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The Future of Data and Analytics with Dave Tenney

Seattle’s top sports scientist talks about translating data and analytics into success on the pitch

Dr Laila Mintas, Dave Tenney, Taylor Soper

Last week, local Seattle tech site Geekwire hosted its second annual Sports Tech Summit, which started last year with the assistance of Sounders majority owner Adrian Hanauer. Last year, Hanauer was on a panel with a couple other franchise owners, and MLS commissioner Don Garber held a ‘fireside chat.’ This year, the only representative from the Sounders (aside from Hanauer, who gave opening remarks) was High Performance Director Dave Tenney, who was on a panel with Sportsradar US deputy president Dr. Laila Mintas called “The Future of Sports Data.”

The panel, hosted by Geekwire reporter Taylor Soper, focused on a few different areas of sports data, from predictive analytics to ownership of biometric data. Tenney gave his views on how each of these areas affect his job and the Sounders organization, shedding light on how important data is to a successful club.

Could data have prevented Orlando’s late goal?

Since the event last week happened the day after the Orlando match at CenturyLink, the last-gasp draw was fresh on everyone’s minds. Tenney said that data might have helped prevent the injury time equalizer, but that sort of collection and implementation doesn’t exactly exist yet. He said right now, most people think of data as being event-driven, which is harder to use preventatively.

“As we’ve evolved our staff and our way of seeing things, we want to use data more with the relationships between players. Yesterday was a good example, we had a lot of shots and a lot of passes, more than the opponent, but the other team had some passes in difficult areas for us to close down, we couldn’t finish our chances. The relationships between the players weren’t quite right at times. You can quantify that, which is something few people are doing right now. You have to know how to use the data, apply it to coaching, on the training field, and change things there rather than in-game.”

How is data tracking changing?

Tenney referred to the many changes that new technology brings, but his emphasis on the changing sports data landscape isn’t so much on the collection of data but rather the contextualization of it. The Sounders have been using a tracking system called the Catapult GPS for six years now, and while it’s helpful in a lot of ways it doesn’t tell the whole story. “However, when you put a GPS on a guy and they run in a game, you get velocities — is it good or is it bad? You need context around that.” The Sounders have started to utilize an optical tracking system called Metrica at CenturyLink to help give context to the speed and location tracking info they get from GPS.

“An example is, as you saw against Orlando, yeah they scored in the last minute, but what was the distance between our striker to our back line in the first minute versus the 90th minute? Was it bigger or smaller? GPS won’t tell you that, but optical tracking will. Were we able to close down opponents fast enough? GPS on its own won’t tell you that, but a tracking solution will, where you’re tracking data from both teams, will tell you. That’s the next step.”

How can ball tracking data be useful in soccer?

Compared to the NFL, most soccer leagues haven’t jumped on board with collecting ball tracking data, but Tenney noted an example that was first used in the 2016 European Championships. A FIFA panel that Tenney is on started tracking a new metric called “packing” that tracks “how many opponents were bypassed with each pass.” What they found after collecting packing data throughout that tournament, was that “the teams that bypassed the most players per pass almost always won.”

Who owns a player’s data?

This is a tricky subject, one that came up a lot during the course of the conference. Tenney pointed out one specific detail that is important to think about: the difference between biometric data and tracking data.

“Anything that involves biometric data is considered medical, which the player owns. Essentially, everything else, all tracking data, is nothing more than location. So if I’m tracking someone’s location, I think that would be more team-owned. But clearly, biometric data is considered medical and owned by the players.”

The question of fan engagement regarding a player’s data came up too, as in will there ever be a point where we can see live biometric and tracking data on TV or in an augmented reality situation during a match? Tenney thinks it’s totally possible, but doesn’t expect it to happen anytime soon for privacy reasons. “The technology will be there to collect it and potentially visualize it, I just don’t see a time in the near future where the players’ union is okay with that, but you never know.”

How to make data relevant for coaches and players

Tenney spoke of seeing and hearing of examples of teams splashing cash on sports science departments, only to have their coaching staff resist the results and suggestions because they were unfamiliar with the specifics the scientists were introducing. He said one place to start is to view subjective studies from players as equally important as objective data.

“Most of the people in this room love objective data. So we tend to be biased toward objective data, but the first thing we need to realize when we’re interacting with the athletes, sometimes the subjective data you collect is just as valid and in some cases more valid, than objective data you might be collecting with sensors.”

After the data is collected on both sides, Tenney said that teams must “create metrics that have meaning within your organization.” The goal should be to condense the most important data into a handful (probably no more than four) of metrics that are clear, concise, and relevant to players and coaching staff.

Tenney also stressed what he referred to as a “heuristics” (an experimental or trial and error method) approach to explaining analyses and data to the rest of the organization. “We’re going to try and create rules of thumb, try to utilize the data quickly and agilely in terms of, we come in and we have an hour to collect stuff and get feedback to and from coaches. We use that data to support their decision rather than overrule their decision.”

Will coaches in the future rely solely on data and analysis?

Tenney rejects the notion that a coach’s “gut feeling” will ever be irrelevant, no matter how useful or accurate the analytics are.

“I don’t think we should move to a place where it’s all objectively based. Again, I think a sports scientist is not always going to understand the inherent error in what he’s collecting and be inherently biased towards his data, just as much as a head coach is going to be biased towards his gut feeling.”

Despite the ability to collect more and more data, Tenney noted that quantity is not necessarily king over quality in this context. Finding ways to maximize the usefulness of analysis should always be the goal, rather than cramming more and more data in just to have it. Predictive analysis is especially hard when the sports science team really only gets maximum data from a few minutes in the workout room, a few minutes on the training pitch, etc.

“I think that our time is far better spent trying to figure out the smallest amount of data we can collect to be the most predictive. I think it’s easy to try to chase the tail of collecting more and more and more data. The reality is guys come in at 9:15-9:30 and we have 45 minutes to collect data off of them. We are never going to have a purely predictive model, because players’ response to travel, home stress, sleep, diet, there’s so much uncertainty there. We’re better off getting the three or four things that will give us a general sense of where guys are at.”

What are some other products that the Sounders use to collect data?

Tenney mentioned a few other products, aside from the Catapult GPS system and Metrica optical tracking:

A lot of the equipment that the Sounders staff uses is for the training ground, gym, or medical room rather than on the actual field. In order to really break ground in data tracking and analytics, Tenney said that he and his staff need to be able to get much more data during matches.

“I still find that the next level of everything is going to be on the field, and obviously we would love to be able to measure everything on the field rather than in the weight room. If we can affect what’s happening on the field, we can transfer more to performance in the stadium.”

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