Can Analytics Extend The Careers Of Professional Athletes?

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Cricket World Cup 2015: SAP and Australian cricketer Shaun Tait believe analytics could help athletes avoid injury and have longer careers

Data analytics has long been used by professional sports organisations and athletes to boost performance, but it could also extend the career of athletes.

By analysing performance and training data alongside other key metrics, coaches and physiotherapists can ascertain the risk of specific types of injury.

Information collected from sensors and cameras can help detect problems early on and suggest when an athlete should take a rest or help coaching staff resolve an issue that could increase the likelihood of injury.

Injury risk

SAP Cricket analytics (5)SAP is keen to use its analytical capability in sport as a high profile showcase for its other customers. During the Cricket World Cup in Australia, it showed TechWeekEurope a prototype application, based on the firm’s HANA platform, capable of analysing a cricketer’s susceptibility to injury.

Data is collected from sensors, which could one day be built into players’ kits, and can be supplemented with video clips. This data is measured against a personalised ‘benchmark’ for each player, which takes into account personal history, health conditions and capability, to assess injury risk.

“The whole purpose to have this technology is not just to provide accurate feedback but multiple types of sensory feedback,” said Dr Rene Ferdinands, a leading biomechanics cricket researcher at the University of Sydney. “This kind of tech is especially relevant to cricket because of the complexity of the sport, especially in terms of techniques and motions involved.

“For any skill there has to be a learning process. If you can enhance the sensory feedback, then you’re optimising the learning process. You can then optimise performance.”

Ferdinands said fast bowlers typically place five to eight times their bodyweight on their front foot when bowling, loads which are also transmitted to the hip and the spine. Sensors, he said, could see whether the leg is straight or extended and see how other parts of the body react.

But mental wellbeing is just as important as physical, Ferdinand said, explaining that sleep and nutrition can have just as much an impact on performance – especially for fast bowlers, golfers and pistol shooters, all of whom need high levels of concentration.

“An athlete who is anxious does not move as well,” he said. “Injury risk is increased.”

Athlete support

SAP Cricket analytics (2)In the practice nets of the Melbourne Cricket Ground (MCG), Australian international fast bowler Shaun Tait demonstrated how the data is collected, deliberately bowling at different speeds to show how this particular data set could suggest an injury problem.

Modern cricketers face often gruelling schedules, with those at international level playing the sport almost all year round. Tait, who says he has a history of injuries is keen to see more technology used to protect players.

“If this got off the ground and teams and players could use it, it would be fantastic. I just wish it we around 15 years ago,” he said. “I’ve never found too much technology too useful. Nothing has measured whether it might be time for a bowler to have to days off. I think there have been times when we’ve pushed cricketers too far and training for training’s sake.”

Tait’s view on technology is shared by former beach volleyball player Kerri Pottharst, who won gold at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Her move from indoor volleyball to the beach was one forced by a ligament injury and she says sport could benefit from the greater use of technology.

“Your body is not meant to do that sort of stuff,” she said. “Your body isn’t meant to run down a cricket pitch at tremendous speeds delivering 150 balls a day.”

Wider healthcare

SAP claims this analytical approach could be used in a range of medical situations, not just professional sport.

“Technology could play a much more significant role in helping us,” said Irfan Khan, CTO for SAP customer operations, suggesting analytics could help solve issues like child obesity, malaria death rates and an aging population. “If we try to harness the true potential of this technology, it could make our lives better.”

However, connectivity and power management problems would have to be solved before the technology fulfils its true potential. Privacy issues would also have to be ironed out, but Khan says many people would be willing to participate if it improved their quality of life.

“There’s an ethical boundary that at some point we might have to cross,” he said.

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