Owning the data: A new role for coaches

Owning the data: A new role for coaches

With the Rio 2016 Summer Olympic games fast approaching, both coaches and athletes will be working non-stop preparing themselves for an intense month of sporting events. With all aspects of athletes’ training plans dedicated to improving performance, it is now more important than ever for coaches to embrace data and objectivity in order to help their athletes achieve world-leading performance. 

Recent developments in data and analytics technology are presenting new opportunities for coaches. More commonly used in the engineering and business worlds to revolutionise productivity and efficiency, big data and analytics technology can also be utilised in the world of sport. Similar techniques, when used effectively, can provide coaches with strategic insights and a better understanding of performance, as well as practical solutions as to how an individual or team can improve.

Data analytics can, for example, be used to help coaches and athletes prioritise development opportunities ahead of significant competitions. This not only helps to optimise training plans and resources ahead of time, but it can also help to determine rapidly alternative training sessions when, say, weather or environmental conditions are not suitable for the planned session. In the highly competitive sporting world, time is the enemy both on and off the field of play. With every minute, hour and even day saved off the field come more and more opportunities to work on how to save those tenths of a second on the field – and the difference between gold or failure.

The more competitive sport gets, the more important it is for coaches to be sensitive to how analytics can help them produce better athletes and teams. Coaches are needing to become much better “critical customers” of those people providing them with information. In today’s data-driven society, coaches should not feel intimidated by numbers. Instead, they should be embracing them by making the data more relevant. The wider democratisation of analytics and data should therefore be seen as a key opportunity for coaches to take ownership of the tools, processes and techniques becoming available to them.

The best professional sports coaches are the ones giving their teams’ data providers clear direction by posing specific questions and problems to make sure they get back information that is the most useful to them. Do this right and the insights made available will enable coaches to take full advantage and ensure outputs are being acted upon in the best way to benefit athletes.

Looking to the future, an organisational model that has already successfully evolved in professional motorsports could be replicated in wider sporting fields. In this system, a race engineer leads their own personal team of performance assistants. The assistants’ sole remit is to develop tools that rapidly make sense of all the raw data being produced. In this context, the coach is the equivalent of a race engineer, but one who is only currently receiving the raw data. When this alternative model is applied correctly, this same approach can help coaches achieve much more actionable insights, more quickly in support of their decision-making

Data analytics then offers not only new insights, but potentially a whole new way of working for coaches. This means, in addition to helping tackle the challenge of being able to better understand what is being presented to them, coaches will also benefit if they consider reinventing their whole role to adopt a more systematic and analytical approach.

Clearly, the challenge is to find the right balance between numbers and intuition. That is personal to each coach, athlete and team. However, it’s worth considering that the use of analytics really isn’t all about trying to unearth some new, never known before aspect about a sport. It is about enabling a coach to be more rigorous, efficient and effective in their learning. Taking such an approach will ultimately give coaches the time and insight to work their magic and produce the best possible athletes.

The use of data in sports is continuously gaining more and more ground. There are pockets of coaches who have already been using it to change completely their approach to training. If you look at what has happened in cycling with the adoption of power metric devices, it has revolutionised the sport. Power metrics technology makes it possible for coaches and athletes to predict performance levels, and make specific goal improvements that are needed to maximise performance.

In other sports, metrics may appear less obvious, but the benefits of using specific bespoke datasets are being seen more often. For the future of the sporting world, the key to maximising an athlete’s performance will lie with the individualistic data and insights with which technology can increasingly provide coaches. Next month’s Olympic games present an exciting opportunity to see the outcome of the work put in by those athletes, teams and their coaches who have embraced objectivity and analytics in their preparation for success at the games.