Over the last decade or so, sports analytics has taken off. There isn't a professional sports league on the planet that isn't tracking athletes closely to find that extra one per cent that can elevate a competitor from the back of the field to the winner's podium. Or in the case of cricket, the coveted Ashes urn.
Australia is widely recognised as a world leader in the field of sports analytics and the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) is part of that. The AIS has been working with the Australian Women’s Cricket Team and developed an Apple Watch app to optimise team training, reduce injury risk and enhance performance.
Team members use the app to track and share their all-day activity. Coaches can use that data to monitor and modify the team’s workload based on key metrics including training load, heart rate, mood and sleep data.
According to Meg Lanning, the captain of Australian Women’s Cricket Team, "Within elite sports there's often not huge differences or margins between the best teams in the world, so being precise and insights-led with the way that you train can make a huge difference when you’re on the field. Data is not only motivating from a personal perspective, it can create a competitive edge as well".
We've looked at metrics like heart rate variability before. And while today's smartwatches can collect significant amounts of data being able to use that data to gain meaningful insights and changes to your lifestyle and training program remains elusive for many people. Even elite athletes require assistance from sports scientists and other experts to make positive changes in their programs.
Coaches using the software can help guide athletes to measure training load and player fatigue. This helps to ensure players do not overtrain and run the risk of injury.
David Bailey, the performance coach at Cricket Australia said the new tools have "helped us overcome previous challenges where player data reached us too late to be leveraged. Now we can analyse player data in real time and put interventions in place to manage player fatigue and mitigate the risk of injury".
He also noted that players become more accountable and engaged in the training process and are more motivated by the data. That motivation is one of the factors often pointed to by the healthcare industry. When positive health outcomes are highlighted, people tend to be more motivated. And simple gamification techniques, such as challenging friends to take more steps each day or record the highest quality sleep, further motivate positive health behaviours.
The intelligent use of data by coaches and athletes has evolved substantially. For example, in a demonstration I saw in the US a year or so ago, American football players had a number of sensors placed in their uniforms to measure movements and impact. And video footage was being analysed by machine learning tools to detect tiny changes in gait and stride length as players fatigue. Coupled with injury data, coaches were able got make better predictions about when fatigued was setting in.
For example, a change in stride length that was imperceptible to the human eye was often a precursor to a soft tissue unjust such as a hamstring tear. But detecting these changes in real time, players could be rested before an acute injury occurred. And while the data being collected through this AIS-developed Apple Watch app and coaches' dashboard is more about physiological changes such as heart rate, sleep quality and mood, the goal is the same; use data to make better decisions about training load and rest.
“We’ve always known that speed, breadth and accuracy would be critical if data was going to make a difference to a team’s performance", said Ian Morrow, the applied technology & innovation project manager at the AIS. "We also knew we could get performance benefits by having athletes obsessed with their data".
Morrow expects the benefits that come from this data to be "literally game changing".