May 27, 2021
Like many sectors, professional sport has undergone a digital transformation. Indeed, the use of big data, which is the automated processing of numerical data, has brought many benefits to stakeholders in the field. It has profoundly changed the training of athletes and the work of coaches.
The shift began in the United States in the early 2000s when a baseball team, the Oakland Athletics, adopted an analytical approach to the players' actions under the leadership of their coach at the time, Billy Beane. The film ‘Moneyball’, starring Brad Pitt, tells the story of this unconventional manager who hired an economist to use statistical theories to reconsider the value of each player of his squad. His team is indeed being robbed of its best players by rivals with greater financial resources.
Statistics supporting the game plan
Still in the US, the NBA is a great example regarding the use of data. Statistics have enabled franchises to make better game plans thanks to the analysis of the contributions made by certain players to their team's game. ‘Win Shares’ (the estimated number of victories generated by a player in a season) or ‘Value over replacement’ (the additional value brought by a player compared to the average of the players in the League), are precious clues for managers to elaborate the winning strategy of their team. As a result, players like Stephen Curry and James Harden have today become the cornerstone of their franchise thanks to their 3-point shooting skills. These athletes and their success have changed the game of basketball and inspired other teams to use the same strategies.
In Europe, many initiatives are carried out to make effective use of the information provided by data analysis. LaLiga, the Spanish first division football league, has undertaken a major project in this area with the creation of a platform for real-time analysis of match data. Called Mediacoach, this tool allows clubs to prepare their games with statistics on their opponents, such as style of play, efficiency in attack and defence, or specific information on certain players.
With the growing use of these technologies to increase the chances of winning, the choice of a more pragmatic and less spectacular style of play raises questions about the future attractiveness of some sports to spectators.
However, although the benefits brought by new technologies to sports activities are undeniable, they can also lead to controversy. This is the case with Nike's Vaporfly shoes, released in 2017, which have turned the running market upside down. These shoes are equipped with a carbon blade in the sole that modifies the support of the foot and an ultra-light foam for better cushioning. This model was highlighted when Eluid Kipchoge broke the 2-hour barrier at the 2019 Vienna Marathon wearing these shoes. Such a brand advantage had never been seen before, so much so that the International Athletics Federation (World Athletics) opened an investigation into the matter in the face of accusations of unfair competition against the American equipment manufacturer.
As this example shows, not everyone is happy with the technologies now available in sport. Among the critics is the uncle and former coach of tennis player Rafael Nadal, Toni Nadal. According to him, the use of big data is opposed to the human experience that a coach can transmit to his or her player and the subjective view that they can give them for their progress. Digital tools cannot solve everything in sport and must therefore be positioned as an option to coaching and, in no way, a replacement.
Although the contribution of technology to sport practice divides observers, it nevertheless has a bright future ahead of it. With the Paris Olympic Games in 2024 in mind, the French Ministries of Sport and Higher Education have joined forces to create in 2019 a Priority Research Programme to mobilise the scientific community to meet the needs of high-level athletes. It is divided into several parts, including artificial intelligence and big data for performance. This project demonstrates the French government's choice to rely on technology to increase the number of medals at home Olympic Games.
These different examples demonstrate the interest of athletes and their coaches in considering new technologies for the optimisation of their performance. This is indeed the illustration of an increasingly connected society. However, due to the power of sport as a social vector, the influence of digital tools should not hinder the personal relationships, whether between a player and his/her coach in an individual sport, or within a team. This human factor is very often an essential key to success. On the other hand, it is important that the use of technology does not conflict with the sporting spectacle by disrupting how the game is played. Indeed, even if the financial gains from wins are increasing, sport remains an entertainment and must not lose its essence, such as its cultural benefits and the passion it generates.
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