The role of a Performance Analyst in Sports

What is the role of a Performance Analyst in Sport?

Performance analysis is the process of assessing performance in a sport to develop an understanding of actions that can inform decision-making, optimize performance and support coaches and players in their journey towards optimal results. In many team sports this would consist on tactical assessment, movement analysis, video and statistical databasing and modeling and coach and player data presentations.

A few years ago, the role of a Performance Analyst simply consisted on recording a training session or game and creating video highlights to provide to managers and players for review. Video recording and editing constituted the large majority of an analyst’s role. Today, the role of Performance Analysts has evolved where analysts now require a lot more expertise in numerous tracking hardware and software that the advances in technology have brought to the industry, allowing for more sophisticated data collection, storage and increased coaching demands for data presentation. With the growing phenomenon of ‘big data’, the large amounts of data collected in the world of sport requires analytical experts to handle, disseminate and generate insights from this data.

Performance Analysts are like any other member in the backroom staff of a sporting team. On game day, analysts require to capture all the actions happening on the pitch to later tag and create video playlists of each player for the following day. They would then have one on one sessions with players led by the management team to present and discuss clips showing mistakes and any positives from the match. Team sessions are also held to show the team video analysis of the game as a group, discussing offensive and defensive formations, tactical analysis and any relevant actions that need consideration by coaches. Players and coaches may also ask for one-off clips and analysis as they find appropriate to review specific areas relevant to them to focus their development and learning.

Through both notational and motion analysis an analyst is able to provide stats and recording to coaching staff about areas such as position of the ball, player movement and involvement, fatigue, work rate, time of a particular action and the outcome of such action. In recent years, tools such as Sportcode, Dartfish or Coach Paint, as well as third-party data and statistics companies such as Opta, allow analysts to retrieve, capture, code and analyse the necessary data point in the most effective way for their reports. These tools and the vast data now available through different sources have allowed analysts to better observe their team’s performance and identify strengths and weaknesses, analyse opposition performance to counteract strengths and exploit weaknesses as well as evaluate effectiveness of training programs in improving match performance.

Within the context of football, most Performance Analyst roles will consist on responsibilities such as:

  • Record matches and training sessions

  • Pre-match team and opposition analysis production

  • Live match-day coding and editing of match footage post-game to produce post match reports

  • Update statistical and video databases for trend analysis

  • Update training databases and logs post each sessionProduce content for classroom sessions (usually for Academy) and team de-briefs

  • Ensure the upkeep of all filming and video capture equipment

  • Analytical ad hoc duties as requested by the team’s Management

  • Delivery of feedback to staff and players

  • Creation of reports on various aspect of performance

  • Interpretation, analysis and dissemination of performance data

As modern-day performance analysis departments grow within clubs and sporting organizations, analyst roles are becoming more and more specialized in a subset of the functions a traditional analyst would have undertaken in the past. Roles such as scouting analyst, tactical analyst, research analyst, technical scout, training analyst or even goalkeeper analyst are emerging positions in the world of performance analysis within a modern sporting organization and while the reflect the importance of such roles in competitive sporting teams, they are also fading the previously clearer definition of the role of a performance analyst and its duties.

Why is a Performance Analysis function important for a team or sporting organisation?

Research has shown that coaches and players, like any other humans, recall fewer than half the important actions and movements that happen on the pitch. Emotions may run high and the more extremely positive or negative events may overshadow other tactically relevant insights that occurred during the game. Collecting match information through video recording helps remove those biases and provide a more objective view of what happened on a game. Performance Analysts collect data from all the events happening on the pitch and create relevant metrics, either through coaches’ requests or by their own assessment, to show players and coaches on what went well and what went wrong.

The basis of coaching consists on assessing athlete performance, identifying areas of improvement, feeding back information to athletes, managing practices to convert the weaknesses into strengths and reassessing performance after a certain period of time or number of practices. With a Performance Analyst by their side, a coach can obtain the right level of information and performance insights in the early stages of the cycle to help them manage team and player development a lot more effectively. The work of a Performance Analyst can surface much sooner improvement areas and strengths of a player and team to allow coaches provide feedback to the team with a deeper level of understanding of how each individual in their team is performing. A good partnership between coaching staff, players and analysts can develop a player to their full potential and make a coach become a better coach through structured training sessions and more informed decision-making.

