they need to. So, if it’s a late-night game, for example, you’ve got the adrenaline of playing, then they might have had some caffeine to help with the performance on the pitch if its football, for example. They might have had drug testing afterwards, so then they’re late to bed, it could be the early hours. Sarah explained that you’ve got to ensure that in terms of sleep routines, sleep hygiene or behavioural environmental factors that proceed sleep, the athletes have got a really good sleep strategy planned out for their performance plan. For example, if they’ve got early morning games, it’s making sure that they’re getting enough sleep, usually seven to nine hours, but they’ve got to get up early, they’re going to bed early. So, getting that bank of sleep so they’re not sleep deprived on the day. One bad night’s sleep won’t affect you too much, but if their sleep isn’t in a good routine, then that’s going to have an impact particularly over a season. So, in terms of data, that was huge, you can record a huge amount of data in terms of someone’s sleep, whether it’s objective or subjective and you can then make inferences from that. She went on to explain that it also comes back to the relationship that you have with that athlete, because taking the data allows you to then have a dialogue about someone’s sleep health, rather than just making decisions based on what a sleep watch will tell you or what a questionnaire will tell you.

Whilst it is totally individualized, Sarah suggested that seven to nine hours sleep is the average for everyone. It then comes down to whether you’re a lark or an owl as well. So, something called your chronotype can have an impact, and genetics can too.

For example, in the United States, where they may be crossing time zones regularly, Sarah said that they do have specialists advise them. So, you may have a game on the West Coast where you’re based, and then you may be playing in the week on East Coast and that really does affect the athletes. Sarah added that a lot of the American teams, basketball and baseball in particular, have been paying particular attention to their sleep strategies to the nth degree and it is planned out within the week as to what the players need to do to overcome the sleep deprivation and the jetlag that they’d experience on top of what goes on for months and months through the competition schedule.

Alex Cooke

Our final guest was Alex Cooke, Data Intelligence Partner at PwC UK, who leads the organisation’s work with British Athletics.

Chatting with Alex Cooke of PwC

PwC help a lot of elite sports organisations, typically with big four accountancy services, but they also help with technology and transformation advisory, which includes using their large contingent of data analytics resources to help clients solve their important problems. They were engaged by British Athletics initially to help them with a strategic review of the way that they collected, managed, and stored data.  They looked at whether they could better harness the power of that data more effectively, and therefore help British Athletics in their mission to win more medals in a more events.

PwC developed a probabilistic model of athlete performance, which is a blueprint for managing the acquisition of all of the data sources that can be collected with respect to an athlete, bringing them together to help coaches understand what makes a material difference in terms of preparation, training and ultimately performance.

Alex explained that they are seeing impacts all over the program, and as an example, he talked about injury prevention. He explained that when you have a real deep set of data, longitudinal over a number of years, you’re able to look at the relationship between particular types of training exercises. That might be the nature of the exercise itself, i.e., the type of gym exercise/ movement, such as a squat or countermovement jump, the number of reps and sets, the weights that are used, the duration, the rest time, etc.

Over the course of time, where injuries have occurred, you can then look back at the data and look at what preceded it, for example, checking if there was chronic or acute stress in the weeks prior, and compare that to a control set of data for the same athlete, i.e., where they didn’t have an injury. This helps understand where there are combinations of exercises, combinations of training or rest or other patterns, that are contributing to that injury.

In one example, PwC, found a clear relationships between an Achilles injuries and particular exercises on an exercise bike that the athlete was doing, and high intensity hack squats and hamstring injuries that were caused by the frequency of weight lifts in the gym and exercises with a shot-put ball between their legs.

Armed with this kind of information, a coach can be a more careful about how those exercises are introduced to an athlete’s training.

Impact of Covid-19 lockdown to training

Throughout lockdown, PwC have been providing data that helps coaches to understand what is currently happening within their athletes’ training and their responses to it. This is important because there are limitations on what most athletes can do during this period. For example, a pole vaulter is unlikely to have a pole vault mat in their garden or will not have the length of run up. Similarly, you cannot go to your local park and throw a javelin! Coaches have therefore to adjust for that by trying to mimic the same actions on the body through other exercises and drills. By measuring the response to those drills, they can have an understanding of how their athletes react, which will be important when athletes return and start preparing for the specifics of their events.

PwC’s work with Paralympians

PwC are seeing a growing parity in the levels of support provided to Paralympians, for example, by introducing some biomechanics analysis. Typically taking video of an athlete and analysing that for biomechanical measurements, such as, the angles and the speed of limbs and how they associate with particular movements, would take hours, maybe days with a trained individual, having to individually mark-up specific videos and then calculate the measurements from that marked up video.  But now, using recent computer vision algorithms, they are now able to do that in a couple of minutes.

Balancing data with a coach’s intuition

How do you bridge the gap between a fully machine learning, computer analytics driven view of performance and where we were in the past with coaches with stopwatches and pads and paper?

PwC try and help coaches and athletes become more data informed by bringing relevant data sets and reports and analysis to sit alongside some of the work they’re already doing today, allowing them to use their intuition guided by some of the evidence points. You must start with data that has a defined veracity to it, and make sure that data is the right quality and frequency. When you are dealing with sports scientists and coaches who have a critical eye for detail, it is really important to build their trust by focusing on the data that they know that matters and is accurate. That allows them to use that data alongside their intuition to help guide the actions their taking with the athletes.

For more information on PwC’s work with British Athletics, visit www.pwc.co.uk/britishathletics

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