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Interview: Darren Roberts, High Performance Manager Red Bull

We take a look at how Red Bull uses analytics for high sports performance

1Oct

When people think of sports analytics it is normally the treadmill, mask, several tubes or stopwatches and cameras.

However, in modern sports this is not always possible.

So what do you do when you are not working in a sport where you have the luxury of predictable environments, limited space and clearly trackable attributes?

I caught up with Darren Roberts, the High Performance Manager at Red Bull, at the Sports Analytics Innovation Summit in March to discuss these challenges, that he faces every day.

Red Bull has been known for it's drinks and big stunts (think skydiving from space) and many people will have seen the brand advertising throughout shows and festivals. In addition to this Red Bull has it's own teams of extreme athletes from parkour runners to BMX riders and snow boarders. Taking an active role in their performance, development and results.

This means that Darren takes a leading role in the training and development of these athletes to help them achieve everything they can within their respective sports.

The difficulty with many of these is that analytics is often a difficult thing to get from somebody who doesn't necessarily train in the same way as a footballer, basketball player or sprinter.

Darren and I took some time to discuss the various aspects of his role in measurements.

Adaptation

One of the interesting aspects of many of the sports that Red Bull cover is that they are not traditional. Working with guys who not only perform in their sports but have to perform within their performance often means that analytics gathering has it's own challenges.

Darren makes it clear that Traditional technologies simply would not work in many of the environments in which his athletes operate. They will seldomly be found in a static gym or a lab or even a stadium. The majority of the time these guys will be out on the side of a mountain, in a desert or just in a field.

The issue here is that these places do not necessarily offer the kinds of measurement opportunities from static devices. The way that this issue is overcome, is through the use of wearable technologies.

Many of these technologies are not designed for the purpose that many of these athletes need them to be used for. Darren describes the adaptation of these technologies as 'it’s about adapting the technology and equipment to work in their performance playground'.

This technology needs to be adapted to the individual. Given the freestyle nature of much of what is attempted by his athletes, the technology needs to adapt to the highly dynamic nature of extreme sports.

Peformance within a Performance

One of the unique aspects of the Red Bull athletes is that within their sport they are required to not only compete, but that they are required to have almost a dramatic performance within that.

I asked Darren how or if this is measured to help the success of his athletes.

Darren recognises that this is a difficult aspect to actually measure, instead it is a case of both allowing them to stay in peak physical condition in order to help their performance, but it is also encouragement through the data to allow them to adapt this unique part of their sports.

In the words of Darren this is 'a performance within a performance'.

Locations

Another unique aspect of many of the Red Bull athletes is that they are undertaking their sports in unconventional locations which give an additional challenge to their measurements.

Taking measurements from the side of a mountain or whilst upside down after jumping from a ramp is not something that normal sports measurement equipment can effectively measure. Therefore Darren's team have taken innovative steps to make sure that they are measured to the best of their ability.

The athletes tend to wear the technology rather than measuring their movement against a static piece of equipment.

This creates additional challenges as in traditional sports the kinds of movements that need to be measured are not available in traditional technologies.

To combat this limitation Darren has used the multiple industries in which Red Bull works to access a wider range of technologies. Rather than looking purely at what is currently available within the sports analytics and measurement space, he has looked to the gaming and film industry’s use of movement sensors to plot the complex movements made by many of his athletes.

This means that there are more diverse measurement opportunities using technology that was not designed for this purpose, but can be adapted to his needs better than traditional sports measurement technology.

Growing Industry

As somebody who has been working in athlete development for a few years and has the success of analytics in many athletic performances, I wanted to get Darren's perspective on where he thought the industry was heading.

He thinks that the technology will not necessarily change significantly in terms of what it will measure, but will be far more inclusive. This could be a single wearable garment that measures what a dozen devices will measure today.

However, Darren thinks that the biggest change will not be in the measurements that take place but in the analysis of the data. The limit to the technology will not be in the technology itself, but will instead be in the questions that are being asked. Being able to drill down into the data to answer more specialised and individual questions will be where the innovations will truly take place.

Darren puts it best 'When we are moving forward it will be about not being bogged down in the numbers to make your decisions but to use the numbers to justify decisions that have already been made'.

This kind of analytics, with athletes than aren't necessarily given the same spotlight as those within more mainstream sports is where we are going to be finding the biggest innovations. Being able to adapt technologies to specific needs is going to be increasingly important to push the industry forward and with open source ideas in existing technologies being explored we are likely to see an increase in the velocity of change. 

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