Is gut gone in sport?

Steve Jobs once said, “You have to trust in something – your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

Is that “whatever” Jobs was referring to, data?

Is intuition-based decision-making, or gut-feel now becoming less relevant for sporting coaches with the large increase in the volume and variety of data being captured across every aspects of performance?

And can data be used to create a competitive advantage for coaches and sporting teams?

Or has Charles Barkly (Former NBA Player turned media commentator) worked it out for all of us when he said, “Analytics don’t work at all. It’s just some crap that people who were really smart made up to try to get in the game because they had no talent.”

Sorry Charles, I’m quite sure this is not the case.

I’m with Mark Cuban, businessman, investor and Dallas Mavericks owner, who said, When one company or one team, in this case, uses analytics or big data, it’s a huge advantage. When all 30 teams use it, then it’s an efficient market and it’s not nearly as much of an advantage.”

So, if we assume that all teams and coaches will have access to data – everything from match day to training, injury, dietary, sleep and medical data, where will the competitive advantages come from?

It will need to come from either one of two ways.

The first is finding new sources of data to generate. Data that other teams may not be capturing…yet.

Coaches will soon know the intimate details of how an athlete’s body is functioning, but what about the mind. Could we soon be able to measure and track psychological data to discover how resilient, focused and self-confident players are at various points during a game or over the course of a season? Coaches could then better understand how players will react in high pressure situations in games. How they are likely to react to poor form or injury and which players will react best to the old-fashioned ‘spray’ from the coach.

Adam Beard, head of physical performance, Welsh Rugby Union, says, “We now collect analytics on everything…in a decade’s time we might be able to download a player’s neurophysiological experiences and match them with the vast array of analytics we collect”.

The race is on within US College basketball to implement SportVU into their stadiums, the same technology that the NBA has invested in. Cameras located around the stadium track the location of every player on the court at every moment during the game (25 times per second), and in the process create massive data sets. Discussion is already occurring that teams with the money to invest this technology into their stadiums will have a distinct advantage over others that don’t.

Why? It’s the data that coaches will have access to which is the gold.

The second way competitive advantage will be created is using analytics to give greater insights from the data that should result in improved decisions.

But moving from simple statistics and visualisations (i.e. heats maps) to predictive modelling is not a small step. Capturing data and using analytics to make better in-game decisions is the holy-grail of where many within the industry are focused.

We are seeing a trend of sporting teams hiring people with data analytics skills. Today, SportVU analytics are mostly used in post-match analysis situations, however we are not far away from being able to use the data to assist in making decisions during games.

Using data to be better predict what is likely to happen next in a game is a challenge due to the premise that sport in unpredictable. However, adding a stronger analytical component to a coach’s experience and expertise may provide the small edge required to determine winners and losers.

When considering intuition vs data discussion, when it comes to decision-making, I’m with former Netscape CEO Jim Barksdale who once said, “If we have data, let’s look at data. If all we have are opinions, let’s go with mine”.


8 thoughts on “Is gut gone in sport?

  1. Pingback: The storm of Informatics – do coaches believe in “magic”? – Site Title

  2. Hi Ilmar,

    Great articles and ensuing discussions!

    My experience is that data is important to gain an understanding and help direct decisions, especially for inexperienced coaches. As we become more experienced we cannot discount the supercomputer we have between our ears. When one learns to understand that athletic performance is driven by many different factors which are impossible (to-date) to reliably measure, then we have to use our subjective eye as well as the age old form of communication – active listening, in conjunction with the available data. Fortunately, as most coaches develop through the system they do not have access to the high-end data and therefore develop their coaching eye and communication abilities faster than they learn to interpret the data.

    The difference between making good subjective and objective decisions is correlated to the amount of subjective bias of which there are a multitude, including cognitive dissonance; and the reliability and validity of data from an objective perspective.

    Finally I’d like to add that “science, is art proven.” All science started with a hypothesis, which originated from a thought, usually based on a perception. In sport all data is collected to answer a specific question and trying to objectify and accurately quantify and predict what you see with your eye or intuitively know is happening.

  3. Worth re-reading my ‘data analysis – its just not cricket’ piece above. While slightly tongue-in-cheek, it has to be said that under Peter ‘data’ Moores’ coaching, England were hopeless, whereas just a few months later without him we seem to have destroyed a team whose name escapes me in the Ashes………!

  4. Hi Ilmar,

    Great article and insights on the future use of data analytics in sports.

    Decisions on roster construction, nutrition, training programs, in-game substitution patterns and what plays to call can be better made with analytics.

    However, the eye/intuition test can never be underestimated and is still a critical component. This and other data needs to go into the final decision. Coaches now HAVE to look at all data sets to compete.

    1. Hi Jack,

      Agree with you that data is beginning to drive decisions in areas such as roster construction that were entirely based on intuition in the past.
      I am still very interested in how much intuition vs being able to discover insights in data (that no-one else can see) will make a great coach, or successful business leader in the future. They come up with the same answer, but it may potentially be developed from two different approaches.
      Making a decision that contradicts the data are the ‘make or break’ calls that either makes good coaches or business leaders great, or gets them sacked.

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