As technology and analytics advances in today’s society, so it does in the sporting industry. Data availability is growing rapidly with company’s like Opta offering third-party data and statistics on every game and player in major professional sports, allowing more and more teams to obtain access to their opponents recent performances, tactical decision, player profiles and more data points to enable them to generate a competitive advantage over opposition teams. In this new era of data, coaches and teams need analyst to help them navigate through all the information, manage and maintain the team’s databases and use performance analysis software to code the games, edit footages from the camera, extract data from providers like Opta and more technical skills that they would have imagined in the past. Failing to do so could mean that your team’s next rival might know more about your strengths and weaknesses that you might do about theirs. Your club could also fall behind in the advancements of performance optimization other clubs in the same competition are following to succeed.

The outcome of a good performance analysis means a well-defined coaching plan to improve a team’s or individual athlete’s performance. A coach can interpret a report or piece of analysis from its Performance Analyst to make adjustments to the team’s practices and tactical structure depending on the findings discovered. These pieces of analysis are intended to act as a valuable asset to coaches or players to make any decision for the following match, and have now become a strict requirement for any elite sporting organisation.

What skills are required to be a successful performance analyst?

The nature of a Performance Analyst in comparison to any other analyst role in a different industry is the sport element. Sports operate within extremes by default, and this is reflected in the day-to-day life of an analyst. The highs are higher and the lows are lower than many other  analytical positions. Long hours, short turnarounds, last minute requests and high standards and expectations are the norm in a field were everyone in a team, from players to any member of staff, is expected to give 110%.

Having said that, there are certain traits and hard skills a Performance Analyst is required to have to succeed in the field:

Knowledge of the sport. A key difference between a statistician and an analyst is the use of contextual information in order to generate insights. As a Performance Analyst you need to understand what’s important and what’s not in the sport you are analyzing, not only for the team to be successful but also for the particular coaching style of the team management. What is the coach aiming to get out his players? Tactical awareness, players, other coaches, club philosophies and history can help the Performance Analyst successfully contribute to the team’s success.

Building relationships with coaches. An analyst is part of the backroom staff of a team. This means that, like with any team, having a good relationship with coaches and players is crucial to gaining their trust and receiving credit for the work done, or even being heard. It may take up to 4 years for an analyst to appropriately settle in an elite professional team. An analyst needs to perfectly understand what the coaches want at every time and be able to accurately give them insights and information in a timely manner. Most of today’s analyst work consist on supplying whatever information the coaching staff is requesting for.

Effectively reacting to feedback. In line with building relationships with coaches is the ability to adapt the work produced to the needs, or even tastes, of the coaching staff and players. An analyst might spend hours immerse in in-depth data analysis and may produce very detailed pieces of analysis. However, coaches and other staff need insights in an understandable and useable way that is easy for them to apply during planning and decision-making.

Data consciousness. With numerous sources of data available, whether is from a third-party or collected internally, an analyst needs to be able to identify which data points are useful and which ones are redundant for every piece of analysis or report being produce. They also need to be able to assess the accuracy and reliability of such data by having an advanced level of knowledge of how the data used has been collected, stored or retrieved. Mishandling data sets may lead to inaccurate reports being produce that can mislead coaches and players.

Presenting your analysis reports. Depending on the club’s philosophy or coaches’ trust, analysts are required to provide a walkthrough explanation of their findings to coaches, players or team manager. Being able to clearly articulate the finding to a coach can give an opportunity for analysts to generate trust and establish themselves within the coaching team. Being a good communicator is essential for an analyst to demonstrate their work to players and coaches.

Analytical hard skills. Needless to say an analyst needs to be equip with enough technical knowledge on various analytics software and programming language, from basics like Excel to more advanced SQL, R or Python coding. Maths, IT and research and analytical skills to produce and understand complex data is essential Data visualization is also a key part in the role therefore proficiency in tools like Tableau are crucial to present findings in a easy-to-understand manner.