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Sportlight Conversations: Matt Cook

Matt Cook is a respected sports scientist and strength & conditioning coach who currently serves as director of physical performance, medicine and analysis at Barnsley FC in South Yorkshire, England.

Cook worked under former Crystal Palace manager while both were with Manchester City, and also has experience working with New York City FC and the United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association. A conversation with Cook delved into key differences across levels of professional football, scrutinized player tracking technologies and revealed his keen interest in change of direction and turns.

You’ve worked for football clubs at many different levels. What are some of the similarities and differences for a performance practitioner in terms of resources such as tech and data and approaches across these levels?

Prior to working in football, I was with British Olympic Swimming and England Squash for many years, and we started to develop technologies, gain greater insights into optimal technique and better understand athlete workloads. However, the indoor athlete-tracking technology was a far cry from what it is now, and I spent many hours trawling through data.

While I was head of sport science at Manchester City’s Academy 10 years ago, we started to use available testing and tracking technology across age groups. We also employed probably one of the first “talent scientists” in football to analyze the data and create player and positional profiles, as well as help identify and manage players through significant periods of growth and maturation. The resources available at Manchester City meant we were further ahead in this area than the clubs I went on to work for in America and France – at least when I first arrived. However, the appetite for the potential cost-effective benefits that investment in data and technology could have on the clubs meant that increasing levels of resources began to be devoted to this area, and many clubs are now investing heavily. I currently work for a club in League One, and I can see not only our club but also many others making significant strategic investments in the area of data and technology to try to gain a competitive advantage. As a result, it will be those who best understand and make use of these investments that will gain the advantage.

From the perspective of a club and a performance practitioner, how valuable is the ability to accurately track player change of direction and turns?

The technology to track basic running metrics such as total distance in different speed zones has been around for a long time. This information gives us some insight into the demands on players during football matches, but it fails to account for the very significant workload that comes from changing direction. If we were to take some of the basic match-based statistics and convert them into a straight-line run, for example, most players would find it very easy to cover 12 kilometers in a 90-minute jog (or, more accurately, 2 x 45 minutes with a 15-minute break), even if it also involved a kilometer of high-speed running (above 5.5 meters per second) and 200 meters of very high-speed running (above 7 m/s).

However, if a player achieved these figures during a match, I would expect them to be very tired. This is because of the very significant additional fatigue that results from players turning, which traditional tracking systems are unable to record. Similarly, simply accessing how many accelerations and decelerations a player makes above certain thresholds fails to capture the demands of changing direction and the very significant role that the angle of direction change plays. The ability to track both the frequency and magnitude (entry velocity and angle) of changes in direction provides us with very significant additional insight into both the demands of different playing positions, the individual characteristics of each player and the player’s workload.

Is there a component of performance that is still difficult to track that you would like to see solved?

Advances in player tracking, such as the development of Sportlight’s tracking and management system, represent a big step forward, as they give us a much better understanding of players’ output during training and matches. I think the next stage in player tracking is to understand more about the internal responses to these outputs. A player may produce very similar output metrics in two different matches, for example, but if they are more fatigued prior to one of them, the internal physiological response could be much greater. There are some technologies in this space, such as heart rate variability, but nothing that I think fully captures the complete physical and physiological cost (e.g., neural, muscular and metabolic) responses to playing.

Do most professional football clubs currently have the data they need to theoretically optimize performance?

Currently, club practitioners are working hard to help players optimize their performance with the information that they have available. But as I mentioned, the inability to assess internal physiological responses is a limitation. The ability to combine the accurate assessment of external physical output using technology such as Sportlight with the internal physiological responses will be a big step forward in helping clubs and players optimize their performance.

Ultimately, the clubs that currently come the closest to optimizing performance with the data available are those that are the best at sharing the information internally, distinguishing the important data form the “noise,” integrating it with the relevant non-measurable information and involving everybody who is important in the decision-making process. As more technology and data become available, I think this process will remain the key as we seek ever higher levels of performance.

Do you consider LiDAR-based tracking systems to have an advantage over the legacy tech?

I think the LiDAR-based tracking systems have two key advantages when compared to traditional technology. First, they have been shown to be more accurate, particularly at high movement speeds. Second, they allow a thorough analysis of the magnitude and angle of changes of direction that occur in a match, enhancing our understanding of the game and individual players. This can be used to improve both the specificity and volume of training exercises that we prescribe.

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