Sporting success: is it all in the mind, or the data analysis?

Technology and psychology are combining to enhance player decision making and performance

Sponsored Feature We sometimes think of professional sports people as almost superhuman, easily able to overcome physical challenges that would defeat ordinary men and women.

It is certainly true that today's athletes are faster, stronger and more agile than previous generations. But where huge strides have been made in understanding and extending the physical limitations of teams and individuals, the same has not historically been true when it comes to the mental aspect of performance.

This gap is rapidly being bridged, with professional sporting associations all over the world waking up to the value of psychology in helping sporting performers to achieve the best possible outcomes and guard against the risk of poor mental health which can undermine individual and collective success.

Lee Richardson is Performance and Sports Psychology Consultant for Liverpool Football Club, and founder of AIM-FOR, a provider of performance development and mental health resources. His own football career began in 1987, and saw him play for teams including Blackburn Rovers, Huddersfield Town, Oldham Athletic and Aberdeen FC.

"There was a time when the psychological process and functions of players, teams and coaches was not evaluated at all," he recalls. "Perhaps even worse was the discussion around psychology. It tended to be negative, and so often players and coaches actively avoided talking about it."

Richardson recently delivered a presentation on the subject at a football coaching summit organized by Hudl, a developer of sporting performance analysis tools. In it he talked about his own footballing experiences, including the pressures and challenges of a professional career, and the psychological impact on teammates and competitors on and off the pitch:

"There's been a movement of acceptance regarding support and recovery for mental health, partly thanks to some of the biggest names in sports coming forward about their own battles with mental health," he says. "Simone Biles, Michael Phelps, Naomi Osaka, Dak Prescott and others have used their position as a platform to discuss this issue."

The importance of emotional resilience

Mental health has been put under the spotlight like never before with the advent of the Internet and social media which puts players under intense scrutiny.

Dr Lennie Waite is Assistant Professor of Psychology, as well as Applied Sport and Performance Psychology Program Director, at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas. A former world class track athlete herself, most notably at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, Dr Waite now creates performance plans for leaders in various sports to help achieve peak results.

"The sporting landscape has changed hugely, even since I was competing in 2016," she says. "Athletes are much more exposed than they were, viewable in the palms our hands and open to scrutiny all over social media. We have more access into what's going on behind the scenes than ever."

With all of that, the emotional demands of being an athlete have increased massively. They need to be physically fit, but also emotionally resilient to help deal with criticism on Twitter or Instagram and adverse media headlines. "These channels have swelled their earning potential, but put them more at risk" added Waite.

Getting the psychology of sport right, she points out, isn't just about wellness, it can also be crucial in providing a competitive edge when margins between first and second place can be infinitesimal: "Transferring performance on the training field into the high-pressure environment of actual competition is something that I'm focused on," explains Dr Waite. "I work with every kind of sport, from football to motocross racing to basketball."

The status of sports psychology appears to be on the rise. Dr Waite's department did some recent research with USA Track & Field as part of the build-up to the next Olympic Games, in Paris in 2024:

"We asked how athletes viewed the importance of sports psychology, and 90 out of 92 we spoke to vocalized the high importance of having access to sports psychology services," she notes. "I think we'll continue to see sports psychologists become further integrated into sports."

Metrics that matter

Naturally any initiative to boost sporting performance, whether centered on the physical or mental side, will rely on the collection of statistics and metrics and the ability to analyze them in detail.

On the physical side of sport that means measuring characteristics like power, flexibility and endurance. How fast can a player run 100 metres? How high can they jump? How accurately can they kick a football?

Coaches are now learning to rate and measure mental characteristics as well, such as concentration, management of emotions, mental imagery and interpersonal communication. Methods are being developed to chart information in areas like cognitive reaction time and the ability of a player to process information.

Coaching professionals are getting more scientific about motivating individuals and developing the athlete both as an individual and as part of a team. The psychology of team sports has the added dimension of delving into the interactions of multiple players with each other.

Advanced technology is becoming central to all this activity. Where once sporting coaches would have relied on their own intuition and experience to make judgement calls, perhaps backing that with manually collected data, now they are depending on sophisticated algorithms, artificial intelligence (AI) and new analytics techniques to reduce the element of human fallibility.

Few, if any, coaches would be able to recall all the critical events in a match without the help of technology.

Any unsupported human analysis is prone to emotional bias, inaccuracy and misinterpretation due to natural shortfalls in human perception and cognitive capacity. Top level sport is of greater commercial value than ever, so having more accurate ways to measure and therefore boost performance is becoming increasingly critical.

Data analysis front and centre

Data manipulation and analysis start by necessity with data collection.

Wearable technology and sensors can provide millions of data points about the physical side of sport, and increasingly about the mental aspects as well.

The use of electroencephalography (EEG) in sports psychology is in its early stages, but already delivering results. This non-invasive procedure takes an electrogram of the electrical activity on the scalp to provide information on the brain activity below the surface. The resulting datasets can help with a range of challenges from diagnosing brain injury to mapping and improving the mental health of players.

Next step on from the harvesting of data is understanding it, and this too is developing rapidly. Deep learning (DL) detects patterns by using artificial neural networks modelled on the human brain. It can go much further into the meaning of data than is possible with basic artificial intelligence and machine learning.

On the mental side of sporting performance, a combination of high-quality EEG data matched with GPU-accelerated computation and deep learning is already taking our understanding of players' brains and psychology to a new level.

Science of this sort can potentially be synched with the objectives of a particular sporting organization. It can play a part, for example, in developing a footballer's ability to read the game ahead of those around them. The insights generated by this sort of technology can translate to improvements in player performance and wellness, and therefore to a winning culture.

VR and eye tracking

There are other technologies that a sports psychologist can add to their armory. Virtual reality (VR) offers a simulation of the real world or an imaginary world, and so can provide an interactive experience between the athlete and the environment on the athletic field. A footballer can use VR to experience where other players are on a virtual pitch to hone appropriate reactions.

Sports psychology professionals also use eye tracking to monitor a player's gaze positions when they look at 2D and 3D stimuli. Success in a ball game, like football or tennis, depends on anticipating an opponent's action relative to the position of the ball. The best performers use superior perceptual-cognitive skills to recognize patterns in opponents' actions, thereby enabling more rapid response. Technologies such as visual occlusion and 3D multiple object tracking can be part of identifying as well as building such skills.

None of this is science fiction. Examples abound of sporting organizations that have already deployed technology to augment performance and boost results, as well as enhance wellness.

In the UK, the Football Association (FA) has used cloud-based compute power to enable its coaching staff to manipulate and share terabytes of data and collaborate more easily. Danish football is another pioneer, using compute power to facilitate the effective delivery of feedback and enhance a player's game knowledge and decision-making.

Elsewhere Rugby Union club Leicester Tigers uses an innovative system to manage data on the athletic progress of players, looking at aptitude, performance evaluation, prevention of unknowns and optimization of tactics. And in the US, the National Basketball Association is using technology to help assess the mental wellness of star players suffering with anxiety and depression.

"Technology is a powerful tool for the sports psychologist," believes Dr Waite. "Obviously you can't bring technology into the competitive environment with you, but technology is important, not least in helping to popularize sports psychology by making it more engaging for users. Athletes love to see all the metrics and readings that show their brain waves changing."

Standards in professional sport are continuously being raised. But that also puts more pressure on clubs, coaches and players to develop more efficient training structures, enhance athlete development processes and gain better understanding on the factors that determine success in major tournaments. The role of psychology, and the technology that complements it, in coping with that pressure is surely set to grow.

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