Soccermetrics Interview #4: Craig Duncan (Part II)

This is Part II of the Soccermetrics Newsletter interview with Dr Craig Duncan, head of Human Performance at Sydney FC.  He has become an internationally-recognized authority in sports science, especially as it relates to player monitoring and maximizing the performance of elite athletes.[Interview originally conducted 3 August 2012.]

(Howard) Australian sport has a reputation of being driven by technological innovation.  The Australian Institute of Sport is very well known internationally. Does that reputation of innovation extend to Australian soccer?

(Craig) The AIS has been outstanding and has enhanced our sporting performance significantly. A number of us have had experience whether working at the AIS or the NSW Institute of sport and we have taken much of our knowledge gained in these environments into football. However, for reasons I can’t explain sport science has been ignored in recent years by our national federation.

Up to and including the World Cup in 2010 (South Africa) under the guidance of Dr Darren Burgess I fully believe we had one of the best examples of sports science anywhere in the World but times have changed. I am very fortunate at my club to have great support and I believe that we are “pushing the boundaries” in respect to sport science to ensure we maximise our players performance.

What holds back the implementation of technology — beyond goal-line technology — in football?

Football has many great traditions and with traditions comes reluctance to change. In many sports coaches have been previously successful as competitors in the sport that they are now coaching and with this sometimes comes the tendency to coach as they were coached. Thus, they may not have been exposed to sport science and other forms of technology etc. I have seen this in many sports where training has not evolved significantly over the years.

I also believe the attitude of those wanting to implement the technology has not been effective. If you are a sports scientist you can’t believe that the entire universe evolves around sport science. We have to understand we are a support department to the coaching staff NOT the Main Event. I suppose it all comes down to having effective communication skills and unfortunately many in my field do not and maybe this is why sports science sometimes gets a bad reputation.

One technological innovation that I suppose sports scientists would love to deploy is GPS tracking of players, but FIFA hasn’t legalized it.  Other sports such as Australian rules football and rugby have done so; I know you can’t speak for FIFA what in your opinion has made FIFA reluctant to allow that change?

FIFA have not banned GPS but it is banned because it comes under the rule that prevents a player from wearing anything that may cause danger to them or an opposing player. We have never seen such an injury from GPS so I think if a good proposal was presented to FIFA they would understand that there are many more benefits to players than risks.

We’re now at a point where sport teams have access to not just in-match tactical and technical data, but also physiological data in real-time.  How much of an influence will data scientists have in sport under this new scenario?

I think we are starting to have a very positive influence. I am not sure what the future holds and it depends if we can collectively work together with coaches and players to ensure teams reach their full potential. Our influence will be compromised if we don’t communicate our data effectively and demonstrate humility and respect. As a great athletic development coach (Vern Gambetta) said to me just the other day:  “Sport Science needs to be on TAP not on TOP”

Will it be possible to make correlations between a player’s physiological data and their in-match performance?

Yes I think this is possible now but will be even better as technology advances and if FIFA legalise the use of GPS in games. The physiological data must be integrated with game analysis data which is presently possible.

Is injury prediction from data a realistic possibility?

Yes I think this is a real possibility and many of us are working on this at present. Every day I look at pre training, in training and post training data from a perspective of injury prevention. My goal is to determine a statistical equation that does predict injury risk. I really don’t think it’s “rocket science” to achieve this it’s just a matter of collecting enough data and finding the relationships. We presently have a number of key indicators of injury risk but I need more data strengthen the relationships.

So what are you working on now?

It is pre season here so working very hard on getting our team ready for the competition phase of the season. My focus is on player monitoring and trying to find the predictors of injury so in the future our monitoring can be simplified to a number of key variables. I also have a strong interest in Analytics to improve performance and recruitment but again this is about determining what variables are we looking for.

Anything else you want to add or plug?

I think it’s important that we continually look outside our sport science square to advance our field. I believe that the advances in sport science and human performance in general will be from adapting theories and innovations from other fields be it medical, business, philosophy etc. I think we need to read broadly and get our blinkers off as I have seen simple everyday tasks completed in other fields that can have a huge impact on what we do. A simple example of this is in respect to data presentation and dashboards.


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