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Bill Styles Q&A


Bill Styles is a sports scientist who has served as the lead first-team strength and conditioning coach at Southampton FC for almost a decade. Styles, who previously has worked with Celtic FC in the Scottish Premiership and West Bromwich Albion FC in the EFL Championship, specializes in athlete rehabilitation and return to play. In a recent conversation, Bill discussed the evolution of performance technology, the relationship between players and performance data, and the value of Sportlight’s tracking system in a rehabilitation and training environment.


Given your extensive experience in sports science, particularly within football, how have you seen performance technology evolve throughout your career, and how has it changed the way you approach training and rehabilitation? 

Yes, so much. I remember at the start, all monitoring was solely based around how many red-zone minutes players got in a heart-rate session. And very much, the idea of collecting data and information, practitioners were seen as being a bit busy or a bit keen to want to know that. 'Just let us get on and play the game, and let's just do our thing.'


So now, players, staff, coaches and managers, they expect it – they want to know it. They know that you know what you're talking about, and they understand why decisions would be made around it. But what's never changed is that the best decisions are made with data informing the decision and helping guide it. Always dealing with that human being, it's a huge part of that process. It's with our collective experiences within a field that we can make the best decisions, and the quality and the richness of the data that we're getting now can definitely help those decisions to be quicker, sharper and more detailed. You won't ever get away from the fact that the best decisions are those made by a group that walk out of an office having had a pretty heated conversation, or where maybe people aren't quite in agreement or alignment – but when you’ve used quality information and added good, subjective experience and decision-making to it.


You mention the players. At what point did you see them begin to trust and respond to performance-tracking data?

I think the world we live in now, there is so much data and information in all areas of their life. So I think they are a lot more accustomed to numbers, data and figures being a part of that. But I do believe that sometimes they just want to know that you know; they don't need to know exactly how you got there. If they trust you and they trust your methods, and your honesty and transparency, and you make the comment that “we've had a look at the data” or “the data suggests,” I think they connect to that because they trust you and then they know that they can trust the data. 


But I'll always add the caveat that, when you're the guy who is doing the workout or you're the guy who is coming back from the injury or you're the guy who needs to feel ready, how does that sit with where you've come from and where you are? I always link it into the process. Players build trust in the data because they trust that – how they feel. Obviously, they don't need to know the technology or overly scrutinize the data sources. I think they come around to that because of the world in which they've grown up. If they've played football for any length of time, they understand that it is a bit more "Moneyball" than it was 10, 15 years ago. There is a lot more data and numbers information that are part of the whole analysis of performance now.


How has the athlete rehabilitation process evolved over the years, and what recent advancements have emerged? What notable benefits have you found in the Sportlight rehab system?

With something like Sportlight, we always want to link it back to what the player is going to need to be able to do. So, what are the demands of this sport, this training session for this elite competition? Data coming from something like Sportlight can really give us that – and then break it down into the most intense periods or, say, compare it to the typical profile of 10 players at the player’s position in the Premier League. What are we benchmarking this player against? There's so much information that can help guide us towards where we need to go.


But within that now, the data and quality can give us so much information around something like turns – not just how many turns, but what speed did they enter that turn into and what angle did they exit that turn. And then we can look at left versus right. If we know it's a left-sided injury, are they compensating? Are they not entering that turn as fast as they can on their opposite side because they don't feel confidence or trust in their ability to handle the forces, and therefore they’re compensating? Or are they not able to accept that turn at a really sharp acute angle because they haven't got the physical quality to deal with that? It gives us an idea of where we're going – but also real detail of the actions that are going to be performed. And, likewise, we can learn that if the profile of this position, on this team, under this manager, doesn't have a really high demand on a certain specific type of movement, we don't need to overload or visit that action repeatedly because they may only do it three or four times in a game. If they need to be able to do it, OK, but we don't need to be hammering that nail all the time, because it's not something that's typically demanded of them in match play or training.


With the amount of data you’re now able to record and assess using performance-tracking technology like Sportlight, do you find yourself constantly reassessing what you know and tweaking based on new insights?

Yeah, we're learning all the time. We get new questions every time we go down a little rabbit hole if you want like this. We'll think, “Well, what about that?” Or “What about that position?” Or “What about under fatigue?” Or “Would we get this under any management, any coaching philosophy, any style of play? What about in our under 21 games? What about our first-team games? What about first-half versus second-half bits. We get that all the time, because it is new – because it's something that we probably weren't even thinking about 18 months ago.


