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Sportlight Conversation: Chris Difford

Chris Difford, the former first team physical performance coach for the women’s Everton Football Club and former head of performance at the women’s Bristol City Football Club, was hired as an account manager at Sportlight Technology in June 2022. A recent conversation with Chris explored his interest in new player-tracking technologies, specialized tracking needs in the women’s game and the importance of accurate, 360-degree data coverage in providing club’s with a competitive advantage.

Can you describe your role at Sportight and give your thoughts on the technology within the context of your background as a football performance practitioner?

As an account manager at Sportlight, I support practitioners in unpacking the vast number of deeper insights from our LiDAR-based tracking system that are meaningful and actionable within a performance department. The granularity and robustness of LiDAR ensures that the data fed back to the practitioners is of the highest quality and instills confidence during the decision-making process.

I believe the future of player tracking and monitoring is heading towards a non-wearable technology. Players prefer not to be encumbered by any wearables, and practitioners like non-wearable solutions because they give them more time to spend with players. There is a limitation in quantifying the intensive physical demands on players, during both matches and training, with legacy devices. The LiDAR-based technology we use at Sportlight can not only quantify those demands with more accuracy but also shine a light on change-of-direction dynamics within a football context, which, until now, had not been possible. Capturing this level of detail helps provide additional context to match demands and gives practitioners the opportunity to enhance training, drill and rehab design.

You have extensive experience working with women’s clubs. Are there

differing approaches or considerations for a performance practitioner when

working with women or men?

There are several differences that need to be considered when preparing female athletes to play football. Anatomically, an increased Q-angle in women has been linked with patellofemoral pain syndrome, knee joint hypermobility, chondromalacia patellae, recurrent subluxation of the patella and anterior cruciate ligament tears. Biologically, women may also experience acute increases in anterior knee laxity during their menstrual cycle, which may lead to heightened risk of an ACL injury. Estrogen, progesterone and relaxin are believed to play a role in laxity and injury rates throughout the menstrual cycle.

Women’s professional football has been around a short time when compared to the men’s history, and as a result the infrastructure surrounding the women’s game is struggling to keep pace with its ever-growing popularity. The academy structure is trying to provide the adequate support required to meet the increased physical demands at the first-team level. Once a player reaches first-team level or is transferred from a nation that doesn’t have the same infrastructure as the WSL, it is extremely important that those players are given time to adapt to new training stimuli that will protect them against increased physical demands.

The training approach for women footballers may require different preparation, but successful interaction with the individual – whether they be man or woman – will determine the impact a practitioner has in any situation.

How might a movement-tracking system be used to help reduce the risk of ACL injuries among women footballers, promote healing and possibly cut the length of recovery time?

First, gaining an understanding of a player’s physical profile and match demands using a tracking system allows a practitioner to prescribe training modalities that are best suited to the individual. Once that’s established, the tracking system can be used, acutely and chronically, to monitor each player’s physical loading. At each time point, this can be used to adapt any prescribed training modalities when required.

No matter how effective a practitioner’s plan, it’s important to remember that demands change daily in the world of elite sports – and a practitioner must be adaptable to ensure that each player has the appropriate training stimulus or exposure. During the rehabilitation of an ACL injury, for instance, it is imperative that an athlete is exposed – progressively over time – to the proper levels of intensive physical demands (accelerations, decelerations and changes of direction) in that moment. This makes a movement-tracking system almost essential during that day-to-day, pitch-based rehab process.

At the highest level of English football, it is common to receive physical data from several movement-tracking systems (GPS and optical). This is far from ideal for practitioners who are prescribing progressive overloads, because the data from each system can vary quite significantly across metrics. The current systems are also quite limited in the data they can provide for the intensive demands. Sportlight is not only able to provide 360-degree data coverage across match, training and rehab action, but also deeper insight into how recovering players are performing multidirectional actions compared to their pre-injury form.

Given European football’s financial fair play restrictions, is technology and player tracking an area where clubs can gain an edge, particularly given its uses for academy teams and development programs?

For sure. Clubs are always looking for ways to gain a competitive advantage, and player tracking is a tool that all clubs are currently using in some shape or form to that end. Clubs will also use the technology and data findings to suitably develop players to meet the physical demands required by competition. Players who remain with a club from the academy level can be tracked to measure and monitor physical capacities at each stage through the development process. Current player-tracking systems can give part of the story, but Sportlight delivers hyper-accurate physical data and deeper player insights.

For example, Sportlight’s LiDAR-based technology enables practitioners to create force-velocity profiles from sport-specific match and training data. This helps a practitioner to understand what development is required on the force-velocity continuum, and determine how a player compares within a team and positional context. Once the profile has been established, it can be tracked over six-month periods to determine how a player is responding to any training interventions. Using the FVP over time can also determine how senior players are performing and whether they are sustaining their established physical profile. In any case, these enhanced tracking capabilities can greatly aid a club’s decision-making processes across the board.

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