Monitoring and Analytics: The New Era of Data

Monitoring. Analytics. In the age of big data, these are becoming important buzzwords in sports. In some ways, the concepts aren’t even that new. Sabermetrics has been a part of baseball training for more than a decade. Big-time soccer in Europe (football, to the rest of the world) has been engaged in physiological monitoring on a massive scale for several years. So has rugby in Australia. The NFL has been employing advanced statistics for several years, as well as the NBA. But still the question remains: what is it?

Monitoring and analytics refers to the collection and analysis of various metrics during exercise, in order to better understand the “what” and the “why” of sport performance.

In other words, what is actually occurring in our athletes during practice, training, and gameplay—and why is that happening?

We have engaged in a monitoring and analytics program with our UMass Lowell hockey team for some time now. This is fairly new in the hockey community—last summer was deemed the “Summer of Analytics” in the NHL, when many teams hired data analysts for the first time. So instituting this type of program is still pretty rare.  However, we have been able to gather a tremendous amount of extremely valuable information that has helped guide both our long-term athlete development model and our week-to-week success in the Win/Loss column. 

So, why do we monitor?

Three Reasons for Monitoring

There are three reasons that make up the cornerstone of our monitoring program.

  1. To gain better insight
  2. To ask better questions
  3. To attack the 1%

1. Gain Insight

The first reason is pretty straightforward. Like I said earlier in the post, we want to get a better understanding of what is happening to our players from a physiological point of view during practice, training, and games. This allows us to better understand why these things are actually occurring, and ultimately develop better training programs to help our athletes improve and succeed. 

 

2. Ask Better Questions

Reason number two is an idea with which I wasn’t familiar before undertaking our UMass Lowell monitoring program. Short side story: when I first embarked on my role with the hockey program at Lowell, I thought the use of a team Heart Rate System was going to give me THE answer to questions about energy system development. I thought that if I could see and better understand what was actually occurring with our players on a physiological level during training and competition, I’d be able to write the definitive energy system development plan. What really happened, however, was that while I gained a greater understanding of the unique physiology of the sport, as soon as I was able to answer one question, another question seemed to emerge. 

For instance, as I learned the average amount of time my athletes spent in different HR zones during a game, I began to ask why some players were outside the norm for either high or lower intensities. When I was able to answer that question, I began to ask how to better train these outliers to improve their unique physiology. When I was able to answer that, then I started asking whether or not we were training everyone the right way, or just “the way we had always done it.”

So you see, asking better questions has led to getting better answers. This is the second reason we monitor our athletes at UMass Lowell. We want to constantly try to improve what we know and what we do, so we can always provide the best service possible to our athletes.



3. Attack the 1%

The third reason we monitor our athletes is based on an idea called “attacking the 1%.” In the business world, this concept is called the “aggregation of marginal gains.” It basically means looking for as many small, 1% changes you can find—things that, by themselves, wouldn’t matter much on a day-to-day basis. But collectively, over time, these small 1% changes can add up to tremendous advantages.

I’ll give you an example: sleep. We all know we should be getting 8+ hours of sleep per night. Let’s say you routinely only get 7 hours of sleep. If you get 1 more hour of sleep tonight, will that make a tremendous difference in your performance tomorrow? Probably not—it’s just a small change. What if you can commit to getting an extra hour of sleep every night for the next week? So that’s 7 extra hours…maybe a little bit of a difference? How about a month? What about a year—1 extra hour of sleep every night for a year? That adds up to 365 more hours of sleep over the course of a year…THAT’S 15 EXTRA DAYS WORTH OF SLEEP!!!!

That amount of extra sleep would have massive impacts on your performance levels. That is the idea behind attacking the 1%. We want to find as many small, seemingly inconsequential details as we can, which have the potential to snowball into huge changes in our program. 

The Elephant in the Room

The final piece of monitoring and analytics that I want to touch on is what I call the “Elephant in the Room” between those who don’t see a need for numbers and the stats guys who want to quantify everything about the game. In one corner, you might have a coach or a GM who has been around the game a long time, and has probably been very successful without ever using any of these new metrics. Their response to the analytics movement is typically “Hockey is a game coached by instinct and gut feel. A good coach just knows what to do.”

In the other corner, you have the numbers guys who believe that more information will lead toward better results. They want to break down and analyze every bit of detail they can, in order to better understand the game.

My stance is, “Why not both?”

I fully believe that part of what makes a great coach great is the ability to intrinsically understand what is going on in training or competition, and make adjustments based on feel. After all, the mark of a great strength coach is one who can get a feel for his players’ “readiness” just by watching them walk in the door. However, there are always outliers—individuals and circumstances which can fall through the cracks. This is where monitoring comes in. Data and analytics can help add context to what a great coach sees; the information we can get from our monitoring program often just reinforces what we already believed to be true. But sometimes, it alerts us to something we missed or didn’t know was there, and that’s when the true value of monitoring comes in. Finding those “one-percents.” 

Practical, Low-Cost Solutions

At this point, you may be saying to yourself, “Well that sounds great…but I’m a coach in the high school setting, and I don’t have the budget or the time for advanced statistics or technological monitoring programs.” Or perhaps you are an athlete yourself, and are simply interested in increasing your own performance. What can you do in these situations?

HR x Session Length

Well, there are a couple of basic solutions, which I think can be very powerful, and require little to no monetary resources.  Heart rate monitors are now very commonplace, and not very expensive. If you are an athlete on your own, a modest investment in a simple strap and watch heart rate monitor can be very beneficial. This basic information will be able to help you better understand the “internal training load” of your various sessions, and get a better grasp on the intensity levels of your work. You can start out by recording AVG Heart Rate x Session Length to begin to give you a rough estimate of Training Load. This will let you compare training sessions, and even practices and games, to ask better questions about the best way to train. 

For example: if you record an average HR of 150 beats per minute during a 45-min training session, you can quantify this training load as 150 x 45 = 6750. You can use this number to compare against other training sessions as a general marker of your overall exertion.



Athlete Questionnaire

Another basic and even cheaper method of monitoring your athletes, especially in the team setting, is a simple subjective questionnaire. This can be done on pen and paper on a daily basis, and will allow the coach (or just the individual athlete) to start to understand trends in training load that might not be evident to the naked eye. You can even set up one of these questionnaires online for free using Google Docs, so that your athletes receive their daily questionnaire in their inbox each morning, and the results automatically come back to you on a Google Sheet.

Here are some example questions you can include on an athlete questionnaire to learn more about training intensity and load:

How many hours of sleep did you get last night?

  • On a scale of 0 to 10 (with 10 being “extremely well-rested”), rate your level of restedness prior to today’s training session.
  • Were you physically able to complete all sets and reps of the prescribed loads in today’s training session?
  • On a scale of 0 to 10 (with 10 being “extremely satisfied”), rate your level of satisfaction with your performance in today’s training session.

These are two basic examples of low-tech, low-cost monitoring that can be implemented without much previous experience, but which can have tremendous impacts over the long term in training. 

THE TAKEAWAY

Physiological monitoring and analytics are becoming more and more commonplace in all levels of athletics. Gaining a greater understanding of what is actually occurring with our athletes as they train and compete allows us to dig deeper and ask better questions, which ultimately leads to designing more effective programs. In the constant search for improvement, monitoring and analytics can help us find valuable “one-percent” changes that can ultimately lead to significant performance gains over time. 


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Devan McConnell, CSCS, NASM-PES, NASM-CES, is a Volt Athletics Advisory Board member. He is the Head Sports Performance Coach at UMass Lowell, working primarily with the Division I hockey team. Learn more about Devan and his innovative Sports Performance department here.