5
Dec
The Concept

Capturing, tracking, and visualizing athletic performance data can be a significant factor in the development of athletes by creating an informative and motivational framework that defines measurable goals and allows the athletes to visualize their progress towards achieving those goals. Due to the associated costs of accurate and robust statistics collection, however, only extremely well-funded sports teams currently have the luxury of this training aid.

This thesis argues that by making sophisticated statistics tracking available to younger or lower-level teams without extensive financial backing we could improve the quality of training and coaching at a lower level, increase the retention of athletes that might otherwise drop out, contribute to a more rewarding emotional experience for the athletes, and potentially improve the performance of athletes across all levels of play by giving them access to these sophisticated tools early in their training.

Furthermore, if we could create a way for these athletes to track a greater range of performance data than is currently available through the use of sensor-driven passive data collection, then they would have access to a much more robust and accurate set of feedback that would allow them to push their performance to an even higher level and potentially provide for a richer or more rewarding experience.

The form of this thesis project will be a system of web applications (in the form of a suite of coordinating iPhone/mobile phone, iPad/tablet, and desktop/laptop-based apps) for members of the girls’ lacrosse community. This series of apps would allow users to collect, visualize, and effectively analyze team, player and game data in real time (where data spans a wide range of information from basic scheduling to statistics and commentary to photos of games or other team-related events). I also plan to investigate the viability of creating a lower-cost way to passively collect game and player data using physical computing. This part of the project would involve a system of sensors and wireless communication components that would allow a central database to track the activity of any player during a game or practice. Data that I hope to be able to gather through the use of these sensors includes the identity of the player currently holding the ball, running speed, shot speed and placement, and potentially even data as specific as where on the head of the stick the player is making contact with the ball.

The audience for this project can currently be defined as members of the lacrosse community that are frequent users of mobile technology, and who place some level of importance on the performance of their community’s girls lacrosse team(s). Due to the higher level of data fidelity and specificity that could be provided by the passive sensors, I am currently considering the age group of the target audience to be approximately high-school age girls and their parents and coaches. (Younger teams could also benefit greatly from the data, but require a much more complicated balance between tracking performance metrics and protecting the self-esteem of their players. These younger players, coaches and parents would still be able to use the system effectively, but would need to do so by limiting the amount of data visible to the parents and players through coach and parental controls. Because of this potential limitation, they are not considered the primary focus.) Different aspects of the project would cater to the various subsets of this demographic, such as coaching staff, parents, players, and community members/fans—of these users, I am focusing on two main groups: 1) parents and fans who wish to view and contribute to a running conversation of user-supplied data (in the form of game photos, comments, and videos); and 2) coaches, players and coach-minded parents who wish to track the performance of the team and its individual players in higher fidelity through the collection of statistics that they currently do not have the ability to measure or record.

The Impetus

Personal Origins

I arrived at this area of study through a serendipitous coming together of many of my lifelong interests. The general domain of data visualization and web design and development was the perfect combination of my experience in visual arts, design, math, economics, statistics, and coding—but the ultimate decision to pursue a thesis relating this domain to girls lacrosse took another leap. I wanted to find a user group that was already invested in the pursuit of better data capture and interpretation, (which describes essentially all athletic activities), but also wanted to find a user group with which I had personal experience that could better inform my designs. Girls’ lacrosse in particular is a small, albeit growing, sport that I have spent close to the last 20 years either playing, coaching, or both, making it a perfect fit. Through my thesis I can bring my mission to create clean, easy-to-use data collection and visualization interfaces to a community that has given so much to me over the course of my life, and which is still young enough that I might even have a chance of returning the favor.

Big Picture Significance

The significance of my research and thesis project span a few different areas, but is ultimately rooted in the idea of bringing sophisticated statistics tracking tools to a user group that could benefit greatly from their use but who currently do not have access to any comparable services.

Why It’s Important: For the majority of sporting events, winners are determined by having either the most or least of a certain statistic. But these top-level statistics are not the only ones that matter to the athlete; to be able to achieve that level of accomplishment in a sport, the athlete has to train not only hard, but also intelligently—and an intelligent training plan requires the athlete to assess their own personal strengths or weaknesses and then continuously track their progress in case any adjustments need to be made. This process can be done partially without the use of precise statistics, but general observation can only get you so far—and is always relative. When you need to know with 100% certainty that your running times have been decreasing, or confirm that your pitching accuracy is worse on curve balls than sliders (but perhaps only during the later innings), or compare your own progress with that of your biggest competitors, objectively collected (and sport-wide acknowledged) data is the only way to get a conclusive answer.

