As professional sport has developed, the physical demands put on athletes has skyrocketed. Gone are the days of the half-time cigarette, or the professional footballer being found in the pub with supporters after a particularly inspiring win. The pace and ferocity of sport has intensified, and today's athletes are held up to the highest standards of fitness. Keeping a squad of players free from injury and fatigue can be the difference between success and failure at the highest level.
Because of this, injury prevention is one of the key challenges facing coaching teams across sports. Ahead of his presentation at the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit this March 8 - 9 in Melbourne, we spoke to Port Adelaide FC’s High-Performance Manager, Dr Darren Burgess, about the analytics industry’s focus on injury prevention.
On the key trends in sports analytics of 2016, Burgess said: ‘Definitely injury prediction. Whether we have got it right or not is another question but that has been the main focus.’ This focus is made possible by improvements to tracking devices and the identification of which metrics can actually make a difference with regard to fitness. Companies like Catapult - an Australian manufacturer of data collecting wearables in sport - have grown at an incredible rate thanks to professional sports’ desperation to collect as much information about their athletes as possible.
Despite the improvements, Burgess is still skeptical as to whether the industry is currently equipped to handle the incredible influx of data. ‘Physically, I don’t think we can just yet. We have a very basic grasp on things but I think physically at the moment we’re relying on more art than science until the technology becomes more accurate.’ And it’s becoming more accurate all the time. As it does, it will continue to be the job of analytics teams to translate the data collected into actionable insights, and ultimately to prevent injury problems before they arise.
Where traditional methods are primarily reactive, predictive analytics gives physio teams the information they need to anticipate when an athlete is at risk of injury and adjust their workload accordingly. ‘I think we can identify trends that ‘may’ lead to injuries with analytics,’ Burgess said. ‘Collecting robust data over a long period of time enables us to make some useful assumptions about what activities may both help or hinder the management of injuries.’
Players in the NFL, Rugby Union, and the AFL have been wearing RFID trackers - ordinarily placed between the shoulder blades - for some time now, devices that monitor everything from the force of impact to heart rates. From this information, which is collected during both training and competitive matches, analytics teams can identify trends that increase the risk of injury and act accordingly.
As with all analytics in sport, though, adoption takes time. For a coach to rest a seemingly fit player because the data suggests a heightened injury risk requires faith in the numbers, which can only be built over time. The numbers are persuasive enough, though. Catapult and Kitman Labs, a competitor, report that the teams using their tech see a 20-33% reduction in injury rates, a huge improvement in an industry of fine margins. Darren Burgess’ work at Port Adelaide is paving the way in terms of data usage in injury prevention, and other teams will follow suit quickly if they aren’t already.
You can hear more from Darren, along with other industry-leading sports analytics practitioners, at the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit this March 8 - 9 in Melbourne.