The development in sports science has widened the range of expertise and knowledge that is provided by the backroom staff at professional clubs. One more recent addition in this respect is the role of a Data Scientist.
As already explored in the Beautiful Science, football clubs collect a great deal of data on their players in both training and matches. So much so that clubs are beginning to employ staff specifically to carry out this process and collate the numbers.
Jonathan Woodhouse is a Data Scientist at Southampton FC’s academy and he explained what his role involves: “I am responsible for leading the daily operation of physiological monitoring systems within the Academy. This includes transferring data from a range of sources in useable formats to support training and rehabilitation processes throughout the U9-U23 age groups.”
As a Category 1 academy Southampton are seen as one of the best set ups in the country and their production line from Bale and Walcott, to more recent products in Reed and Ward-Prowse highlight that they have a recipe for success.
With a large financial backing and a wealth of resources at his disposal Woodhouse highlighted what data is actually collected at the south coast club: “On a daily basis we collect a combination of data compromising of full GPS and heart-rate tracking, subjective well-being and sleep analysis whilst we collect performance markers throughout the week using specifically designed protocols. From this we are able to interpret and analyse the data to impact performance.”
There is one standout source of data above all others for Woodhouse: “The most valuable data we collect is from the StatSports GPS system, including total distance covered, the quantity of accelerations and decelerations a player achieves, the volume of high-speed running they complete and loading patterns. This data is then utilised to design appropriate training and interventions throughout the season.”
Woodhouse took up his role at Southampton last summer after previously working at the club in 2014, before taking up a post at fellow Category 1 club Manchester City. After a season working in the academy at the Etihad he rejoined the set-up at the Saints and their training ground in the heart of the New Forest.
On the growth of new roles, such as his own at Southampton, Woodhouse provided an interesting assessment: “Sport scientists all over the world have been analysing data for many years now. When I was completing my internships at various clubs I was involved in the daily operation regarding data collection so the role is definitely not unfamiliar within football. However, each organisation is now attempting to discover additional methods to gain a competitive advantage within their respective sport. Therefore, a significant amount of time is now being devoted within the analytical side of the game.”
Whilst technology has given football the opportunity to get a much better idea of what their players are doing, is there a risk that clubs might look into the data too much and become reliant on it? Woodhouse was quite clear in his view on this: “The data collected each day is used to inform and not drive practice. I feel that there is a danger within the industry of forgetting that players are human beings and not numbers represented within spreadsheets. A conversation over breakfast can be much more beneficial than a number or an output. We are still in its infancy regarding data analysis and we should always remember that the data is only a part of the puzzle.”
He went on to add: “It could be argued that some of the most important information is obtained from the athlete, something that a computer cannot provide us with. Therefore the buy-in from the players is vital, especially within football. Without this it is difficult to shape a pathway in which we operate each day. In turn, our ability as Sport/Data Scientists to speak the player language is exceedingly important enabling players to interpret the information we are presenting on a daily basis. They have to witness that they are getting their part of the deal and that their match performance is directly affected.”
This argument between balancing data and player is often put to one side in other sports in the pursuit of marginal gains. Many coaches are skeptical of marginal gains’ relevance to football a team sport where players are not at the peak of their powers in terms of the fundamentals of fitness. Nevertheless, Woodhouse feels it is a conversation worth having: “It is great talking about marginal gains, especially as it could place you a cut above the rest within your competitive field. Nevertheless, sound evidence-based practice and simple principles are required first before talking about marginal gains. You could have the best facilities as your disposal, if you are not doing the fundamentals right then that is where you are going to fall down.”
A common theme from the experts that we have spoken to emphasises that the environment remains more important than any technology and Woodhouse is no exception to this: “Sometimes the answer is not to keep purchasing the new gadget or download the latest software but to scrutinise the data that is already being collected to provide answers to inform practice.”