A critical look at player tracking technology

Over the last decade, the use of GPS and similar technologies to track player movement in field sports has moved from a luxury to a necessity. Even small schools and small clubs are investing heavily in technology and staff to analyze the data. Is this the future of training? Will tracking every step help drive performance to new levels? The technology can bring some key benefits, but as with anything there are downsides too. These are rarely discussed. In order to get the most out of player tracking technologies, there are a few questions coaches need to ask first.

Are you capturing the whole picture?

To truly plan, you need the complete picture. By making crucial decisions based on data with big gaps, we potentially create larger issues down the road.

There are many areas where such gaps can occur. As Craig Pickering highlighted in January’s Sports Science Monthly, a recent article looked at the loads coming from warm ups, showing that this can account for 20-30% of total loads. If you only put on the GPS unit when the game or training starts, you’re missing a big piece of the puzzle.

» Related content: Edinburgh Rugby coach Nick Lumley joined the GAINcast 166 to discuss load monitoring and GPS.

Even more troubling is that GPS measures essentially running load. In sports like soccer, where the majority of load is running load, that might make sense. But in other sports, this is only part of the picture. Stopping on our own and stopping by being tackled involves the same number of meters covered, but a very different impact on the body. A scrum in rugby involves almost no meters covered, but an intense effort from the athlete. Even change of direction has a great mechanical load that is not captured just by measuring speed and distance. When Vern and I visited Rome in October we heard some great research being initiated by Accademia Preparatori Fisici to measure just how large the gap is between GPS and total load in rugby and other sports. It was jaw dropping. But it is was even more shocking to then think of the important training decisions we are making based on just this partial picture.

Do you need different viewpoints?

Even if the data set is complete, one set of data only gives you one viewpoint. This makes is harder to put the data in context. Managing a training plan based on loads is like managing a lifting plan entirely based on volumes. It would be crazy to set up a lifting program where next week’s volume is entirely dependent on this week’s, but as I pointed out on this week’s member hangout that’s what more and more on-field training is looking like. There are many other factors to consider beyond quantity, such as quality, internal load, and more.

The one viewpoint often missing is whether the team is actually getting better. The data that dictates my own training plan is whether we are throwing farther. This is easy for me to quantify. If lower training loads lead to that, then I’ll use lower load. If higher loads help, I’ll do higher loads. But I don’t led the loads determine the loads. In fact I haven’t calculated our weight room volumes in years. Instead I let the performance determine the loads.

Are you using data proactively or reactively?

As mentioned above, much of how GPS is utilized is reactive in nature: if data shows an athlete worked too hard, you give them rest. Good training programs need to be responsive, but you need to have some idea of where you are heading in the first place. An entirely reactive program is unlikely to get you where you need to go. In speaking with Mike Bahn this week, he explained the point better than I can:

“Technology is driving the problem, whereas the problem should drive the technology. The problem has to be identified before solutions can be constructed.”

It doesn’t have to be this way and there are plenty of coaches that use GPS proactively. But it is the minority. Dean Benton is one that take the opposite approach. As he puts it, he use GPS for prescription, not restriction. GPS can help us better analyze the game and sport demands, which in turn can help us plan better and create targets. Rather than simply monitoring loads, the data can be used to see if we did what we planned to do. That’s a simple change in practice, but a big change in mindset that has proven successful in his work with previous teams.

Are you planning for the short term or the long term?

Focusing on daily and weekly data loads creates a tunnel vision effect that focuses training on the short-term rather than the long-term. A short-term mindset a leads to short-term thinking and long-term problems.

Here’s an example: a prevention mindset focuses on avoiding everything in the short-term that might cause an injury. This might prevent the next injury, but could cause even greater issues in the long-term, either a lack of development or greater injuries down the road. Even if nothing major comes up in the future, we often pull them out of more training than they would have missed if they were injured. As Sam Robertson pointed out on Twitter: “If a player misses x training sessions to prevent an injury that never eventuates, they may end up actually missing more training.” Naturally, if you don’t train, you won’t get better. The prevention mindset never asks how they can get better.

Are you still willing to experiment?

The problem with relying on data is that you become locked in to what you have done until now. New becomes the unknown and it is much easier to play with tools you’ve used (and measured) before. Clubs that having been using GPS for many years have created detailed databases of the drills they use, so they know what training loads to expect from them. What happens if they might need another drill to get better? They might not consider it.  They box themselves into what they have done in the past, forgetting that they may have missed something big entirely. Future training can become biased towards tweaking past training rather than trying new things.

Finding the way forward

You might read the above and think I am against player tracking technologies. It is quite the opposite, the idea intrigues me and I have seen GPS used in ways that brings great value to teams. But doing it right takes time and thought. You can’t simply plug in technology and expect it to be a game changer the next day. You have to hire the right staff, take your time, and use it as one element of training, not the only element. Most importantly, you have to ask the right questions.

The drivers of technical evolution

When we look at track and field, technique in different events have evolved at different paces over the course of the last century. Comparing different events it is interesting to see how some techniques have barely changed while others have become unrecognizable. All of this begs the question why some events move forward technically, and others do not. Read more

Burning questions for the future of training

You might think that the best way to predict the future is to ask the experts what lies ahead. In general, that is actually a poor idea. As Philip Tetlock has researched in depth, experts have a surprisingly poor track record in predicting the future. But there is a subgroup of experts that predict very well. These are not people with the most years of experience of access to the best algorithms. They are the experts who can think broadly, gather evidence from a variety of sources, work in teams, and, importantly, are willing to admit error and change course. Tetlock calls this group foxes. Read more

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November 2019 in review: foundational strength

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Taking leg circuits to the next level

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