Thursday 23 November 2017

Every move you make... How hi-tech is the real winner in sport

It's a massive weekend of sporting drama and the results are in the laps of the gods. But technology and stats play an increasingly crucial part in what happens out on the pitch.

Sport tracking - GAA teams are using drones to fly above pitches to record matches
Sport tracking - GAA teams are using drones to fly above pitches to record matches
George Murray: Munster's stat man

John Costello

When Dublin and Kerry clash in tomorrow's All-Ireland Final it could well be technology rather than stamina and skill that separates the two sides. They will most likely be the best-drilled teams ever to go head-to-head in Croke Park. Not in terms of training sessions and fitness levels, but rather the statistics and data used to prepare individual players and fine-tune each strategic element of the team's performance.

From Cluxton's kick-outs to Colm Cooper's mauling of defenders, all will have been recorded and analysed for hours to spot the cracks and exploit the flaws.

"In the last three to five years you would be hard pressed to find an inter-county team that is not using performance analysis tools and data," says Rob Carroll, the Sports Performance Consultant behind "Dublin and the northern teams were the first on board but now it is commonplace. And the top four or six teams are doing it as much as they can."

Despite the fact it is, at least in name, an amateur sport, the equipment, data and analysis being used in GAA is similar to that of professional teams.

"There is no doubt Kerry will have looked at Cluxton's kick-outs over the past five years," says Carroll, who has worked across numerous different sports and GAA teams including Dublin, Meath, Down, Cork, Kildare and DCU. "They will know how long he takes on average before kicking the ball and where on the pitch he favours kicking it. Ultimately, this knowledge and information makes its way onto the pitch and into tactics."

GAA teams are even using drones to fly above pitches to record matches to provide a better overall assessment of playing patterns and formation throughout the pitch. However, despite such advances, the GAA has been relatively late to embrace technology and data, compared to other sports, such as rugby. And with Ireland kicking off their rugby World Cup campaign against Canada today, they will hope their use of technology can help them capture the ultimate prize.

"Performance analysis has been in the sport for about 15 years," says George Murray, Munster Rugby's Performance Analyst. "We have developed an extensive database and now players can directly access the information on their iPhones and iPads. We grade the skill set of every one of our players, as well as the opposition. What are their strong skills and where are their weaknesses. We also create video packages for them. But we are not trying to work with robots; individuality is the beauty of sport so we are just trying to help them maximise and improve their skill set."

It should be of little surprise performance analysis is also at the heart of Premier League football. Arsenal, for example, recently invested millions in developing its own analytics team to make better use of the data it collects from the eight cameras installed around its stadium to track every player and their interactions. The system, from sports analytics company Prozone, tracks 10 data points per second for every player, resulting in 1.4 million data points per game. Prozone also monitors 12,000 soccer matches around the globe, which are analysed using automated algorithms, and the resulting data is made accessible to opposition teams looking to do their homework before any given fixture.

Indeed, while players used to be only concerned about lacing up their boots before taking part in training or a match, they now are confronted with cameras, sensors and wearable devices to record every aspect of their performance.

"Paul O'Connell would go through videos and data of the opposition's line-out to see if there is any way we can stop them getting primary possession," says Murray. "We would also provide information to players regarding their opponents in terms of, does he carry the ball in his right hand or step off on his right foot? For example, John Hayes knew Shane Williams [the Welsh scrum-half] stepped hard off his left foot. This allowed him to make sure he was putting himself in the right position to tackle him."

However, coaches are also getting more interested in 'off the ball' events. This allows them to coach players how to make more intelligent runs, get into dangerous positions and disrupt the flow of the opposing team. This has led to accusations that an over-reliance on data and technology is undermining the fluidity of play, negating naturally skilled players and creativity, and resulting in more defensive play.

"I think there is a balance to be struck but some sports have gone beyond that," says Munster's Murray. "Some sports are being ruled by numbers. The most concern is related to the use of data on the recruitment of players and the whole Moneyball concept, which they are trying to replicate in soccer in the UK. At the end of the day it is a tool for decision-making. The data is there to confirm what you see and sometimes it can tell you something that you have missed. But making decisions just based on the data is in my opinion improper practice. That is why I do not call myself a data analyst but a performance analyst."

But despite the huge investment being made at almost every level, veteran sports broadcaster Jimmy Magee does not necessarily believe technology and increased levels of data has improved sports.

"Firstly, I think everything is over analysed in soccer, which has resulted in blanket defences and diamond formations," he says. "I am not anti-knowledge derived from machinery and I do think sport is improving, but whether it is improving because of technology is another matter."

And while the likes of Dublin and Kerry will have access to better technology than your average inter-county team, Magee believes it is not as important on their performance when compared to other critical elements.

"The fact is the so-called weaker counties are missing players," he says. "All the analysis in the world couldn't change that fact. If you don't have the players you can throw your hat at it. That is that. And you know, on Sunday, if all the data analysts call in sick with the flu, Dublin and Kerry will still put on a terrific performance."

Regardless of your opinion about the impact of technology on sport, with Dublin facing old rivals Kerry and Ireland togging out for their first RWC game in a tournament that promises so much, the behind the scenes hi-spec computers will be trying their best to leave nothing to chance. And in the aftermath, win, lose or draw, every pass, run, catch, tackle and kick will be recorded, analysed and obsessed over in the constant search for perfection. Indeed, every breath players take, every move they make - technology will be watching.

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