Don’t buy a pig in a poke: Considering challenges of and problems with performance analysis technologies in Swedish men’s elite football | A Summary

Natalie Barker-Ruchti1, Robert Svensson1, Daniel Svensson2 & Dan Fransson3
1 School of Health Sciences, Örebro University, Sweden; 2 Department of
Sport Sciences, Faculty of Education and Society, Malmö University, Sweden; 3
Center of Health and Performance, Department of Food and Nutrition
and Sport Science. University of Gothenburg, Sweden

During the last decades, technologies to monitor, test and analyze athletes’ performance and health have rapidly developed and become integrated in the everyday life of elite football. At present, global positioning systems (GPS), stadium camcorders, heart rate monitors and mobile applications are prominent performance analysis technologies (PATs) used. While PATs are often understood as an aid, there is a growing body of literature that points to negative consequences, as for example methodological shortcomings, ethical concerns, inequalities, practical challenges, and problematic consequences. Due to the predicted exponential growth of PATs, these limitations and negative consequences are likely to increase and call for research and measures to develop strategies for effective and productive implementation (Luczak et al., 2020). Nicholls and colleagues’ (2019) call for multi-disciplinary approaches appears particularly relevant to advance our understanding of PA and the effects that the use of PATs have on training and coaching, and coaches and athletes (Wright et al., 2012).

This paper aims to be an answer to this call. Using sport sociological research on coaching and athletes, historical knowledge of the scientization of training and the changing role of the coach, as well as scientific and experiential knowledge of performance analysis, the overarching purpose of the paper is to provide sport clubs aiming to, or working with PATs, with recommendations. Specifically, our first aim is to outline challenges and problems that our collated expertise has shown to trouble PATs. Based on this compilation of challenges and problems, our second aim is to develop recommendations for how sport managers and administrators may need to approach PA to avoid or at least manage the negative effects of PATs that existing research and experience has identified.

To achieve our two aims, we use Swedish men’s elite football as a case study. Swedish football has recently started to invest in new forms of technologies. Our observations are, however, that some investments in PATs are poorly informed and prone to result in the negative effects the existing literature has identified. Collating the challenges and problems identified in research and providing recommendations for effective and productive implementation of PATs is thus useful and timely, for professional football in particular and elite-level team sport managers and administrators in general.

Our findings show that key challenges and problems occur in a chain of six steps that concern the implementing of PATs.

Our observations are, however, that some investments in PATs are poorly informed and prone to result in the negative effects the existing literature has identified.

1. Investment in PATs

The increased availability of PATs, often coupled with PAT companies’ aggressive marketing strategies, does not only pressure football clubs to invest in such technology, it also requires those aiming to invest in PATs to have relevant knowledge to assess differences in product quality (Luczak et al., 2020). For instance, stakeholders must understand issues of validity and reliability since the measures GPS systems collect differ in accuracy. Challenges regarding relevant knowledge about PATs and problems regarding validity and reliability are particularly important against the backdrop of the limited budgets that Swedish football clubs have.

2. Production of performance data

At present, the production of data is done on site, by club staff. While this solves some of the earlier problems faced because of testing taking place in laboratories, it has created new challenges. For instance, some scholars argue that PATs may only be able to measure what is measurable and not necessarily what is best for players’ learning and performance (Mackenzie & Cushion, 2013; Wright et al., 2014). Further, research warns against a sole focus on variables that quantify and reduce the athlete to a dataset (Collins, Carson, & Toner, 2016; Collins, Collins, & Carson, 2016; Kerr & Cooper, 2020; Williams & Manley, 2016). Quantifiable data may be informative and positively affect athlete health and training behavior. However, athletic success relies on many social (e.g., trusting relationship with coaches) and serendipitous factors (e.g., freak injury) that cannot be measured and quantified.

3. Interpretation of performance data

In terms of interpretation, problems can occur if specialists lack understanding of the coaching process or the coaching philosophy of the coach they provide data for, especially if time constraints limit analysts’ ability to pre-interpret data to make them ‘consumable’ for coaches (Kohe & Purdy, 2019; Luczak et al., 2020). Of course, the opposite also applies. The coaches’ knowledge of PATs and PA data, or lack thereof, also influences interpretation. These risks pose challenging questions regarding effective and equal communication, including feedback timing, frequency and length, and the approach to deliver information. Furthermore, specialists need to have a high level of knowledge regarding the chosen technology’s specificity in measured and produced data. For example, in GPS systems, different filters, secret algorithms and minimum effort durations in hardware and software are often set by the manufactures. These factors affect data production and can make it difficult to interpret. (Malone et al., 2017)

4. Communication of performance data

Data may be produced and interpreted correctly, but if it is not communicated with a view to ensure health, well-being and performance, the effects may be organizational surveillance (Manley et al., 2012; Williams & Manley, 2016). The inappropriate use and communication of data directs focus to power relationships between PAT experts, coaches and managers, and experts/coaches/managers and athletes, and the communication necessary to avoid enhanced and detrimental disciplinary effects that research has identified (Manley & Williams, 2019). PAT specialists may be well equipped to validate and use different technology to monitor, test and analyze performance; however, if the transparency surrounding PA data is not provided, and data is used to control and manipulate players, undesirable consequences will have a myriad of detrimental effects. One of which is to misinform coaches’ decision-making.

