Interview: Stafford Murray, head of performance analysis, English Institute of Sport

Stafford Murray and his team’s data analytics efforts at London 2012 helped deliver success for Team GB. How did they do it?

They were some of the most important members of Team GB during the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, yet none of them appeared on the podium. Nor did they garner any column inches in the avalanche of coverage devoted to Team GB’s success in the national press.

So, who were these unsung sporting heroes? The team of performance analysts from the English Institute of Sport (EIS).

Headquartered in Manchester, with sites throughout the country, EIS employs 30 full-time performance analysts who are embedded with numerous different Olympic sporting disciplines, 24 hours a day, day in day out, in the four-year cycle leading up to the games and during the event itself.

The man tasked with overseeing the team of EIS analysts is Stafford Murray, head of performance analysis and biomechanics at the institute. Murray says that, from selection to tactics, to the type of equipment used by the different teams, every decision is based on the data the analysts collect.

During the 2012 games, 17 EIS analysts were based in situ with their sports, performing their normal day-to-day role of providing visual and data feedback to assist the coaches. On top of that, during the Olympics and Paralympics, EIS ran a centralised capture service in association with the British Olympic Association (BOA) and Dartfish, a technology company that specialises in creating and distributing video footage.

This team, which was based in Team GB house at the Westfield Shopping Centre in Stratford, captured all 40 of the TV feeds available during the games. Nine analysts, overseen by Stafford, dissected the footage and fed it through to the 23 individual Olympic sports that wanted to take advantage of the service.

“We captured the footage, made it available on the Dartfish TV web platform and then the analysts at the game venues could download that footage and do the data analysis.”

Predicting strengths and weaknesses

It’s not surprising to hear that most of the sports teams that had highly successful games relied heavily on this information, with cycling and canoeing particularly benefiting. 

“I don’t want to attribute the success of the athletes solely to us but I don’t think it’s any coincidence that all of the successful sports invest heavily in the use of data in their process,” says Murray.

It is well known that under Dave Brailsford the GB cycling team takes analytics incredibly seriously, employing two full-time analysts. What is less well publicised is that Team GB’s boxing team, which also exceeded expectations at the 2012 Games, has a similarly high-tech set-up.

“In boxing every single fighter is profiled to break down their strengths and weaknesses,” explains Murray. “For example, a boxer might have a tendency to attack from a certain position in the ring or they might favour a certain type of punch. 

"Basically we’re trying to minimise the element of surprise. 

"You can’t predict human behaviour with 100% accuracy, but all athletes in all sports have traits that are measurable and predictable, so you can change your tactics to minimise their strengths and optimise their weaknesses.”

A major part of the analysis process depends on the different types of high-tech tools that Murray and his team have at their disposal. As well as using software like iBoxer and Dartfish for the sort of tactical profiling outlined above, analysts also use the biomechanical analysis software Quintic for more technical measurements.

By watching video replays at super slow-motion EIS’s team of experts can analyse an athlete’s technique in minute detail to establish forces and loads going through the body. Bio-mechanists can then suggest ways that athletes can optimise their techniques. Jessica Ennis was so impressed with the help of EIS biomechanist Paul Brice gave her, she texted him her thanks on the same evening she won her heptathlon gold medal.

Another important weapon in the analyst’s armoury is video technology called SimulCam

“The main functions we use this for are for split screens and blending the screen so you can see pre and post something,” explains Murray. “For example, you could compare pre and post injury, pre and post coach intervention or pre and post a change in technique. SimulCam allows you to overlay the before and after video footage to highlight the differences. It’s a really fantastic coaching tool.”

Data analytics skills prove worth

But for Murray, Team GB’s success wasn’t just down to the cutting-edge technology. It was about employing a team of analysts skilled in crunching the data and translating it in a manner teams could use. And then, just as importantly, the leaders of these teams feeding the information through to the competitors. 

Although in the past there was some resistance to the use of data in sport – and some sports are still reluctant to wholeheartedly embrace and put faith in the power of analytics – over the last few years there’s been a sea change in attitude, according to Murray.

“Initially we were trying to prove ourselves as a discipline and confirm a need for us to be doing this, whereas now it’s gone the other way round and we’re almost the first names on the team sheet,” he explains.

To support Murray’s assertion you need look no further than the number of analysts employed at the London Olympics. At the Beijing games in 2008, Team GB took a team of five analysts whereas in London there were 17. Likewise, at the Beijing Paralympics there was one analyst, yet in London there were four. Murray believes there will be as many analysts at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio if not more.

Murray says that, as well as educating those sports that have been slow to embrace the power of analytics, the major challenge he and his peers face is delivering information faster and in a form that can most effectively be used by teams and individuals. This includes more reliance on tablet devices and the use of clever gizmos like sunglasses fitted with LCD screens. 

But despite the measurable benefits his team brings to the table, he’s adamant that analytics will never entirely replace an expert’s assessment.   

“When I’m asked that question it always makes me think of the Russian boxer in Rocky IV,” says Murray.

“Ivan Drago had absolutely everything measured, whereas Rocky was on his own, training up in the mountains, yet Rocky won. That’s the absolute beauty of sport. All we’re trying to do with this data is reinforce what the coach and athlete thinks, but this will never replace the human aspect of it.”

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