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By Cathie Ericson
| July 3, 2020
When you peek into a baseball dugout today, you no longer see coaches perusing the field, chewing their tobacco and making last-minute pitch calls or switching up the lineup. Instead, on-field strategy is determined by someone on a laptop using fact-based inputs rather than a hunch.
Today, analytics help dictate whether a team punts on a down or repositions their players on the court. And while sports traditionalists might struggle with the reality that their beloved game has, in many ways, been reduced to numbers, science and technology makes for more than a higher-caliber contest. They also lead to safer, healthier, and more efficient training, says Steven Weisman, a lawyer and sports law professor at Bentley University in Waltham, Mass.
Here are three ways science is helping teams — and sports as a whole — win.
Using science to make better coaching decisions
Sports has undergone an artificial intelligence (AI) revolution, says Ari Kaplan, director of industry marketing for DataRobot, an AI platform company that works with numerous sports organizations, including the Boston Red Sox, to help improve everything from injury prevention to on-field decision making.
Science allows the user to drill down through the complexities of information and use a variety of inputs to make predictions for on-field strategy, as well as for areas “above” the field, like concessions and ticket sales.
AI technology has provided a significant boost to productivity for the Red Sox organization, Kaplan says. Previously they had to laboriously program models by hand, which meant they might only run the top few play scenarios. The speed of DataRobot’s platform allows them to repeat questions over and over to fine-tune the accuracy of the model and get better answers, he explains.
“Data science can sift through billions of scenarios and gives you the optimal one, so teams like the Red Sox can input data points, and it can help them with everything from planning lineups and field placement to predicting when the opposing pitcher is going to throw fast balls or curve balls,” Kaplan explains.
And that could mean winning more games. “Baseball is a game of adjustments. Managers can win eight or nine additional games per year just by shifting and repositioning players.”
Using science to enhance performance
“An athlete’s professional life increasingly depends on optimizing data,” says Garrett Law, chief strategy officer at Attention Span Media, a future-focused sports strategy agency. And that’s where sensors emerge to track everything from nutrition and hydration to fatigue and performance.
Take hydration: Over the years, trainers have tried everything from salt tablets to IVs, says Michael Fox, who has built his career in equipment management, primarily in football and lacrosse, including eight years as head equipment manager for Boston Cannons, a professional lacrosse team. “But it can’t be a one-size-fits-all strategy, and sensor-based technology lets you know how much hydration each athlete needs at the moment they need it.”
Sleep is another area where tracking is paying huge dividends. Insight into sleep patterns shows coaches that players have markedly better performance at different times of day, so they might adjust their lineup for a day game compared with an evening game, Fox says. Or, they might determine that a short nap benefits one player, but not another.
Sleep has a direct impact on performance. “Studies show that you bench press approximately 10% less if you’re sleep-deprived, and that degradation in output carries through to all aspects of on-field performance,” notes Law.
But sleep deprivation means something different for everyone. That’s what distinguishes Boston-based sensor company WHOOP’s product from other wearable technology. “We all track the same data, but the magic of Whoop is that it allows users to act on that data and calculate a personal algorithm of what the wearer needs,” says Emily Capodilupo, vice president of data science and research.
For example, WHOOP will tell you how much sleep you need based on that day’s activities and your next day’s plans. “The sensor has been observing how you perform at different levels, so we can recommend a personalized bedtime based on your data.”
Using science to make play safer
Athletes and coaches are also using sensor technology to prevent injury and optimize training, says Law. Some athletes suffer injuries when they train too hard, whereas others need to reach a certain point to hit a breakthrough. Sensor data can help athletes train sufficiently, without over-training.
Sensors can also transmit data that creates safer equipment. For example, Fox worked on an effort with the Cannons that used helmet sensors to measure the amount and frequency of hits, tracking the data throughout a season. They found one person might walk away from a hit, where the same force might have impacted another more severely. Understanding that some players might be more concussion-prone can help create safer conditions.
Researchers are also gathering player data to further understand head injuries, especially in high contact sports like football. This data can be used to develop better protective gear and modify training techniques in hopes of preventing traumatic brain injuries.
Does science make the final call?
There’s no doubt that science and data have irrevocably changed the games we play and the athletes who play them. But while science in sports is here to stay, that doesn’t mean there’s not room for a little art alongside it, Weisman says.
Because no matter how much data you have, you still need people to analyze it properly. And even then, there’s still room for judgment calls. Consider Tom Brady. He wasn’t picked until the sixth round of the NFL draft, which makes sense when you consider his analytics, says Weisman.
“He wasn’t that fast, and his arm wasn’t that great. So what’s a player like that going to do for your team?” In Brady’s case, what he’s going to do is help lead the team to win six Super Bowls. “No matter what the analytics say, data will never be able to measure heart and mindset.”
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