5. Decision-making based on performance data

A general belief in the past was that scientific data would easily transfer into coaches’ decision-making (Åstrand, 1988). The declarative value of available data, however, is today understood not to provide guarantees and can in fact be wrong if interpretation, communication, and reception are compromised. Our point here is not to argue that one never or exclusively should base decisions on PAT data; it is about the negotiation between different types of data and different types of knowledge. It is crucial, for instance, that performance data is placed in context, such as players’ current form, difficulty of fixtures played and referee decisions (Kohe & Purdy, 2019; Mackenzie & Cushion, 2013; Wright et al., 2014). The need for negotiation also highlights the question of power within the coaching staff.

6. Influence of PATs on coaches and athletes.

First, research indicates that athletes are concerned with how coaches use the PAT data to determine selection and playing time, and to modify employment contracts (Williams & Manley, 2016). Second, recent literature points to the controlling and disciplinary effects that PATs have on athletes (Jones, 2019; Kohe & Purdy, 2019; Manley & Williams, 2019; Manley et al., 2012). Although sport organizations and coaches consider the supervision of athletes necessary to ensure performance development, the extensive daily monitoring may be counter-productive to what training and coaching aim to achieve because it removes agency and creates ‘socially empty’ athletes (Denison, 2007; Williams & Manley, 2016). Third, while PATs can be used explicitly and consciously to enforce disciplinary control, research has identified that some coaches are unaware of the disciplinary and controlling effects PATs have on athletes (Kohe & Purdy, 2019; Manley & Williams, 2019). Unawareness of the influence PATs have on athletes also raises questions of privacy, especially in the age of GDPR.

Recommendation to stakeholders

Our first recommendation, competence, focuses on the knowledge that those sport clubs aiming to invest in PATs should acquire to prevent detrimental effects on the six steps of implementation. We recommend club managers, before investing in PATs, to make sure to have employed personnel with relevant knowledge and expertise (Martin, Swanton, Bradley, & McGrath, 2018). Otherwise, investing in the emerging technologies will be “buying a pig in a poke”.

With time, staff may be competent in PATs and have ample time for analysis, but if they cannot develop effective communication systems and practices, their knowledge and input may not be implemented as required or with the desired effects.

Our second recommendation, time, focuses on the vast amounts of time PATs demand from specialists, coaches and athletes, and possibly managers and administrators. Staff may be very competent in implementing PATs, but if time is limited, their ability to make effective use of their competence will be compromised. Making ample time available for performance analysts to communicate with relevant stakeholders is particularly important. We believe that by prioritizing effective communication, several of the problems that we have outlined above can be minimized or even prevented. Put another way, as possibilities to gather data using PATs increase, so does the amount of time necessary to process the data. If time is constrained, then sport managers, specialists and coaches should carefully consider if investment in new or additional PATs makes sense.

Our third recommendation, communication, focuses on the process of PA and the relationships between the stakeholders working with and affected by PATs (i.e., specialists, coaches, athletes, managers, and other support staff). With time, staff may be competent in PATs and have ample time for analysis, but if they cannot develop effective communication systems and practices, their knowledge and input may not be implemented as required or with the desired effects.

Communication of negatively perceived values such as weight gain and skinfold measures deemed higher than a given standard, especially if made in public, has been shown to have far-reaching counter-productive consequences, including decreased health and well-being, and motivation to train (Jones, 2019; Manley & Williams, 2019; Williams & Manley, 2016). Thus, football managers, coaches and PAT experts must carefully consider what, how and when they should communicate with players.

In sum, to ensure effective implementation and prevent the detrimental effects documented in existing literature, we recommend that knowledge about PATs, extensive time to implement PATs and make effective use of PAT data, and productive communication between different actors, must be put in place for investments in PATs to be worthwhile.

This is important for elite football in general but may be particularly valuable for economically smaller clubs and leagues. When funds are limited, the consequences of spending money on the wrong technologies are more severe.

Copyright © Natalie Barker-Ruchti, Robert Svensson,
Daniel Svensson and Dan Fransson 2021

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