Why data science is the way forward in sport

Why data science is the way forward in sport

In 2016 the AFL’s Western Bulldogs achieved grand final victory for the first time in 62 years. Incredibly, the team hadn’t competed in a final for more than five decades. They had a strong season - there was no doubt about it. Their players were shining. Their performance was consistent. And, the coaching was exemplary. But, what some of you might not know, is that two years prior to the win, the Bulldogs began doing things a little differently. In 2014 they signed a deal with Victoria University. The team’s stomping grounds, Whitten Oval, was renamed to Victoria University Whitten Oval — but the new name wasn’t the only perk. The team and coaches would now have access to world-class sport scientists at the university at an unprecedented level, including two who would be based between the oval and the university. The partnership was a first for the AFL and was seen as a knowledge exchange relationship to develop players to their full potential.

This is where senior sports scientist and senior research fellow, Dr Sam Robertson comes in. He leads a team of 19 staff and students who shuffle their time between university and the training grounds, to collect data on players and analyse it to help the club with decision making. We had the opportunity to chat with Sam about how data science is being used and what impact it’s had on the sporting code. Sam will also be a panelist at CeBIT’s 2017 Big Data & Analytics Conference about Reaching for the future: Global trends panel. Don’t miss his incredible insights!

The technology behind the sport science

In the past 11 years, Sam has seen sport science technology advance - he even goes as far to say that Australia is leading the pack in the way of sports science and predicts the US is 10 years behind us in the practical application of some of these tools, such as GPS.

In Sam’s view, GPS is the biggest game-changer. It has revolutionised most team sports, not just the AFL. The Western Bulldogs measures every step their athletes take when in training and on game day via GPS technology in their jumpers. Sam says the technology took them from pen and paper analysis to a real-time sense of how players are performing. For example, in the middle of a training session they can see how long a player has been running high-speed and they can then pull the player out once a prescribed target has been reached.

“It’s incredible technology that has changed what we do dramatically,” he says. “In recent years we’ve been trying to pull [the amount of technology] back and refine it to give us exactly the data we need. One of its main advantages is taking the human burden and error out of data collection.”

Surprisingly, video is also one of their biggest data collection sources. In the training gym there are sensors on the floor to measure the force players can take and produce during a tackle. Occasionally heart rate monitors are used, but the contact nature of the game means these will often be ripped off. There’s also a self-service system where players enter data to indicate how they’re feeling every day. In addition to this, the system collects medical data such as muscle strength. This data enables the sports scientists to have a number of insights to assist them when informing the coaches, but also to identify weak spots and help players work on these issues before game day.

Ethics behind tracking

Obtaining the right balance between collecting data to inform decision-making and increasing burden on the player is an ongoing battle. And the questions behind the ethics of tracking players off the field and out of training are still a debate point. How far is too far and what is considered an invasion of privacy? Sam says it’s unnecessary to track athletes outside of training and even when they are tracking the athletes during a game or training, the scientists try to do it inconspicuously. “It is important not to interfere excessively, even if we’re filming we try to make the players feel like the camera is not there,” he says.

Analysis and decision making

The collected data is used in two main ways:


One of the hallmarks of the Bulldogs recent recruiting strategy is their selection of players who can play in multiple positions. Most teams traditionally recruit players based on position, which have common attributes. Ruckmen are often tall and solid. Forwards are quick runners with incredible precision. But the Dogs focus their attention on multi-talented players. And to recruit the all-rounders they need a special recruitment program.

Sam is currently transitioning into a new research and innovation role. Part of the research currently being undertaken by the sports science group includes developing a decision support system around recruiting and contracting new players. At the moment, the club analyses everything before they contract a player to the club. Whether it’s a recruit or a trade. “We try to consider as much information as we can legally acquire,” he says. “The Victoria University cadet program allows students to come and undertake placements at the club. This includes assessments of every kick and handballs undertaken by players in the under 18 competitions.” The researchers put the data in a system that can also monitor the player’s output under pressure. For example, how they react when a player is running at them at a certain speed and when they’re being tackled. “We’re constantly refining this system,” he said. Further data collected is used to estimate player career longevity as well as how similar they are to other players. You can also understand how a long-term injury may impact their game.

Sam says it’s all to move away from subjective decision making and to more objective decision making. “We want this kind of data to be seen as a value add rather than a replacement,” he says. “It’s still early days and we do want to do this better.”

Training and Game Day

In the AFL, coaches are the final decision makers and there are a number of coaching staff working with the team. During training, the sports scientists have more of an active role in making decisions and which player should focus on what etc. But on game day, the role is more to support rather than drive decisions. The scientists will give the coaches the information they have but in the end the final call is made by the coach based on experience and instinct.

The impact on the Western Bulldogs

The clubs partnership with Victoria University has made an impact. A modest one, says Sam. The scientists don’t take much credit for busting the Bulldogs 62 year premiership drought. The data they give is there as a value add, he says. “The small support role we play is a really great achievement for all of the students and I,” Sam says. “To be there to witness the first grade and the reserve grade win was incredible. And to also start an involvement in the women’s competition will be great.”

The investment from the club to employ two full time sport scientists in 2014 was groundbreaking. It was during this time a lot of other strategic changes were made at the club.

The future of sport science

Probably the coolest part of the partnership is that the Western Bulldogs get to work with scientists who test all of the new technology coming to market. And while Sam had to keep tight lipped on what the club will be implementing in the coming years, he had a few predictions on what the future in sports science would look like. Smaller, tattoo-like sensors, are going to revolutionise the sporting world according to Sam. He says nanobionics is a major driver of this and without major intrusion, the sensors would monitor heart rate, breathing rates and other physiological factors.

Final thoughts

It will be interesting to see how many other clubs follow the Bulldog’s lead and employ their own data scientists after their 2016 premiership win. What is certain is that practical applications of data aren’t just used in business, but even to train our most elite athletes.

If you’d like to see Sam speak or hear from other incredible futurists working in data science areas, join us at the Reaching for the future: Global trends strategic panel during Big Data & Analytics Conference at CeBIT 2017. Secure your spot now!

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