Friday, December 21, 2012

[Guest Article] Moneyball Madness by Carl Valle

Moneyball Madness 
by Carl Valle

“IMA, Inertial Movement Analysis, will triple the amount of basketball relevant data... that kind of tool is going to make a real difference.”
-Catapult Sports

Data is now the new currency for medical and performance staff, and the real question is - are we really doing what we think we are?  As the social media landscape paints a distorted view of reality, the hard truth is where are we now before we ask where are we going. Like any honest reflection, it's better to look back years before Moneyball and ask if we are being truthful with what we are doing now first before adding more responsibility of training and medical data. Every week a new online article or interview of a sports team creates a facade of utopian training environments and medical staff that are brighter than Dr. Gregory House. If we are to truly evolve, the most important starting process is creating transparency with what is happening at this moment. Before we can start claiming to create proprietary metrics and innovative algorithms, are we doing a good job with the basics? With pop culture clamoring for kindle or iPad versions of the Signal and the Noise by Nate Silver, we should likely be reading how the muscular system signals adaptation before thinking outside the box and being cute.  Global warming and predicting who the next president is going to be is brain candy for professionals, but we must master the core concepts of what we are responsible for directly before expanding to other fields for radical solutions.

Dr. House

I would argue the real problem with data is not the data itself, it's who is filtering the information and retelling the story of what is happening. It's far more interesting to talk about the left ventricle and hypertrophy with "cardiac" output rather than share the pains of soccer players having an allergy to iron and avoid the weight room.  Even if one was increasing thickness of the heart, how much is going to really change with a professional athlete that is 30 years old? Now that the GPS craze is a pandemic in the US with every team lined up to get a catapult system, how many of the teams are doing the basics well, such as making sure full range pull-ups are enforced, running through the line during conditioning runs, and doing warm-ups with a purpose? Of course all of us are not having problems with athletes eating poorly and not stretching with gusto, it's just the other teams that are not doing it right.

When the basics become boring, training must be reinvented or bastardized with new equipment and rather boarderline methods. Professional teams are buying 30,000  dollar force plates but for what reason? Half the time most teams are on the road and barely any of them are training besides foam rolling and clamshells exercises to activate glutes that sleepy . Speaking of shells, the professional has become a  shell game or gypsy ploy of equipment and methodologies to hide from the inconvenient truth with working with athletes. Sometimes they act human and don't do things we want them to do. Athletes are not race horses. Everyone is afraid of being the fall guy for injuries, teams are training like senior citizen "Sliver Sneakers" programs to avoid getting hurt. Yet most the injuries at the pro level are from being out of shape and weak from forgetting what got them there. Ironically several professional teams claim to have force plates to "crack the code" with movement patterns but injuries are not decreasing. The display of power by large purchases comes with the demands of keeping athletes healthy and performing, and looking at the physioroom updates online , hamstrings still get pulled.  No matter if the team is using  individualized thresholds with IBM smarter planet software or teams cracking the gode with special ratios of acceleration and deceleration during practice, people are still tearing ACLs.

Put the "Big Rocks" first - back to the basics

Much of the innovation is crippled now because every start-up company  wants the minimum viable product (MVP) to pitch funding to investors, not sell an actual product to teams looking for real tools and solutions. With coaches wanting to appear like they are doing something or ahead of the curve, they just "thin slice" a brief pilot study to create an illusion of evidence based approaches. Add in some nice data visualization practices and now everyone is getting subjective ratings, sleep data, and recovery profiles with their team. Of course this is only one week out of the year, as everything looses it's luster and the next big thing comes along.The real question is how much daily data teams are really getting that is meaningful. Random practices that are prepared for only tactical purposes collect heart rate data then summarize players with "technicolor dream coat " palettes with magical zones. The problem is that interventions should be good leg training, but somehow mutate to  TRX rows and breathing exercises versus finding more collaborative ways to work with team coaches so something is left to train the lower body. The only vocal complaints about products are the small minority  of people who train or collect data for extended time periods but are party poppers because they share the limits with the real world. With the next biomarker being tweeted by the gurus, the problem repeats with glorious failure, especially when players have season ending injuries making us wonder how the movement screen or core stability DVD is working.

