Live stats on big screens and preventing player burnout: the future of GPS data in the GAA

“THIS GAME OF Gaelic football has been infiltrated by a load of spoofers and bluffers, fellas with earpieces stuck in their ear, psychologists, statisticians, dieticians…”

RTE’s Pat Spillane.

Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Sunday Game pundit Pat Spillane was clearly a statistics sceptic back in 2013 and five years on, his scepticism has hardly subsided. But the GAA, and the inter-county game in particular, is only becoming more acutely analysed by the day.

Spillane’s scepticism largely sits along generational lines. While the Kerry legend and former footballers of his vintage yearn for the days of traditional formations, one-on-one match-ups, high fielding and long kick passing, the game has moved well past that point.

It remains to be seen whether football’s experimental rules will improve the game as a spectacle and see a return to the old ‘catch and kick’ style of yesteryear. But football and hurling are data-rich sports and statistical analysis has become a key component of most county set-ups around the country.

Newry-based sports technology company STATSports are the market leaders in elte sports wearables. The Irish firm, established by Alan Clarke and Sean O’Connor in 2007, supplies its monitoring devices and technology to a number of Europe’s leading soccer clubs including Barcelona, Juventus, Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool, while the English FA are also clients.

They work with the IRFU and all four provinces, the English RFU, in addition to southern hemisphere franchises like Super Rugby’s Chiefs. 

STATSports are popular in North America too. Earlier this year the company signed a mega five-year €1.14 billion deal with the US Soccer Federation. Their NFL clients include the Carolina Panthers, Cincinnati Bengals and Oakland Raiders, while on the NBA front the likes of the New York Knicks Charlotte Hornets, Portland Trail Blazers and Washington Wizards are signed up.

STATSports have started to infiltrate the GAA market too. Back in October, they announced new deals with Armagh and Mayo footballers, plus the Waterford hurlers.

Kicking Wednesday off with some good news. We're delighted to officially announce new long-term partnerships with:@LFC ✅@Arsenal ✅@Armagh_GAA ✅@MayoGAA ✅ #ChangingTheGame pic.twitter.com/STM1ibnRmD

— STATSports (@statsports) October 31, 2018

Dublin footballers and hurlers are existing clients, as are the Galway, Tipperary and Clare hurling sides, in addition to Louth and London footballers. Multiple other inter-county sides are currently trialling the system ahead of 2019 and the list is expected to grow further before the league rolls around.

All inter-county referees are tracked by STATSports, while they were involved with the 2017 International Rules team and the recent Fenway Hurling Classic in Boston. 

Patrick Hogan of STATSports at a USA international soccer camp.

Source: John Dorton Photography:

But what data do STATSports actually provide?

They focus on the physical data of players that are captured through GPS trackers that players wear in vests underneath their jersey. The units measure a player’s physical output during a game.

The GPS units have become vital for sports scientists, who can track hundreds of different physical categories during games. The key metrics include total distance covered, high-intensity distance ran, top speed, number of sprints, the number of accelerations/decelerations and much more. 

“Our big selling point is our live iPad app,” said the company’s Senior Sports Scientist Patrick Hogan.

Hogan joined STATSports in July 2017 and has a vast experience of working with GAA teams. He’s currently the account manager for Waterford and Louth, while he also works with the English RFU, the Chiefs and Liverpool FC.

“Our live monitoring capabilities comes into its own,” he continues. “You can have an iPad app on the side of the field that’s not connected to anything.

What teams do with the metrics is up to them. That’s the key point. We try to provide an education to clients about how to use the data effectively but it’s totally up to themselves what they look at. It’s important you pick your key metrics and look at them.”

The majority of inter-county managers are fed live data during games. STATsports present the data in a simple understandable manner through the app. If a player is tiring or the team is being overrun in an area of the field, the management can make the necessary changes quickly.

Live Data Screenshot on the STATSports iPad App.

It’s used in training sessions too, where the load can be tracked and monitored throughout a season.

“It’s just free to be as involved in the session as you want. In GAA you don’t always have the resources to have someone sitting at a laptop at the side of the field in every training session. So you get all the metrics, you can get those live and in real time on the pitch for the whole session and for any given drill as well.

“So you can press stop and start on a drill and say, ‘Right this is the intensity of this drill and this is what we’ve covered in this drill.’ So if you’re playing a 15-on-15 game at the end of a session, you can say, ‘We’re up at 100 metres per minute, if we keep this game going for eight minutes this will be our total distance for the session and if we keep the game going for 12 minutes this will be our total distance by the end of the session.’