Why the current system needs to change: The current statistics tracking infrastructure hinges largely on the use of paper score sheets and is incredibly complicated, which leads to teams not even tracking the amount of data they feasibly could. In my three seasons of coaching youth lacrosse, I was fortunately able to evade scorekeeping duties thanks to a group of eager parent volunteers, but the fact that I preferred to avoid it speaks volumes. A coach should want to keep track of her players’ progress with as much detail as possible, and should consistently consult that data throughout the season in order to inform their practice plans and game strategy. I, on the other hand, did not once consult one of the chicken-scratch score sheets in any of those three seasons. The information they contained was minimal, hastily jotted down, and in many cases incomplete for stats other than goals and assists. These score sheets served as the mandated official records of the game (which require only the roster and total goals scored) and not much else.

The benefit of bringing this technology to a wider audience. Much research has been done into the benefits of tracking objectively collected performance data in order to maximize athletic potential. Athletes require objective feedback to be able to know where they currently stand as well as what goals they can hope to achieve (Hughes, 2008). This system of monitoring progress toward a set of measurable attainable goals is a critical factor in maintaining proper levels of motivation and focus in the athletes and coaches.

Making sophisticated statistics tracking available to teams without the financial backing and clout of a professional or otherwise high-profile team could increase the quality of coaching and training for athletes earlier in their sports career, and follows the model of the ever-increasing number of elite sports training camps (such as the huge number of Nike camps) that many youth and high school players attend during the summer to bolster their training. These camps bring together successful athletes who have the financial resources to register for, travel to, and attend these camps to study and train under the coaching leadership of some of the top college and professional coaches in the nation. Bringing some of the resources that athletes might find at one of these elite camps to teams of all age and skill levels would allow more athletes to experience even a small portion of this type of experience; this would better prepare them to advance their skills to the next level while simultaneously making them feel one step closer to being an “elite” athlete in a way that could boost their confidence and increase their motivation to work hard.

In addition, having a greater range of performance data supplied through sensor-driven passive data collection could improve the training and performance of athletes by increasing the number of feedback points from which they can glean information. By tracking a larger number of statistics, the athletes (and coaches) would have more information at their disposal to fine-tune their training plans, and the wider gamut of feedback points would be more likely to evoke pride a) in a wider range of athletes with varying skill sets, or b) more frequently for a single athlete. This combination of accuracy and motivating ability would allow the information collected to improve both the performance and emotional experience of the athletes being tracked.

Appendix

Throughout the thesis process, I have been constantly trying to synthesize my analytical and technical interests with my more emotional or visceral interests. The following quotes represent two ends of that spectrum in ways that are exciting in their own ways—the first appealing to my rampant inner nerd, the second to my soft spot for the sport that has so deeply shaped my life. Whenever I find myself doubting my ability to contribute to the bigger picture, I reread the introductory words of Mike Hughes and Ian Franks’ book on notational analysis and remind myself that if I am truly able to change the way that girls’ lacrosse is collected, notated, visualized and analyzed, then that could potentially effect change in the lacrosse community—and perhaps in other sports as well. And if I get overwhelmed, I just try to think about the meaningful impact that sports can have on people’s lives and let my desire to share that feeling with girls that are just discovering the sport drive me forward.

 

On notational analysis:

“For anyone who wishes to understand their own sport, and thereby the structure and tactics of other sports, there is no better way of understanding the real logic behind the structure of the game. The more coaches and layers that come to understand that notation systems are going to improve players’ performance, their team’s performance and especially the coaches’ performance, then the better for sport in general.”

Mike Hughes and Ian M. Franks, Experts in sports data and notational analysis

 

On the emotional power of women’s lacrosse:

“I am thankful for this small yellow lacrosse ball. Though small and generic when first seen, it has become a lifeline of sorts to me. It holds the power of friendship, family, livelihood, and molded many of the truths I hold dear. […] That ball allowed me to meet so many people. It allowed me the opportunity to play the game of lacrosse where I was constantly surrounded by teammates, many of whom have become great friends. […] It is this little yellow ball that I am thankful for, for it has given me more than I can ever give it.“

Sue Heether, Head Coach of the US Elite Team and Three-Time World Cup Champion

Category : Fall 2011 / Writing + Research