On the Field, Pro Athletes Adopt Sports Analytics for Competitive Insights

by   |   August 20, 2012 9:13 am   |   0 Comments

From golf to tennis, football to soccer, the influx of data analytics in professional sports is all encompassing. With every swing, every sprint and every stroke having the potential to affect the outcome of a game, a race or a match, athletes and teams are feasting on data analytics as if it’s another fuel source to make them faster or stronger.  Increasingly, this puts technology in the center of the ring, including the use of body sensors and 3D Doppler radar to measure and track performance over time while giving athletes new insights into the inner workings of their sport’s mechanics.

“In sports in particular it’s no surprise that [data analytics] would have a big role,” said Gary King, director of the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. “If you think about the characteristics of industries or professions where data analytics would make a big difference, sports has most of those characteristics.”

A primary characteristic of sports is that it is, for the most part, results-based and quantifiable. How fast? How high? How strong?

Every February, the National Football League spends nearly a week testing elite college players to answer those three questions at its annual NFL combine.  Results help NFL teams rate players in preparation for the draft every April. Where a player is selected determines the financial investment a team makes in a player. Watch the combine for any period of time, and you’ll hear an announcer say “He made himself a lot of money” to describe a player whose performance exceeded expectations in some or all of the combine’s six measurable drills, from bench press to vertical leap to the 40-yard dash.

This year, one of the best examples of that is former University of West Virginia defensive lineman Bruce Irvin, who was projected by many draft experts as no more than a third-round NFL draft pick, in part because of some off-field character issues.

Yet after a stellar combine performance, where Irvin placed first among defensive linemen in three of the six skill sets, the Seattle Seahawks selected him with the 15th overall pick in the draft.

Measuring Instruments Sub In for Scouting Notebooks
Teams can little afford to swing and miss on a high draft pick, so it’s understandable that gone are the days where a stop watch, a measuring tape, a highlight reel and a scout’s notebook were a team’s primary sources for rating players. At the combine, players are now outfitted with sensors on their shirts that measure acceleration, G forces and heart rate. With this information, the Seahawks could see, for example, that not only did Irvin run a 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, but they could see how he accelerated out of the blocks. Was he laboring? How much force did he push off with in the vertical leap?

The sensor was developed by Zephyr Technology which partnered with Under Armour to develop the UA 39 compression shirt.  Founded in 2003, Zephyr Technology got its start by developing biometric harness technology for use by U.S. Special Forces after winning a bid by the Department of Defense. The purpose was to increase efficiency in training by analyzing what kept recruits sidelined, such as dehydration, fatigue and trauma. That led to use by hazmat teams, first responders, National Guard units – and, starting last year, the NFL combine.

The same principles used to measure conditions for soldiers apply to athletes. “By taking a look at what keeps them healthy you can change their routine before they hurt themselves. Really what you can do it regulate over-training or under-training,” said Asher Gendelman, Zephyr Technology vice president of business development. “At the combine it’s not so much about keeping them healthy as it is in monitoring them. And for the evaluators it’s one more metric that tests the strength of the individual.”

Bruce Irvin’s Data-Driven Pay Day
It’s accurate to say defensive lineman Bruce Irvin profited from his performance in the NFL combine, where as many as 335 football players (and 58 other defensive linemen) go through a series of drills.  As first reported by NFL salary cap analyst Andrew Brandt, the Seattle Seahawks signed Irvin to a fully guaranteed four-year, $9.34 million contract, including a $5.2 million signing bonus.

A summary of Irvin’s results on the field as reported by NFL:

  • 4.50 second 40-yard dash: 1st for defensive linemen
  • 6.70 seconds 3-cone drill: 1st for defensive linemen
  • 4.03 seconds 20-yard shuttle: 1st for defensive linemen
  • 10 foot, 3 inch broad jump: 3rd for defensive linemen (one inch less than the two winners)
  • 33.5 inch vertical jump: 13th for defensive linemen
  • 23 repetitions in the bench press: not listed in the top 15

Click here to see Irvin in action, via NFL.com.

Analytics on the Soccer Pitch

Justin Morrow of the San Jose Earthquakes

Justin Morrow, San Jose Earthquakes

Major League Soccer has taken sensor technology to the pitch.  Beginning next season, the league will use Adidas miCoach Elite System technology during play, giving coaches real-time data measuring a player’s heart rate, speed, acceleration, distance traveled, field position and intensity.  Like the UA 39 compression shirt, the data is compiled through a wearable sensor. Coaches on the sidelines can instantly access the data on an iPad. Adidas and MLS used the Elite System for the first time at last month’s MLS All-Star Game in Philadelphia.