You can see the max speed a player has reached live in training. If exposing players to max speed is important, which for a lot of strength and conditioning coaches it would be to get them up above 85% or 90% of max speed at least once a week, then they can see how close they are to hitting those targets.

“If you look at your matchday data you can look at the average demand of the game. We’ve also a feature in the software of the max intensity period function that lets you see what’s the worst-case scenario that a player might cover.

“On average a midfielder in Gaelic football might cover 120 metres per minute on average throughout the half. Whereas in their worst-case scenario they might be up around 220 metres per minute or higher again.

“So if you know the worst case scenario you’re going to face in a game then you can go about designing your drills and training sessions to replicate and put that stress on the player.”

Units that were used at the Fenway Hurling Classic.

In an era where many players play on multiple club, county and school or college teams at the same time, could the GPS units be used to help alleviate player burnout and prevent overuse injuries from occurring?

“Injury is a multi-faceted thing but GPS is a big piece of the puzzle,” says Hogan. “It tells you what you’ve done. That’s it in a nutshell. It’s not going to predict and prevent every single injury that’s going to occur, it doesn’t work like that.

“It’s a case of looking at the data and saying, ‘We can periodise and plan what we’re going to do so we’re not exposing players to loads they can’t tolerate.’

If players aren’t doing a whole pile and then all of a sudden they get a spike in their load with a huge training week, then that can put them at increased risk of injury. If you’re using it every week you can monitor their training load. That’s what all of our clients in GAA and worldwide – professional football and rugby teams – are all doing.

“You can make your plan and say you’d like to be having sessions with this amount of volume and this amount of intensity on this day of the week. Coaches will tend to use drills they like over and over again so you know what any given drill is going to contribute to a session. You can use it to plan out sessions and try hit your desired levels of volume and intensity for any time of the year.

“As well you’re making sure you can’t do too much in the run-up to the game. It’s all at the discretion of the S&C coach and the management team.”

Hogan live tracking data in the Red Sox Dugout at the Fenway Hurling Classic.

STATSports have recently rolled out the Apex Athlete Series, which allows individuals to track their load like the professionals.

The major challenge with monitoring training load in the GAA is it’s not a perfect world. The professional footballer, for instance, will rarely do a pitch session away from the club. All the time he’s on the field with the club, he’s being monitored with the Apex unit. Even when he goes on international camp, he’ll be monitored with the Apex unit on camp.

Hogan continues: “The GAA inter-county player, if he plays a match with his college or his club, he’s not being monitored in that session or game unless the county’s S&C coaches give him the GPS units to wear. That’s just part of working with a county team but clear communication between the player and management team about external training is vital.

It’s for individuals who are interested in monitoring their own training load. We’ve definitely had interest from GAA players who are playing on lots of different teams but there isn’t that communication where if the player turns up to one session and the coach doesn’t know if he played a match or did a hard session with the football team the night before.

“Down the line we’d be hoping it could be used in that scenario. With that app you get a graph of the load you’ve done every day of the week. If that player has done an awful lot of work earlier in the week maybe he might be better off doing an easier session or sitting out some of the harder training later in the week.”

Half Time Data on the screen at Fenway Classic.

Hogan attended the recent Fenway Hurling Classic in Boston to track the data from the four squads, which he fed to the big screen at Fenway Park and to TG4 to go out live on air.

It proved a huge success, both with supporters at the venue and viewers at home. Providing such data for the TV broadcast is commonplace in US Sports and Hogan believes adds greatly to the viewer’s experience.

We had an agreement with the GAA. They invited us over and what they wanted was data to go up on the big screen and out live on TG4. All players on all four teams more GPS units and then certain key players were selected for their data to go up on the big screen. We had total distance, number of sprints and the maximum speed reached.

“We got an awful lot of really positive feedback on that. People were very interested to see the stats and to compare players. Stats are such a big part of American sports. I was interested to hear there was a really positive attitude from GAA people towards sharing data and putting it up on the big screen.”

While there will always be Pat Spillanes complaining about the use of modern technology, it may not be long before fans are using second screens on smartphones, tablets and laptops to see the running stats from each team or even the tactical shape of both sides during a game. 

People tend to think it will give someone else the competitive advantage to know that Dan Morrissey has run whatever distance, but it doesn’t really. It’s more of a fan engagement sort of thing where people appreciate what’s going on on the field and the work that’s going in.”

“It worked really well and we’d be hoping to get more data up on big screens and get data out on the broadcast.”

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