Sports practitioners, coaches and executives have been using information that can loosely be described as data in their everyday evaluations for some time now – including athlete height, weight and 40-yard or 100-meter dash times, among other measurements. But this information offers very little insight into an athlete’s abilities and true impact within the context of their games. Both the rank-and-file and power brokers involved in player talent evaluation are only just beginning to understand the current value, as well as the further potential, of data-driven scouting.
Current limitations include a lack of imagination on the part of some clubs – an inability to visualize a future in sports guided by vast amounts of data and accompanied by colossal processing power. It’s a scenario that is not only grounded in reality, but is also close at hand. A natural extension of sports’ recent advanced metrics revolution, this future has yet to be realized only because the amount and type of physical data – and the willingness of all parties to share it – hasn’t reached the necessary tipping point. But the technology to accurately record, aggregate and analyze this data has already arrived.
Traditional Scouting vs. Data-Driven Scouting
Harnessing granular and dynamic physical data is the next frontier in sports. It’s possible for a wide majority of coaches to evaluate an athlete in training, or for fans to watch a player in a televised game, and draw a similar conclusion: they’re good. Even a layman may arrive at a general sense that this athlete possesses certain technical skills that rate above those of his or her peers. But that’s precisely the extent of such an evaluation: a vague notion.
In any sport, comprehensive comparative physical data is critical to understanding an athlete’s current health, immediate and eventual potential, and how they measure up to others in their own league and other competition levels. This requires, first, a grasp of what to measure. In football, for example, speed, acceleration and change-of-direction quickness are a few of the basic athletic characteristics scouts will target for evaluation. It’s not just about the physical prowess but also understanding how a player copes with the anticipated demands of different game intensities and tactical scenarios. And because, as mentioned, the technological tools are already available for the accurate and fully inclusive monitoring of these characteristics – in both match and training settings – talent evaluators theoretically already have all the necessary elements on hand to optimize a data-driven scouting program. Or they will soon enough.
Building a Better Database
A significant challenge still exists based on the current databases used for talent evaluation. That is, they aren’t very good: the physical data across most leagues and sports is marked by gaping holes, or is unreliable due to outdated legacy technology or data aggregated across multiple systems. Again, although assessing an athlete’s overall performance is a relatively straightforward exercise, accurately gauging attributes such as speed, acceleration and deceleration – stronger indicators of individual skills and long-term potential – is a more technical process that demands cutting-edge data collection techniques and technology.
Consider: An English Premier League scout who evaluates a young Major League Soccer talent will have difficulty appreciating that player’s EPL potential while he is competing against comparatively slower MLS opponents. This challenge is magnified when assessing players from different leagues, considering factors such as game intensity and a player’s ability to adapt to varied tactical demands. The need for dependable and accurate physical data that helps describe a player’s abilities within any context – in other words, benchmarks – is required to help scouts determine whether that athlete has the tools to excel elsewhere.
At Sportlight, we have developed a performance-tracking system designed to do just that. Emerging technologies such as Sportlight offer the promise of a data-driven scouting solution, potentially revolutionizing the way sports organizations approach talent evaluation. As more clubs and leagues begin to embrace these technologies, collecting dynamic data and helping build larger, more insight-rich databases that can be shared by all, the more resources the best talent evaluators will have at their disposal, and the greater the growth potential of all our games will become.