Big data: How it can drive sport performance

Leicester City used it to get to the top of the Premier League last season. Athletes are using wearables and big data to get to the top of their game.

With the newest season of the English Premier League kicking off just one month ago, people will be debating, even betting, whether Leicester City, last season's fairy-tale winner, can successfully defend its title. A key sub-plot behind the scenes, however, will be the role of big data in shaping the competition's narrative.

Leicester City's miraculous win last season was in part powered by the use of a device called the OptimEye S5. A palm-size system packed with a dozen sensors, including accelerometers and a heart rate monitor, it can generate more than 900 data points per second when clipped onto a player's vest, including his acceleration, position and the impact of collisions.

It helped the football team track and analyse how much physical strain each player was under. By April this year when the season was drawing to a close, Leicester City players had suffered fewer injuries than any other club in the league, partly due to the device's use.

The data generated during training sessions also helped the team continuously track and improve their performance throughout the season.

The Premier League champions weren't the only ones tapping the power of big data. In recent years, the collection and analysis of data have transformed competitions and leagues from the Wimbledon tennis championship to the National Basketball Association (NBA) in the United States and the international Formula 1 Grand Prix.

Leicester City (in blue) playing an English Premier League match against Chelsea on home ground on Tuesday. The team's use of big data had contributed to reducing injuries among players and their league win last season. PHOTO: REUTERS


Big data can help athletes and sports teams in several ways: Players can track their progress and shore up their shortcomings; teams can optimise their dynamics and gameplay; and managers can study their teams' weaknesses and look for players with scientifically proven strengths to plug those gaps.

Beyond improving players' performance, the revolutionary technology found in sports has often found its way into the commercial and medical scene. In the high-speed world of Formula 1, race engineers are able to monitor a driver's performance and statistics through wearable technology and modify strategies during the race itself.

In its 2015 season, the US-based National Football League also fitted every player's shoulder pads with two small tags that wirelessly transmitted data such as his location and speed. While the data is mainly used by broadcasters for match commentary, coaches have been using the information from practice sessions to fine-tune their players' performances.

In the run-up to the Olympic Games in Rio, several athletes relied on player-tracking devices to keep them in top form. For example, the South African swimming team, gold medal winners in the 2012 Summer Olympics, had been training with the XMetrics, an activity tracker which relayed swimmers' lap times, number of strokes and heart rate to them in real time.

Beyond improving players' performance, the revolutionary technology found in sports has often found its way into the commercial and medical scene.

In the high-speed world of Formula 1, race engineers are able to monitor a driver's performance and statistics through wearable technology and modify strategies during the race itself.

Formula 1 team McLaren has taken this same technology a step further to the medical field to enable health research professionals to monitor obese subjects and gauge how effective exercise regimes are in burning calories, even down to the type of fat being burnt per activity. The data gathered will enable them to give patients exact information about their bodies and personalise exercise and diet regimes that suit them best.

In the commercial space, Formula 1 technology has also been used to enhance commercial cars to improve engine efficiency and deliver a smoother ride. Finer-grained data pertaining to the driver and his environment has also enabled the realms of telematics and autonomous vehicles to make great leaps forward.


Athletes are not the only ones who stand to benefit from big data. Sports organisers have invested millions of dollars in infrastructure and data analytics software, so that fans from around the world can watch events live and listen to insightful commentary derived from game statistics.

Two examples point the way to the future of sports viewing. In the past year, the US-based NBA has partnered with virtual-reality company NextVR to offer live, virtual broadcasts of some NBA games. Viewers with the headsets were able to get virtual courtside seats right by the action.

During the recent Wimbledon championship, IBM deployed Watson, its artificial intelligence system, to comb through hundreds of thousands of social media and online posts about the event to find stories and trends that might interest fans. It also kept an eye on the matches and processed information from more than 3.2 million data points throughout the competition to alert commentators to potential new records and milestones.

As big data and technology continue their onward march in sports, fans can expect more democratic and enriched viewing experiences. For instance, viewers in Sembawang might not have to pay for a plane ticket to watch a match in the Stade de France as they can get reams of real-time, analysed data about their favourite athletes, such as the average speed of tennis champion Serena Williams' serves, in the comfort of their homes.


A potential challenge in applying data insights to sports is finding the "Goldilocks" point, or "just right" amount, of personal data that teams collect from their athletes without contravening personal privacy.

The legal framework bridging technology and sports and protecting athletes' personal information in many countries is still underdeveloped. The right balance needs to be agreed on by consensus among technology companies, sports industry players and legal consultants.

Another challenge is that advancements in data collection have not yet been matched by the ability to process it in fully meaningful ways. In the context of sports, there are still some hurdles to overcome in applying the incredible amount of data insights to real-time play. It's unrealistic to have coaching staff right next to an athlete, all the time, in order to break down information and give advice on their next move on the field.

This brings me to my next point - sport is ultimately a test of the human spirit and intuition. These two factors cannot be replicated by any big data analytics or even artificial intelligence. During a competition, athletes who excel are those who intelligently use data to analyse the field variables to shape their decisions, and, with a laser-sharp intuition, execute that final, winning strategy. Often the ones who gain spectators' and supporters' respect are those who passionately pursue the game, even though they may never win every match.


With sport's worldwide stage, what does data analytics hold for the future of Asia?

The region has produced world champions, such as Li Na in tennis, Liu Xiang in hurdles and Lee Chong Wei in badminton, in no small part due to rigorous technical training programmes supplemented with data analytics to improve their techniques and performance.

Sports firms are already producing "intelligent" equipment that can help budding professional athletes and casual players to refine their game. Tennis giants Rafael Nadal and Caroline Wozniacki, for instance, have both trained with smart tennis racquets that measure how often they hit with forehands and backhands, how hard they hit the ball and where on the racquet the ball makes contact.

The Formula 1 Sauber team has also used real-time data capture and analytics to improve the car design and performance. Sauber's improvements to the car in the last season delivered marked improvements to the team race standings. Such valuable insights will certainly continue to be used by all Formula 1 teams to improve both driver and vehicle performance.

Last year, Wilson Sporting Goods also created a basketball embedded with a sensor that tracks statistics such as whether a player has made or missed a shot, and how his or her shooting percentage changes over time during a practice session.

Big changes could be on the cards for spectators too. In February, Microsoft unveiled a concept video that showed how its HoloLens headset could pave the way to interactive sports viewing experiences. While Microsoft did not say whether the depictions were in the works, the video showed the HoloLens being used to project holographic images of football players and their statistics; viewers could even use their hands to bring up, dismiss and control interactive graphics.

Finally and most importantly, the realm of sports technology has served as a groundbreaking platform for developing new technology and innovative data solutions for the real world, benefiting the man in the street.

The effective harnessing of big data will continue to drive the future of sports. For both players and fans, there might not be a more exciting time to become part of the game.

  • The writer is president of NetApp APAC , a multinational storage and data management company headquartered in Sunnyvale, California.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 22, 2016, with the headline 'Big data: How it can drive sport performance'. Print Edition | Subscribe