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Olympics 2016: Data, VR and the challenges of managing elite athletes

Elite athletes face tremendous physical and psychological pressure in the run up to the Olympics. And while their physical performance might almost be perfect, the psychological burden can be heavy and could make or break their performance on the day. Now with the Rio Olympics fast approaching, coaches will be using sophisticated tools like data analysis to spot gaps in their athlete’s performance. But like any measuring tool, this can be a two-edged sword which if used wrongly, could really mentally impact the athlete in the run-up to their big day.

“Once you reach the elite level, your physical performance is kind of a given. So what makes the difference? That’s not an easy question to answer. A lot of it is psychological and is around the quality of your decision-making. So we can work on those to try and improve those kinds of situations,” Samir Abid, CEO of Pace Insights tells me over the phone from his base in Leamington Spa in the UK.

Abid used his background in motorsport and automotive engineering to bring technology to the world of elite sport. His company Pace Insights builds customised tools for over 30 Olympic, Paralympic and elite level sports and organisations. These can be data analysis tools to enhance organisational performance, or building bespoke training equipment for athletes.

For Abid, the world of elite sport is getting “more technical” where coaches need a stronger justification than usual for keeping certain athletes on.

“People are being held to account and have to justify why they are investing in a certain individual over another. If you select one athlete over another athlete, the one you don't select ends up getting quite upset. They might go to the press and start making waves so you have to have a strong case as to why you didn't select that person and why you chose someone else. So data and objectivity can help you with that,” Abid tells me. 

But the challenge for Abid lies in translating “raw data” into something that is really valuable to the coaches. Abid tells me that some athletes “love all the data and numbers” while others are simply not interested. But they will adapt to the data quickly if they find it useful.

“I work with a coach who is unusually analytical, so we got on well. He's broken down his sport into several sections; psychological, tactical, and physical and he's graded each of those metrics on a scale with a target, and put all of his athletes that he coaches against that target.

“What we have done is highlighted some outstanding performances and capability within an athlete against the map of requirements, and have used the word ‘opportunities’. So rather than saying, ‘You're rubbish at this’ we say, ‘Your biggest opportunities are...’ The emphasis is on positive language rather than negative. We have highlighted the biggest opportunities from the matrix for that individual and then designed a training program around that. It's a visual output and everyone can see how we are going to tackle each of the different things,” Abid explains.

In the run up to Olympics, every single detail counts, right down to an athlete’s blood potentially hindering their performance. Bioanalytics firm Orecco takes blood samples from athletes and subjects the blood to 40 tests which it then compares against other athletes to determine potential problems and solutions. Orecco has teamed up with IBM’s Watson to analyse findings from medical journals to create personalised training programs.

Then there is Virtual Reality. Many athletes are increasingly using VR to fine-tune their performances. Queens’ University of Belfast has looked into using VR to improve perceptual skills in elite rugby training

Abid has also started to look into ways of incorporating VR into his training programs. He talks about athletes using VR to “re-live certain moments” and then working on their reaction to that.

But could this not make athletes spiral into a negative mind-set if they keep rehashing their mistakes in VR?

“Now you are thinking like a coach. If we've had a disastrous weekend of results, what do I do next week with my athletes? And this is a real human problem where there is no easy answer. Whatever you do, either it will help or it will not,” Abid agrees. “That's why the coach needs to know at what point to push and at what point to pull back in reinforcing a negative or a positive – it’s all about managing the emotional journey. So when they arrive at the starting point in Rio there is no doubt that the athletes will deliver their best performance ever.”

Most of Abid’s work at Pace Insights involves preparing the athletes to achieve their “maximum genetic potential” for that start line in Rio Olympics. He jokes that if they are still busy during the games themselves then they must have “done something wrong”.

So what’s next for Pace Insights over the next couple of weeks?

“We have several projects we are rushing to finish. Then we will be doing some work during the Olympics remotely as we are not flying out to Rio this time. We will be supporting two or three of our bigger teams with some remote mission control type stuff. At this level it’s nothing like Formula One but just reassuring them and enabling them to perform in a friction-less way [along with] the practicalities of operating in a different environment.”


Also read:

Rugby player data offers plenty for hackers and companies

Is Brazil tech-ready for the 2016 Olympics?

Data centres & VR at 2016 Rio Olympics


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Ayesha Salim

Ayesha Salim is Staff Writer at IDG Connect

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