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Case study: The Performance Data Management System (PDMS): An information-driven approach to athlete health

Background: Athlete health – a key performance issue

Injury and illness is one of the single biggest factors that prevent athletes from being successful.  Injured or unwell athletes lose training days, miss competitions or are unable to exert maximal effort when they do train.

The loss of training days means elite athletes are not able to work with their coaches on technique or improving their physical condition, so doing everything possible to maintain and protect athlete health and limit the prevalence and impact of injuries is one of the most significant influencers of success in elite sport.

PDMS: An innovation in athlete health

As the biggest provider of sport science and sport medicine to elite athletes in Great Britain, preserving athlete health is one of the key priorities of the English Institute of Sport (EIS) which deploys teams of practitioners, including Doctors, physiotherapists, Strength & Conditioning Coaches, soft tissue therapists and physiologists who work on a day-to-day basis delivering services to improve athlete health.

To supplement this day-to-day delivery of medical care, the Rio Cycle has also seen the EIS investigate additional ways it can support efforts to improve athlete health and has developed a unique, information-led approach to enable athletes and coaches to better manage and understand health and fitness and reduce the incidence and impact of Illness.

Central to this approach has been the creation of the Performance Data Management System (PDMS), which has been developed by the EIS in consultation with sports.

PDMS is available to all athletes, coaches and EIS sport scientists throughout the UK’s high performance system (HPS).  It brings together data from a variety of sources and provides coaches and Performance Directors with intelligence that enables them to monitor and adapt training programmes and manage recovery in a way that optimises their athletes’ availability to train and compete with maximum effort, and thereby give them the best possible chance of achieving their performance targets.  There are four key elements to PDMS

  • 1. AER Athlete Monitoring

This element of PDMS allows athletes to input quantitative and qualitative data about their training regime on a daily basis.  It enables them to record their ‘Availability’ to train, the ‘Effort’ they were able to exert and how they feel afterwards during ‘Recovery’.

Over time, this can be used to provide an overview of an athlete’s training history and by attaching metrics to it can establish the extent to which they are performing efficiently or at their optimal level.  It also enables athletes to set personal thresholds which flag when the training load is a concern.  When an athlete is recovering from injury it can be used to track their progress, how their body feels after each session and the markers they are achieving in their rehabilitation.

By drawing on a range of factors AER provides an overview of how an athlete is progressing in either their training programme or recovery from injury that can be used to inform future training plans.  By looking at how tired or sore an athlete is after training, it can also help to identify when they may be susceptible to injury and enable coaches to make appropriate interventions to the training load.

  • 2. Medical Records & ULTRA Insights

The Medical Records section of PDMS is accessible to all medical practitioners that work in the HPS and provides a place for them to log every interaction they have with an athlete.  It enables them to rate the injury or illness status, detail the treatments and interventions they delivered and monitor the ‘journey’ of an athlete’s injury.

PDMS provides a means to maximise this information through the creation reports, known as ULTRA, which are based on the athlete’s Medical Records.  Developed by EIS practitioners, these reports can examine injury or illness patterns in a particular sport to identify the most common ones or look at patterns around particular types of injury and the impact of these in terms of training days or not being able to give maximum effort.  They can also influence the medical and injury prevention strategies developed by Performance Directors and sport National Governing Bodies (NGBs).

  • 3. ICE – Anticipate and mitigate against performance threats

As well as enabling athletes and coaches to look back at previous medical records, there is also a forward looking element to PDMS that aims to help sports use this data to look at potential future injury issues, their causes and the probability of occurrence.  This is done through a process, known as ICE, which brings together coaches, athletes and medical staff in a facilitated discussion to examine the medical records data of individual athletes and identify key areas of potential injury risk in future.  From this, interventions can be planned based on the athlete’s previous history, their track record and their behaviours to help minimise and prevent future injuries.

  • 4. Best Practice Recovery Advice

As well as providing a mechanism for collecting and interpreting data, the PDMS app is also a means to communicate directly with athletes and is used to deliver advice and tips on a wide range of recovery techniques.

Advice is sport specific and tailored to reflect the individual circumstances of a sport or athlete and cover a range of subjects including everything from meal planning and nutritional advice, to tips for minimising the impact of jet lag, or even the best way to create a home ice bath.  By being easily accessible via the mobile app and including feature rich content such as images and videos, PDMS puts tailored, bespoke advice into the hands of athletes which reflects their circumstances and the particular performance challenges they face at any given time.

Benefits and usage

More than 1400 athletes across the HPS are using PDMS in some form, the most popular elements being AER.  The largest users come from Cycling and Para Cycling, Gymnastics, Fencing, Women’s Rugby, Wheelchair Rugby, Wheelchair Tennis, Figure Skating, Archery and Para Archery, Squash, Canoe Sprint, Canoe Slalom, ParaCanoe, Modern Pentathlon, Netball and Hockey.

GB Hockey is using the PDMS app as part of its athlete monitoring and has identified ease of use and its ability to deliver quick and easily understandable information to coaches and support staff as two of the major benefits of the platform.

EIS Strength & Conditioning Coach, Andy Hudson, who is the Head of Physical Preparation for GB and England Hockey, explained: “PDMS has a user friendly interface so it makes it easier to capture information and then present it back quickly in graphical reports that provide a snapshot of athlete availability for training and, longer term, enable us to track and analyse the volume and intensity of their work.

“Having all of the information available and up-to-date in a single place makes it much easier for the sport science team to support the athletes as they are all working from the same data.  It means the Strength & Conditioning coaches can use it to inform their work as can the physiotherapists, physiologists, Doctors and other practitioners that are also part of the multi-disciplinary team.”

British Cycling has been one of the first sports to use the PDMS app to support its athletes in their recovery strategies and provide them with specific, best practice information to suit their individual requirements.

Delivering the information to the athletes via an app that they can access simply via a mobile device has helped to drive usage of the approach amongst the cyclists and overcomes some of the challenges athletes face when trying to maximise their recovery.

The EIS Performance Lead that works with British Cycling, Jonathan Leeder, explained: “One of the most common challenges athletes face is to find the right balance between optimal training load and recovery.  This is complicated by the fact that a lot of their recovery is completed away from the training centre so it is not something that can be monitored in the same way that a training programme can be.

“PDMS helps to address this challenge as it can be used to deliver a prescriptive, bespoke recovery programme to each athlete that is easy for them to access and provides support and advice, even when they are not in training or with their coach.”

The best practice recovery information contained within PDMS maximises all of the expertise within the EIS network and covers a wide range of subjects such as sleep, soft tissue, cryotherapy, compression garments, travel, nutrition and active recovery. Best practice guidelines have been developed for each area and the information is presented in a visually appealing way including images, diagrams and videos.  It can be customised by sport to reflect the specific recovery needs faced by different athletes.

Easy access to the information via PDMS has helped to drive usage of the best practice recovery information across the team at British Cycling.

Jonathan Leeder added: “The primary benefit is the fact it is so easy to access and enables the cyclists to know exactly what they should be doing as part of their recovery programme – even when they are not in training camp.

“Rest is an essential part of every athlete’s training regime and this tool helps them do it better and maximise the benefits they get from their recovery.”