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Data analytics at London 2012 helped deliver success for Team GB

Eleanor Dallaway, Editor of Infosecurity Magazine

Stafford Murray is head of performance analysis at the English Institute of Sport, where he has worked since its inception – thanks to government lottery funding and consequential financial investment in sport science – in 2002.

Having played squash at a junior international level, coached at a senior national level, and with sport science degrees from Cardiff where he was inspired by “the godfather of sport analysis” Professor Mike Hughes, Murray was perhaps destined to land and excel in his current role. Whilst he concedes that the nature of his work means he’s doomed to remain largely an unsung hero, he counters: “We don’t want or deserve the glory, it’s the athletes that have to deal with the pressure and pain.”

So what exactly does Murray do? In a nutshell; a lot of people management, which, with 27 analysts spread across Britain, is no small task, “and couldn’t be done without my outstanding technical leadership team.” He breaks his role down into three areas: constant development of the discipline and horizon scanning; management and leadership of staff; and continual practitioner development. Of course, these duties can only occur every day after “a cup of tea, a crumpet and the school run,” Murray laughs.

Comparing the field of data analysis today to the first computerised data analysis systems in the early 80s, Murray declares the most useful advances to be the use of digital video, the real-time nature of the analysis, and the way its stored – and therefore easily retrieved and shared – virtually in the cloud. Given the sensitive nature of that intellectual property, Murray explains that both the device and data is encrypted with government level security. “There’s very little chance of a data breach. But, the data is only useful in the right hands, and when applied to a methodology that makes a difference.” It’s how the analyst and coach use that information that’s most important, he adds.

Whilst Murray considers that today’s technology has “come on leaps and bounds,” he warns against becoming completely driven by it. “You can measure absolutely everything, but you need to make sure there’s rationale behind what you’re collecting.” Of the tens of thousands of lines of data they collect, it is then condensed into only two to three digestible and pertinent points that are fed to the athlete during competition time. Anything more could create information overload, “this is the true art of the analyst to make this information edible for the coach and analyst”.

The EIS have world leading partnerships with tactical and technical analysis technologies Dartfish and Quintic, both off-the-shelf products which have been enhanced and made bespoke according to their needs. “At the elite end of sport, software needs to be bespoke and driven by the needs of sport,” Murray explains.

Firmly on his tech wish-list, however, is decent indoor GPS, and “advancements in virtual reality technology”.

Technology and innovation, warns Murray, is a powerful combination which, if managed incorrectly, can have a very negative effect, as data rarely shows the full picture. “Athletes can become too dependent on data,” he insists.

Of course, there are things that analytics can’t tell you. “In competition real-time, we don’t know what people are thinking; we can only read body language. That’s why people like watching sport, because essentially it can be unpredictable.”

Murray subscribes to the ethos “know your enemies as you know yourself” and admits that whilst some athletes and sporting disciplines are less predictable than others, “surely it’s better to know something than nothing!”

Acceptance of data analytics varies according to the age and experience of an individual athlete, and also according to sport, although those growing up in the tech age tend to view analytics as normal practice. “There were some who still see it as a threat, as opposed to an opportunity, not realising that we are trying to supplement and enhance what coaches are doing, not replace or question it.” To reinforce this message, Murray ran workshops about how to get the message across to the coaches, adding that “a good analyst needs both technical and soft skills.”

The exact value of performance analysis can’t always be measured, but by looking at team GB’s impressive rise from twelfth place to third place in the Olympics medals table, there is no doubt this sharp incline has occurred partly as a result of the investment in analytics. “You can’t contribute all wins to analytics, but you can’t argue with the statistics. We’re competing with the big boys now, consistently in there with the best in world” Murray says.

Murray describes being part of the Olympic and Commonwealth Games support team as an “absolute privilege and honour.”

You’d be forgiven for presuming that given the nature of the job and focus on Olympics that Murray’s job would be somewhat cyclical, but he’s quick to dispel that assumption. “We’re 18 months out from Rio and already planning Tokyo. When we finished London – our most successful games ever – that was the time we looked at ourselves and worked out how to keep innovating and moving forward. If you continue to do the same, you can bet your bottom dollar that the Australians will do something different.” The formula for success, he insists, is to “keep moving, analysing, and constantly change – and most importantly enjoy the ride!”

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