Number crunching to improve sporting performance


With today’s technology, there’s nowhere to hide for AFL players in the modern game. We know how hard they’re running, how far, how motivated they are to train and how well they are doing a drill compared to last week, last month, or the same time last year. The advanced technology used inside AFL clubs means we can monitor almost every move the players make.

I would best describe my position as the number cruncher at Hawthorn. I collect, analyse and store data from every training session and game. It’s my job to identify and pull out important patterns and statistics for our fitness staff and coaches, so they can modify training to have our players in peak condition.

Monitoring performance and factors that can affect performance

Data collection is vital for AFL clubs. An athletics coach, who has a squad of four or five athletes, can easily monitor their group through daily conversation. However at Hawthorn, we are dealing with 47 players, day in day out. We need a system where we can manage every player without impacting on their time-poor schedules.

Each morning before training, players fill out a questionnaire about their general well-being. How did they sleep last night? How motivated are they to train? During training they’ll then wear a GPS unit measuring how far they run, how fast, and their acceleration and deceleration patterns.

Putting the numbers to work

Every piece of information comes together to give us an indication of what we can do to better prepare the athlete for the next session or game that weekend. For example, if Brad Sewell isn’t moving as freely as he normally does, we can look back over his data and determine what the problem is – maybe his workload has been too high or he has not slept well over the past week.

The players have embraced the monitoring and many are intrigued by it. Their competitive nature means they often want to know what numbers they’re producing and how it compares to other players.

The future of sport and data analysis

My role is relatively new in AFL clubs, with data collection and analysis previously being a responsibility of the fitness staff. Having a full-time performance analyst ensures the data is being processed properly and used to its full advantage. In the future I think there’ll be a greater importance placed on this role.

Data collection methods will also become more reliable and automated as technology progresses. It could get to the point where we have our own base stations at stadiums so we’re not relying on satellites to get GPS readings. We’ll have smaller units that could fit in a player’s shoe and record more information than ever. These developments will make data collection easier and potentially allow us to manage the athletes better.

But no matter how advanced technology gets, it will never replace a coach’s instinct. While we can use technology to measure most aspects of training and well-being, it will never compare to a coach’s understanding of how far a player can be pushed mentally and physically.

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