We've had a really interesting recent example: You can run and get up to a speed of nine meters per second, but you can get there in such a different way that puts a very different cost or tax on the system in terms of the initial acceleration and the ability to overcome inertia and find top speed. It would be very different in a more graded, ramped-up speed effort, even though both end up hitting the same absolute max value. I think there's something new almost every time we explore the data.


We know there can be a disconnect between data measured in a training session compared to a player’s max-effort potential in live match action. How much closer is the technology getting to accounting for those differences?

I think we're getting closer, because it's helping us understand entry speed or angle, or angle of turn. But that will always be governed by the player’s intent, and that’s where the decision-making element comes in. That's why we love the game. That's what the sport brings us, isn't it – it’s random, it’s chaotic. It's not “run and touch the red cones, touch the blue pole. Yes, we use those kinds of drills in rehab. But we've always said, as long as I've worked in this job, that that’s just a phase they're in. They then need – as much for the injured tissue and for the physiological system – the stress of random, chaotic, different environments. That's what training with other groups of players gives you, and that's the value of the intel from something like Sportlight. To fully understand a break or turn with real real intent requires that element, because a player doesn't have time to pre-plan execution of the task, and the decision is made for them because it's a competitive response to competitive action.


How does Sportlight specifically distinguish itself from competitor technology and legacy systems to help you learn and do things that weren’t available even two years ago?

This might sound a little bit strange, but any system that allows me to walk out onto a pitch, press a button and, by the time I pack the equipment up from that session and get back to my desk, I’ve got the data in front of me – that is absolute gold in this environment. Because we've got limited time with our athletes to impact them, to affect them, to change their behaviors – to do anything in their company. So anything we can do that helps that process is going to be so beneficial.


It's such a powerful thing when you don’t have to hang out 25 wearable vests, turning on a unit, plugging it back in. And the ability to which you can relate things back to players what they're expected to do in games, or to give them insights about what the best player at their position in the Premier League does. Sportlight’s benchmarking and the efficiency of its plug-and-play nature stand out. So many new things don't take off in this environment. It might be the best technology in the world, but if you have to run extension cables through and round the back of a pitch and round through the equipment shed and plug it in, and then you get out and it's raining and you haven't got anything to cover up the iPad and then only one guy in the office knows how to download it or isn’t working today, or we're having a few issues exporting the data … we see these things over and over again. 


It's the nature of the environment: We want the one, good tool and high-quality data at our disposal, but they won’t put up with things that are time-costly and that are going to force them to stress and take their attention elsewhere. So I've loved the nature of that. And I've got to say, what impresses is the customer service and even the ability of the Sportlight guys to call back and explain their company and the technology to either a coaching staff, which literally just want a little back-of-a-cereal box explanation, or to a Ph.D., booting up guys in our data science and sports science department who really want to interrogate them.


And then there’s the ability to do something outside and for us to know when to pull our staff together and say, “We’ve had a look at this for you. When I look at Session 1, 2 and 3 and compared this drill or this movement or this action, I know you were trying to have a look at this type of turn profile today. This is what we got and how it related to a period of the game or related to something really tangible. Those kinds of things have been great for us – the ability to make movement contextual in terms of game scenarios? That's what practitioners and coaches want to know and will always want to know.


Turning the data into football-specific insights?

Yeah, insight for the player to understand, insight for a manager – everybody can take an insight. I can learn that a player probably didn't have enough speed going into that action, so I need to take that element out of the drill. Or it was too planned or the turn was too acute or there was too much stuff in the build-up; he just needs to run into that action and do it. Take that element out or bring this one in, or take that part out of the player’s control or shorten this distance. It gives you something to go away and work on because you know the high-level detail that it's exploring, the little, subtle changes that you can then make.


What additional value does Sportlight offer practitioners that may get overlooked?

Because we want the system installed on the training ground, I think a really useful thing we’ve been able to do is, obviously on the same pitch, track a first-team player’s rehabilitation at 10 o'clock in the morning. At midday, there could be an under-21 game on the same pitch, and we can start to profile and understand what are the demands of that style of football. Because for many years, we’ve tried to separate out the differences between playing under 21 football and playing in the best league in the world. It will never be just one thing. Ask the players, and they may tell you, “It's just the speed of it.” OK, well, what does that mean? Understanding what counts and what matters in that gap between levels, both from a performance standpoint and also when we're trying to blend players back in – when we use under-21 football to try and expose them to some game play – has tremendous value. What are we expecting? What might a player get from half an half of under-21 football versus half an hour of peak-demand Premier League football. It just gives us another layer of detail and quality of information about that transition.


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