How big data analytics in sport supports the experts

For sports performance specialists, there has been a convergence of technology that has allowed the collection and analysis of sporting metrics like never before.

Last year’s Rio Olympic and Paralympic games saw new levels of performance from the world’s elite athletes and new and emerging technology has had a pivotal role in this success. 

While the latest hydrodynamic bodysuit for swimmers and exactly what Usain Bolt eats for breakfast might be headline grabbing, the gear that is really making the difference for athletes is the wearable tech transmitting real-time information about performance and the software capturing and analysing this. 

“I’ve always believed analytics was crap ” 

So said Charles Barkley, one of the greatest basketball players ever to feature in the NBA. 

But for all his achievements, Sir Charles’ views are not shared by the top athletes of today. 

“One of the most significant developments in technology has been data. The speed at which data can be converted into athletic training is incredible, and what used to require several hours in a lab can be taken in the velodrome as you train. For me, harnessing instant and accurate data couldn’t have gone better. It helped me get in tune with my body and performance to get everything right on race day, and it helped me walk out of Rio2016 with three Paralympic medals.”

That’s the view of Steve Bate, one of the many British Paralympic and Olympic heroes who can testify to how wearable tech and big data analytics is giving them a competitive edge in their sport. 

In January 2017, Steve Bate and other leading figures in sports and sports analytics came together for InTheCity at a high-profile event at Manchester Town Hall to look at technology and analytics in sport. What was the impact? What difference was it making? And was it taking the “soul” out of sport?

History of analytics in sport

Few sports are quite as rich in data as Major League Baseball. For the uninitiated, a BA of .321, an SLG of .612 and an RBI of 123 over a season might seem like random numbers. But for the baseball insider fan these, and others, can tell them everything they need to know about a player’s form and potential. 

Each sport has its own set of statistical markers which coaches pour over to find out where athletes are excelling and where they’re flagging. 

Until recently though, these statistics had to be both collected and analysed manually. Athletes would have to train in laboratory conditions, covered in wires. Despite the best technology of the time, this could not accurately replicate competitive field conditions. 

However, the simultaneous development of both wearable tech and big data analytics has driven analytics capture and analysis into the digital age. 

Wearable technology allows real-time collection and transmission of a wealth of performance critical metrics such as heart rate, blood pressure, respiratory performance, muscle performance and speed. 

These metrics are only as useful, though, as the ability to make sense of them. This has been the toughest nut to crack, and it’s where big data analytics comes in. 

Through analytics, the raw data that comes from the individual athlete or team can be examined at a granular detail to better understand where improvements can be made to that athlete’s technique or training schedule. 

It’s helping prevent injuries too. Rugby union teams now use data monitoring and analytics to watch for and prevent injuries.  It’s making dangerous sports less dangerous without impacting on the spectacle.

In fact, real-time analytics have the power to enhance spectator enjoyment. Looking back at our baseball example, sports fans are unashamed stats nerds and the more they can get access to, the happier they will be. And imagine being able to see the heart-rate of Cristiano Ronaldo as he steps up to take a free kick or Joe Root as he faces a 90 MPH delivery from Morne Morkel. 

It would give the spectator a unique insight into the experience of the athlete like never before. 

What sports insiders think

At the January event in Manchester Town hall, Steve Bate and Steve Flynn, Director of GB Taekwondo spoke about the impact wearable tech and analytics made to their sports. Bate spoke about the wearable tech made a huge difference to his training:

 “We can do real time out on the road, we don’t need to be in a lab any more with masks on and things like that because actually with having power and heart rates and stuff we can do a lot of that”

Of course, the data still needs analysing and Bate made it clear how this had given him a competitive edge:

 “The helmet, the skin suit, the socks you wear, really small, minor gains, marginal gains, but actually we’ve learnt that, certainly in the last six months, that the biggest gain you get is your physical performance. And the fitter you are, the faster you’re going to go.”

Steve Flynn dropped an anecdote from the Beijing Olympics which demonstrated the impact of tech on his sport. 

“At the Beijing Olympics, technology identified a winning move where referees did not, ultimately leading to a rule change. This was a pivotal moment in Taekwondo, and we now use electronic sensors to track hits and remove the potential for controversial referee decisions.”

For Flynn, though, this is just the beginning and he looked to how wearable tech and analytics could give coaches on the spot info about how their athletes were coping under the highest pressure that could never be recreated in training. 

“Wearables, smart technology like that, would make life a lot easier for us…In the Olympic final and the chips are down – how will you react to it? I’d love to know what Lutalo’s (Muhammad, Team GB Taekwondo silver medallist at Rio 2016) heart was doing when he had a second to go in his Olympic final and he thought he’d got the kick and he hadn’t, and he lost his go. Was he full of adrenaline? Or had he relaxed to the point where he thought, ‘I’m done’?’ “

And that’s where you really want to know what’s going on.”


Conclusion

For sports performance specialists, there has been a convergence of technology that has allowed the collection and analysis of sporting metrics like never before. Wearable technology allows the collection and transmission of data in real-life circumstances. Out on the road or velodrome on a cycle and in the taekwondo dojang, big data analytical power allows coaches and sports scientists to truly understand and improve performance. 

As wearable technology continues to develop, allowing for even more collection of metrics, the information given to analysts will be more accurate and more reflective of what is happening to athletes where it counts; on the field of play. 

Louis-James Davis, CEO, VST Enterprises
Image source: Shutterstock/Wright Studio