Performance analysis – insight from the experts

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Performance analysis

Analysts are now part of the furniture in athlete support teams at nearly all professional sports clubs and federations. Barely a sprint, kick or swish of a racket occurs without it being minutely scrutinised in order to maximise every performer's impact during competition. We caught up with three leading exponents to ask about routes into the industry, career prospects and what their roles entail.

Esther Wills

How did you get into performance analysis?

After my degree in physiology, I worked at the Centre for Performance Analysis at Cardiff Metropolitan University, initially cataloguing videos and other such exciting tasks! They had a number of projects providing analysis to the Welsh RFU, Wales Squash, GB Hockey and other big organisations. Looking back, learning from the other analysts there was a great grounding in the industry.

What are the career prospects for those wanting to enter performance analysis?

It depends where you’re working. When I started there weren’t any specific university courses on performance analysis. Now there are lots, so the route into the industry is now a little easier in terms of specific education. However, there are a lot more people coming out of university fully qualified compared to the number of jobs available. The industry used to be solely for those with practical coaching backgrounds, but recently a statistics degree is seen as relevant and credible.

The industry used to be just video-based, working directly with coaches and players. Now, there’s a whole new branch looking at bigger data sets, analysed across longer time periods. The bulk of my work is with video, supported and guided by data that we've recorded from our national squads plus any benchmarking data we can access.

How much impact is analytics now having on elite performance?

It’s part of a package of support for athletes, in the same way as the sports science, fitness and sports psychology departments are, but the most important factor of all is the relationship with the coaches. Being fully integrated within the coaching team is massively important.

We’re lucky here in that the coaches are very educated in how to use analysis. The use of video and data is tied in with everything they do, from the nationals squads down to the under-15s. The analysts are included in all the coaching discussions. That’s the way to have the best impact. It's difficult to measure or quantify an analyst's direct impact, but you can see our value in, for example, how our opposition analysis has impacted on the coaches’ training sessions, and in turn how that impacts on the match.

Across the industry, currently every club and coach has a slightly different attitude to using data in the background and analysts have to mould what they do to the head coach’s beliefs and philosophy. But I believe in the near future, analysts will become more like assistant coaches. I've seen a lot of the younger managers now emerging from FA Wales coach education courses very comfortable with the technology. That's a trend that I can only see growing.

Jack Mercer

How did you get into the industry?

I did a Sports Science undergraduate degree at Exeter University, then did Sports Medicine as a Masters, and left in 2012. From there I phoned and emailed anyone I could think of in sport and eventually I secured some work experience with the GB Rowing team just helping out two days a week. That turned into a paid internship for a year, which turned into full-time employment. I've now been around the GB Rowing team for over four years.

I did some work shadowing at Fulham FC, volunteered as a Games Maker at London 2012 and took every opportunity I could to just chat to people who work in sport. I received a lot of rejection letters but got there in the end!

What are the career prospects for those wanting to enter performance analysis?

Progression is very much dependent on where you are, but experience is the main thing. If you work with a small squad you have to be a lot of things to those few people. In a big squad like rowing, you can fulfil one role, but you still need to show you're more than just a technician; you need to build up your range of experience to show you're a rounded practitioner.

How much impact is analytics now having on performance?

Rowing is massive for data and marginal gains. Our athletes do the same stroke 200 times to get down a 2000m course, so if we can influence something tiny in that one stroke then the value of that is multiplied 200 times. We're able to do a lot with video and GPS analysis, using sensors and gadgets on the boat in training, that gives the rowers a very smooth transition into competition.

What we always say though is, "Don't coach the numbers." It's so easy to get bogged down in the data. The job is as much about harvesting the data as it is about creating good data visualisation that actually means something. It's got to be presented in a  way that is actually useful and translates into practical coaching and improvements in performance. I think there's a limit to what the data can tell you about an athlete, but I don't think there's a ceiling to its usefulness, because you can always interpret better what's going on out on the water.

The impact of performance analysis is tricky to prove. Anecdotally, athletes tell us all the time, "It's really good to know this. It's really helped," but you can't necessarily see a tangible translation. You know it's having an effect because it's underpinning the conversations between athletes and coaches and what they're working on when they're out on the water.

Analysts are a major player in multi-disciplinary teams but you can't isolate any one of those disciplines to determine which one has the biggest impact. The biggest impact is working together as a team.

Berkant

How did you get into the industry?

I ran my own company which was focused on sports performance data, particularly on the live data delivery to the betting industry. My advice is look to the future and see the area that really excites you. The sport industry, like many others, requires a lot of focus, innovation and commitment. That is always easier when you care about what you are doing; where your career and focus taps into your passion and interest.

What are the career prospects in the sports data industry?

Careers in this area tend to start with data entry operator positions or big data analysts. While the betting industry seems to have been one of the first adopters of data and its power, there is a wide range of industries that are now looking to leverage that power: whether that be clubs, federations, media, fantasy sport providers, sponsors or stadium operators. All of these need sports data to get to the next level, and they need the right people who understand the language, opportunity and process for data in each industry.

How big an impact do you think data analytics is having on elite sport performance and talent ID?

It has a very big impact and I believe it will have increasingly more impact in the coming years. In the past, talent and performance identification was mostly done by former professionals and you had to rely on their own analyses, instincts and judgements. This, of course, presented risks and required a lot of faith. I already know from a few professional football clubs that I have spoken to that some are already looking into completely switching across to data analytics to drive their talent scouting processes.

Do you think analytics will ever reach a saturation point?

I don’t think this will ever happen. There seems to be no end in sight in terms of the breadth and depth of data that our customers want and now demand. This data and analytics is now being applied across betting, viewing, debating, understanding, performance enhancing, rehabilitation, marketing. We seem to be only starting to uncover the opportunities for sport analytic applications.

This article was written by the GlobalSportsJobs insight team.


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