Sports analytics and performance metrics are traditionally thought of an exclusively elite practice. When you look at the elite sporting teams you expect them to have the measurement equipment to shave off a second or increase power by a fraction.
Therefore, the idea of sporting analytics within an African country that is recovering from a brutal civil war and the goal of this analytics being not the improvement of a professional team, but simply the development of children, is one that many would question.
This is what has happened with the Craig Bellamy Foundation in Sierra Leone.
After visiting the country in 2007, Craig Bellamy created the foundation in order to help promote social change through football. Through the use of a league, in which going to school is mandatory, he founded the Craig Bellamy foundation. Later creating an academy meant that, as in Europe, a player who is particularly talented, will be chosen to live, eat and be educated there.
The use of analytics has become a way of life for many of the boys there, using technology provided by Performa Sports to track player development and the best ways in which to improve aspects of their game. This is almost unheard of in the country and after the success of the academy and the hiring of the academy manager as the head coach for the full adult national team, many Sierra Leone players commented on how the metrics received from the Performa Sports application were better than the ones they received in Europe.
I was lucky enough to catch up with Tom Legg, the Head of Performance Analysis at the foundation, to discuss the unique challenges that he has faced from his work in Sierra Leone.
Firstly, the most important aspect about this analytical undertaking is that it is being conducted in one of the most inhospitable countries in the world. Even when I was talking with Tom our conversation was cut short because of rain disrupting the phone.
With this level of development in the country, it is unsurprising that making the players understand what they were seeing and why this was relevant to them was going to be a struggle. The work that Tom and the team has done has seen this implemented successfully.
Initially through the use of overall team based analytics, then through more individual analytics and eventually relatively in depth metrics, building on the depth of understanding term-on-term, the boys learn about their relevance.
Tom thinks that this understanding alone is the biggest success that the foundation has had in country. This change in attitude from young men who have come from shacks, small villages and shanty towns, to understanding complex ideas about sporting theory and statistics, is a remarkable achievement.
So far the academy itself has only been running for 8 months and they are three terms in to the project. The eventual goal is that through the use of analytics and the Performa Sports software in particular, they will be able to produce players who have the quality to gain contracts at European clubs.
The success that they have seen so far has been huge, especially given the challenging infrastructure in the country. Tom makes the point that this is not just an analytical exercise to help improve the boys as footballers, but in doing so improving their future potential as well as their family and communities.
Due to the close knit nature of Sierra Leone, the success of one individual in a community often means that the entire community will benefit in the long run from money and resources being sent back by the individual. One of the most famous African footballers, Emmanuel Adebayor put it best when he was unwilling to take a pay decrease to transfer between teams. He said that as a footballer it would be best to move, but his responsibility to his community in Togo was to make as much money as he could to send back to them.
Not only is there the chance of a big payoff if a player from the community makes it as a professional footballer in the European leagues, but at the academy, school attendance is mandatory. This has meant that not only do they have the potential to develop as football players, but they will also have the chance to gain a superior education should they not make it.
“We understand the impact that we are having on the boys but then we also understand the impact that they boys are having on their families and their communities”
The impact of the academy combined with the Performa Sports measurements has seen considerable improvements in not only sporting skills but also in general lifestyle amongst the boys there. With the kind of drive and backing that this project has, the sky is the limit to the influence that this could have on football and the communities involved within Sierra Leone.