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Analytics and The World’s Oldest Sports Event

An Interview With The US Olympics Committee’s Peter Vint

20Oct

The oldest and most famous sporting event in the world is a curious place to consider analytics and performance technology, but Peter Vint, Senior Director, Competitive Analysis, Research & Innovation at United States Olympic Committee, is a driving force behind their adoption.

Peter Vint is the Senior Director of Competitive Analysis, Research & Innovation with the United States Olympic Committee. He previously served as USOC Director of High Performance supporting five National Governing Bodies that won 64 medals during the London Olympic Games.

I was lucky enough to sit down with Peter at the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit in London to discuss sports analytics and their adoption across olympic sports.

One of the elements that I was most interested in was how the perception of analytics has changed in the past 5 years.

Peter sees sports analytics as a complimentary source of information that has allowed coaches to make informed decisions. This shows a more grounded approach, the kind that is needed to push forward the idea of analytics amongst it's doubters.

The rise in popularity of sports analytics has also been interesting and Peter accredits it's use to Moneyball, the book surrounding Billy Beane's success using analytics at the Oakland A's.

The release of this book allowed people to think about what analytics could do for their teams, whether in baseball or other sports. The competitive advantage that the teams who were the early adopters had was then noted and more teams began to pick it up.

One of the reasons and indicators of the growth in the industry has been the conferences that Peter has attended. Conferences From MIT, Innovation Enterprise and Leaders have pushed forward sports analytics and allowed free spreading of new ideas. Not only the frequency of these conferences but also the attendance at them have impressed Peter and he says act as not only a catalyst but also an indicator of sports analytics success.

I was also interested in Peter's take on potential reluctance or hesitation from coaches who have spent careers basing their techniques from gut feeling rather than numerical data. One of the reasons that this has been the case in a few coaches and performance directors, according to Peter, has been down to the adoption of statistics and expecting instant results.

Due to the nature of analytics, the results and analysis will be more effective if more data is collected over a longer period. Therefore there may be some negativity if there is additional effort initially with no payoff in the near future.

However, Peter believes that given the kind of people that he has met within the industry, that they possess the skills to communicate and demonstrate the benefits of analytics to coaches who may not be thoroughly convinced.

Regardless of this, Dr. Vint mentions that most coaches are supportive of analytics and see it as a way to improve what they are doing already. There is a stereotype of coaches held by many that makes them out to be stuck in their old ways and unwilling to change what has worked for them in the past. Peter maintains that this is not the case and that most coaches are not only willing, but advocating the use of data and new technologies.

One of the elements of analytics that coaches currently struggle with is the measurement of mental aspects and this is something that Peter is trying to address. He admits that throughout sports analytics, there has been a struggle to measure these aptitudes, which can have an affect on the physical analytics.

Being able to run a certain speed during training and preparing physically is only half the battle, if an athlete cannot deal with the pressure of performing in front of a large crowd or with the weight of expectation, then they will never be able to perform at the highest level.

The measurement of these attributes is currently difficult to quantify but Peter believes that the way around this current issue is to continue challenging scientists and professionals to find a way to quantify the affect.

With the advantage that we have seen given through the measurement of physical attributes within sport, this should realistically be the next truly revolutionary quantified factor in performance.

In Dr. Vint's words:

"Anything that we can use to get closer to some measurement of outcome, from whether it is a sports psychology intervention, work with mental skills or even an adequate nutrition programme measuring the impact of this on performance or athlete wellbeing or maybe just the availability of quality training sessions, somehow and somewhere there are metrics that make sense, it is just a case of challenging people to find those"

One of the most interesting aspects of sports analytics, is where they are likely to be in 10 years time. Peter has a balanced view on this which depends on how effective coaches can find them and how willing they are to fully adopt them.

"It could be relatively short term if others can't actually make sense of it and teams cannot continue to gain competitive advantage from it"

The example of Billy Beane is an indicator of this "the ideas that he had set forth and were described in Michael Lewis' book were ultimately caught on from the rest of the baseball market pretty quickly and the competitive advantage that he had was soon lost"

If not correctly managed Peter thinks that:

"I can see a time where they will be so much data that the advantages gained by each club will be pretty remote but the perception of the advantage could still exist."

With people like Dr. Vint currently working at the sharp end of analytics and the balanced views that he holds on their use, there is the likelihood that their growth will continue to be productive and balanced.  

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