Data in sport – a bit more ‘why’ than ‘how’ and ‘what’?


The lock-down of the past few weeks has given ample opportunity for sports coaches and performance professionals (at all levels/grades) to contribute to the social media space. A popular topic has been athlete-monitoring, the data within and discussion in terms of methods, approaches, motivations, processes etc.

A phrase that jumped out at one stage (I forget whose comment it was so apologies in advance) was that ‘data is the new oil’ – it got me thinking about where we’re at in sport with regard to data through the lens of where we’ve come from and where we could, and should, go in the future.

Data in sport is a reasonably new phenomenon and has enjoyed exponential growth – possibly down, initially, to teams/clubs looking for an edge with that elusive final 5%; whilst still neglecting to master the previous 95%. Nonetheless data usage and presentation has proliferated and gained an increasingly lofty status and position in people’s minds – many decisions and choices are made now on the back of data.

Data isn’t going away any time soon. It’s seductive powers will continue to appeal so perhaps now is a good time to reflect on data, data-usage and it’s place in sport?

First off, what is the essence of sport?

Is it the result or is it about human development? Developing the person as a primary focus over developing the player? Where does ‘wellness’ now fit in terms of sports where results have become a more primary focus? And given that data is not going away any time soon what role can it play in terms of developing people, wellness and values-centred clubs/teams….whilst still helping players/athletes perform at a higher level and get the most from their pursuits?

Lofty questions – but worth remembering that the why of anything we do reveals the point to everything we do.

Admittedly I’ve many questions and not so many answers to posit in this post – however people working in and with teams/athletes/players aren’t or weren’t motivated by collecting data. The majority I know collect data because there’s a question they want answered. Data collection was certainly not the outcome originally however it seems to have risen up the levels of importance.

We should be collecting data because there is a question we want answered – and if we’re really people-focused then these questions will get better and deeper with practice and thus platform any data collection – remember the right answer to the wrong question is still a wrong answer.

So what can change, what will change and what needs to change? People are predictable – the best indicator of future behaviour is past behaviour. So how can we ensure, when Covid-19 is beyond us, that we’re opening up the conversation around data?

A few pointers in that direction worth mulling over and, hopefully, discussing

  • We’re only going to gather more data; so a commensurate ability to discern it is vital; but if the world of data has grown so much and at such a rate how are we keeping up? If we’re going to leverage data then what’s the approach towards continuing education?? People looking up YouTube or Twitter on their lunch break?? or something more organised and robust?
  • We need to know ‘why’ we’re collecting data – what is the purpose? Is it “human-centric”? Are we focusing too much and on the ‘what’ and ‘how’
  • Do academic institutes need to up their game in terms of course content and ensuring it’s relevant towards prepping graduates for 3-5 years time? Do they need to emphasise the human element even more?
  • Is it time for the narrow view of data to be expanded? With the ever growing data-set on the wellness and wellbeing of athletes/players surely it’s time to marry all of our information to get some insights – actionable nuggets for the benefit of the human?
  • Embrace being wrong – take the longitudinal approach. More data means that answers change. Answers changing can support better questions.
  • Examine the aspect of spurious data collection. Success is not just data for reflection – it’s to help predict and build a better future with robust, statistically valid insights. Think about what will/may/can happen via what has happened. Not about breaking down but about building up.
  • Our ability to stitch together experiences and events is vital – pattern recognition is hugely important towards painting the insight picture we need to see.
  • Context is king – data is useless (as is technology) unless the human operators are staying ahead in terms of their skill-sets, asking better questions and developing a proven ability to answer ‘old’ questions sufficiently well. It’s clear that our ability to generate data and reports is increasing but our ability to make sense of it, leverage it and share it with the appropriate audience is, in my eyes, stagnating at best.
  • Being data-based is not just about generating pretty or interesting reports – it needs to be about making decision making objective, informed and agile…..all the while keeping the person at the heart of matters.

With time on our hands the conversation around data in sports performance needs to open up more. We need to challenge ourselves, our assumptions and our biases.

Can we be seduced into this vulnerable conversation as easily as we are into rudimentary conversations over data?  Discussions, at best, that may only be offering us ‘deep’ chin-scratching information that is merely the cause of random distribution?

A good idea to talk more to make sure we’re using data to keep the human at the heart of the matter?

Paul Clarke operates sports consultancy Match-Fit; he helps coaches, managers & performance professionals globally to perform better on a daily basis with a focus on improving their ability to access their ability with the upside of consistently improved daily outcomes & results.

His business consultancy, CONNECT Performance, helps executives, professionals, owners in business to stem leaking revenues & profit by using a proven & trusted data-based approach towards improving wellness, daily performance readiness & productivity.

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Paul Clarke

Since 2002 Paul has developed a reputation for expertise in the vital performance-related areas of coaching, S&C, sports science and performance analysis. Teams, clubs, organisations, coaches and players from Ireland, UK, Europe and beyond have benefitted from the insights offered by the Match-Fit business as a result of the tailored and customised approach taken to creating a performance solution specific to each client. Through keeping performance and the player at the heart of all solutions, Match-Fit clients have realised that the solutions delivered not only benefit competitive performance but also the club/organisation as a complete sporting business entity.

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