“I think it’s unbelievably cool. I’m the type of person who likes that stuff,” said Justin Morrow, a defenseman with the San Jose Earthquakes and an MLS All-Star.

Morrow said he also uses a version of the miCoach for personal use.  The system is popular among recreational athletes to track workouts, recording data points such as speed, pace and distance.

“This takes it a step further and shows how hard you’re working,” Morrow said.

Data recorded during the All-Star game ranked Morrow sixth in intensity level, second in overall speed and tied for fourth in distance traveled, logging 2.1 total miles during play.

Morrow said that some players were interested in looking at player analysis during the All-Star game.  When miCoach data is tracked next season, Morrow said he will probably be more interested in looking at his results for the purpose of postgame analysis rather than making any adjustments during a match. Then again, he said that depends on how much stock his coach puts in the data.

“I don’t think I’d check in the middle of the game,” he said. “I compete the way I compete and I’m pretty comfortable with that. I mean, if the coaches are utilizing the tool and they had it at halftime, maybe if my fitness coach said I wasn’t working hard and I thought I was we’d (talk about) the discrepancy.”

Opting not to use the data insights during the game, however, doesn’t discount the tool’s potential. Morrow said that if it helps a player gain a competitive edge, or helps a player make an improvement, however minor, then the miCoach Elite System will be worthwhile.

“I’m very excited to begin using it next year,” Morrow said. “People can use it the way they want. Some people will look at it during the game, some probably won’t. For me, I’m going to use it as a tool to get better physically. That’s how most serious athletes are and I think this will be a great tool for that.”

Data to Analyze Golf Balls in Flight—and Golfer’s Swing  
Studying biometric data is just one way athletes can make improvements. Another is to analyze what happens after an athlete’s action, like the flight of a golf ball or the direction of a baseball off the bat. For many professional golfers and Major League baseball teams, that insight is left to TrackMan, a company that develops swing and ball flight analysis systems using 3D Doppler radar that measures and records all facets of a ball in flight.

Golfers have long relied on natural ability, countless hours of practice and intuition to hone a golf swing that allows them to compete on tour. Today, many choose to combine practice and natural ability with systems like TrackMan to gather insight beyond that available from the trained eye of a teaching professional.

With TrackMan, the radar is set up behind the player and measures and records anything having to do with the ball’s trajectory, such as the ball speed, launch angle and direction and spin rate.  The software analyzes all of this data to let the player know precisely what’s happening at impact and during flight. The data is so comprehensive that it’s actually caused some instructors to re-think how they teach based on what they’ve learned about a ball’s flight.

“In the case of a golfer, one stroke can change your life,” said former PGA Tour player Grant Waite, a teaching pro who uses TrackMan with his students, among them former Masters champion Mike Weir and Daniel Summerhays, who since working with Waite has four top-10 PGA Tour finishes.

Waite, who won one PGA Tour event, knows about the importance of a stroke, having lost the 2000 Bell Canadian Open to Tiger Woods by one shot. Now, he’s making the most of the data that’s available to give his students a competitive edge.

“Every athlete, what you want to be able to do is make informed decisions in how you go about how you train and go about the performance side of competition. The collection of data with the technology available today allows the athlete to make those informed choices.  In the case of TrackMan what it’s showing us by spitting out these numbers is giving us in reality what’s happening rather than intuitive guesses,” he said.

What’s happening is that TrackMan software, used in conjunction with high-speed cameras, is demonstrating that the direction of the ball flight – which way it curves after contact – is mostly determined by the direction of the face of the club at impact. Before this data was available, the prevailing thought was that the path of the clubhead prior to impact determined how the ball would travel.

Of course, via repetition most every elite golfer has learned how to shape the flight of the ball consistently without necessarily knowing the science behind it, but with technology used in golf and other sports, making use of the data doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition.

“Sure, you put a lot of people on the driving range with nothing, some will figure it out,” Waite said. “But with technology we’re able to give more people more of an opportunity. And more importantly, instead of wasting time and effort going down a path that doesn’t work, technology can help release the talent of the player. It’s to give athletes a template to guide them on a path to improvement that’s based in technology.”

King, whose Harvard institute focuses on innovations that include statistical theory, said that sport, as in other industries, is really at the beginning of what it’s capable of in the study of athletic endeavors.

“There’s enormous potential and the amount of data and the types of data both are increasing quite substantially,” he said. “And as new forms of data become available that opens up new analytic possibilities. Even with the (existing) data you can develop new analytic capabilities and you can push things forward entirely on that basis.”

Ken Murphy is a freelance writer based in the Boston area. He can be reached at kfmurphy16@gmail.com.

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