Using Data to Power Sports Performance

By EIS & UK Sport Sports Intelligence Team | 13/03/2018

Data! Data! Data! I can’t make bricks without clay!
Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Copper Beeches

When you think of data, you might think of complex numbers and algorithms that are not immediately relevant to everyday life. However, data is permeating all areas of our world and is growing exponentially. Whilst the complexity of the information available has expanded, the opportunity to extract meaningful insights has grown in equal measure.

The use of data in sport is nothing new but in recent years it has become a more prominent factor to gain a competitive edge. In American professional sports in particular, ever since Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics revolutionised their roster strategy in the early 2000s with quantitative measures, data and analytics have become vital commodities as organisations seek to increase performance impact.

The importance of powerful data is equally prevalent in our world of Olympic and Paralympic sport. Whether it be competition results, injury and illness trends, or training loads, a growing volume of data is available. Decisions are made every day by athletes, coaches, senior leaders and support staff – all with the same intention of optimising performance at Athlete or Programme level. As such, data is becoming a critical tool to support this process.

In order to accelerate the benefit of data-driven performance insight with our Olympic and Paralympic World Class Programmes, the High Performance System Data Strategy has been created, and the Sport Intelligence team – which sits across both UK Sport and the English Institute of Sport – is tasked with its execution. The team acts as a Centre of Excellence, applying data science concepts including data capture, management and analysis, to inform performance decisions made by UK Sport, EIS and World Class Programmes.

Sam Timmermans, Head of the Sport Intelligence team, explains more:
“Our aim is to enable coaches, practitioners, and senior leaders within the high-performance system to become better equipped and better supported to extract the value that data can offer in their day-2-day work as well as their strategic decision making.”

We find many examples where sports are supporting their decision-making processes with data-driven insight, but also find many opportunities to improve how this is done. Opportunities typically fall into two major categories: Data structure, the purpose of which is to capture, store and manage data in a way that enables efficient and effective analysis; and data analysis, which generates useful insight from one or more data sources.

Sarah Domone, Sport Intelligence Consultant, explains with an example from British Swimming:
“Swimming have been making use of competition results data to inform World Class Programme selection decisions for many years. This has been an effective approach, but the sport felt constrained in where they could take it due to the effort required to maintain and manipulate the data for analysis. The Sport Intelligence team recognised an opportunity to help, firstly by cleansing the dataset, and then by creating a purpose-built database that allows data to be stored and managed in a sustainable way. The result is a sustainable solution that allows the sport to conduct analysis more regularly, and with less effort.

Tom Shaw, Performance Solutions Analyst at British Swimming explains: “The [Sport Intelligence] team have added considerable value to our performance dashboards project. Their expertise in the areas of data storage and data analysis have complemented our sport specific knowledge, and as a result swimming now have a comprehensive analysis platform to assess performance and programme investment.”

In addition to these projects targeted at specific challenges faced by World Class Programmes, the data strategy delivers system-wide infrastructure initiatives, education to High Performance System staff and supports UK Sport’s investment decision making process.

The importance of data in our world will continue to grow. The challenge now is how we can accelerate its adoption and ensure the GB High Performance System can maximise its use as one of the building blocks of Olympic and Paralympic success.