Home Strategy On Science & Data in Sport Part 2: How to use technology and data effectively in sport.
On Science & Data in Sport Part 2: How to use technology and data effectively in sport.

On Science & Data in Sport Part 2: How to use technology and data effectively in sport.


In part one of this post we looked at how to think about data science and the broader field of technology in sport. This post deals with how to effectively use these within the context of the sport to ensure we apply these tools to actually improve performance and avoid becoming distracted by them.

How to use technology and data effectively in sport.

Billionaire investor and entrepreneur Peter Thiel is by virtue of his creations and experiences probably THE world expert on the effective use of data & technology. In his recent book ‘Zero to one’ he challenges the fear that computers will cost all people their jobs by describing the fundamental differences between skillsets and abilities of both.

Thiel writes:

“Computers are far more different from people, than any two people are from each other, computers and humans are good at fundamentally different things. People have intentionality; we form plans and make decisions in complicated situations. Were less good at making sense of enormous amounts of data. Computers are exactly the opposite: they excel at efficient data processing, but they struggle to make basic judgments that would be simple for any human”.

As an example Thiel points to a project Google invested years and millions of dollars in to build a supercomputer capable of scanning millions of thumbnails in YouTube videos to identify a cat with 75% accuracy.

‘That seems impressive” he writes, “Until you remember that a four year old can do it flawlessly”.

In describing the differences between computers and humans Thiel teaches us how technology and data can be best employed in the sports industry. He also directly shows us, through explaining how Palantir (a cybercrime company he founded in 2004) combines the skills of computers and humans with stunning results.

Thiel’s company has created immense value (15 Billion dollars worth) by producing far superior results when compared to the United States two major security agencies the Central intelligence Agency (CIA), and the National Security Agency (NSA).

The CIA is primarily focused on using human intelligence to solve security problems, they employ a huge network of spies to keep the US safe, whereas the NSA is biased toward computers& technology.

Neither approach is wrong or right but neither approach works as well as Palantirs more hybrid approach.

Palantir merges the gifts of humans and computers to successfully predict where terrorists plant their explosive devices, prosecute high profile insider trading cases and uncover the largest child pornography ring in the world.

Palantir uses software to analyze data the US government tracks, the software crunches the data and flags suspicious activities trained analysts then review. Using this approach, the company played a significant role in finding Osama bin Laden.

Importantly, the computers do not predict or decide anything. The power of the human mind and its contextual understandings is far better suited to this task. In this way, Palantir uses computers to free up people to do what they do best.

Palantir’s example shows us that computers if properly used can create space for humans to do less of what they do badly (crunching data), and more of what they well (planning, deciding and executing well timed actions).

So if computers and humans can partner to produce superior results, how can we know how and when to use each distinct skillset in the context of the rapidly changing, high pressure, high stakes environment that is elite sport?

Enter John Boyd.

Boyd was an Air force fighter pilot who served in the Korean War. Through deep observation and attention, Boyd developed a framework for rapid and effective decision making that ultimately changed the war.

Boyd knew the Americans used bigger, slower fighter planes than their opponents, but he also knew that the US Sabrejets transitioned more quickly between fighting styles than Soviet Mig jets.

This meant that the Americans could perform more maneuvers in less time, allowing them a competitive advantage were they to recognize and exploit this information.

“The adversary that can move through cycles faster gains an inestimable advantage by disrupting his enemies ability to respond effectively” Boyd explained while speaking before the housed armed services committee in 1991.

Among other contributions like helping design superior fighter jets Boyd created a framework to teach and guide effective decision making in dynamic, high pressure combat he called the OODA loop.

The OODA loop is an acronym for the four major principles of the framework he spent several years developing. The four letters stand for four steps: Observe Orient Decide and Act.

Observe what is happening and process as much information from as many sources as possible
Orient those observations by distinguishing the relevant from the insignificant
Decide on a course of action and select one path.
Act to execute the decision, while bearing mind this action is not the end since the loop flows continuously.

As in most cases the simplest solutions are often superior. If understood and used wisely, technology can actually accelerate AND improve decision making, keeping us one or two steps ahead of our competitors at all times.

Evolution, Technological Sophistication & Conclusions.

Darwin was misunderstood by those who claim his theory of evolution championed the idea of ‘survival of the fittest’ In actual fact, his findings (and his real opinion) indicated that is more likely the most adaptable or changeable species who survive and thrive in an ever changing world.

Jim Collins, our business researcher observed the same trend in the companies that stood the test of time and consistently outperformed their competitors. Technological sophistication allowed these organisations to avoid fads, see the bigger picture, then choose and use technology wisely, while adapting and evolving their methods over time.

For performance coaches and managers in sport, it is crucial to avoid the binary view of technology, data and science that currently exists within the industry. The simple fact is, technological progress is inevitable, it has been occurring since the dawn of time.

The key difference now is the speed of that progress. The risk we run in avoiding, suppressing or denying the value and effective use of technology, is that we will quickly be left behind by others who have maintained a healthy respect for both new and old methods.

Remember: It was after John Wooden, one of the greatest coaches of all time who said ‘If you’re through learning, you’re through’.