Solving the problem with ornamental data is going to be hard and require widely adopted standards and a lot of transparency. What are people really doing objectively and is it working? Data can be exchanged for the word evidence, as numbers are not the only way to share what is going on. Video a practice session and the gut wrenching reality of so much being missed during the session is a reminder how much we need to do and can do as performance specialists. An overzealous team coach acting like a tyrant is the elephant in the room, as it forces strength coaches to play therapist, the the therapists play ER doctor. Yet nobody talks about it in a way that sounds like change will happen because job security is number one and this is understandable. Of course does it matter if an athlete's HRV is on a cartoony stoplight dashboard when the true problem is the athlete was out at the local night club during the playoffs?  Does it matter that the Apollo AMS system warned like a mayan prophet about the doom that could occur playing too many games a week when David Stern fines a team for resting players? Restgate!!!? Of course the short sided decision to sanction the Spurs was an example of doing the right thing doesn't fit the mindset of those that run the asylum of professional sports. What if the stars got hurt playing the Miami Heat?,  how would that help the next few games with tickets and TV ratings with Duncan and Parker out for 6-8 weeks?

If you want to kill the snake, make sure to cut the head first...

The first step is getting back to fundamentals and reading timeless texts on sport science and training theory. Reading about strength and conditioning or sports medicine? Too easy! Show me the next book on how the world is flat and everyone is an outlier.  It seems what is en vogue is reading a pop culture book that have very little to do what the core needs of coaching or medical demands of sport. The further away it is from our field, the more intelligent the blogger is to see the connections! Reading outside the box material does prevent inbreeding and I suggest it, but ironically everyone is reading the same book trying to appear creative or innovative but the act only exacerbates the issue of free thinking.  Many professionals are doing the same things because everyone is in the same ponzi scheme because of the all mighty dollar. Internet stardom is seductive and empowering, but being honest is not the best path to popularity. Classic works such as the Mechanics of Athletics from Dyson is 10 American dollars and have passed the test of time, but the new ebook on Quadratic Neuro Block Training is 49.99 (with bonuses for a limited time ) are pushed by every  website because of affiliate code back room deals all timed perfectly like a west coast offense.

Trendy vs. evergreen sources of info... 

The second step should be the first, admitting that a problem exists. I am guilty of the above and have had a hard time getting out of the intellectual brain candy and get back to the less exciting demands of doing attendance and setting up equipment before the athletes arrive, versus reading about parasympathetic balance and magic of fascia or manual therapy. It's hard to make sure athletes bring water bottles to practice or do exercises with passion versus letting things slide and hope one wins the talent lottery with next year's recruiting class or draft. It's not popular to do correct technique when the athlete doesn't care and have that  risky talk about the importance of training when nobody wants to be the bad guy. Most hope for a trade or final retirement of a diva because the athlete is producing and we all want to be popular with the athletes. While none of this is data management or analytics, any data coming from a bad culture or poor training environment is tainted and artificially cleaned up without the context of what is happening. It's not honest. It's convenient to list verticals because athletes are talented, but emotionally unsettling to know only 1 of 5 guys can squat to parallel with a decent load so we focus on the convenient and cherry picked positives.

The third step is likely to be boring and not enlightening , but the average coach is blinded by the obvious because of the glare of the glamorous. Getting player weight and body fat is tedious and not exciting, but after several high profile firings of team strength coaches we still have a problem there. The basics are not transparent. Attendance is a start, and basic fitness and power tests can measure simple adaptations or decay of abilities over time. No need for consulting the firms in the UK for the latest Athlete Management System when the data is similar to farming. Nobody stares at the pumpkin patch right after they water it, nor should people have that same approach to hypertrophy and other adaptations with training and rehabilitation. On the other hand many don't record anything of importance and use white boards like a cross fit WOD (workout of the day) yet claim random 8.8% gains in strength during NSCA conference powerpoint presentations?  I choose 5-8 key performance indicators before drilling down to more granular data points if needed.  Now the rise of big data from all the sensors and mobile devices is creating another fallacy that more is better and it's going to reveal the secrets of training.  With all of the sport sensors and video cameras collecting terabytes of data, it looks like we must hire experts in data warehousing to handle the "mounds of data" one is collecting during the season. I am wondering if we will see record boards of how much data we have next to the 400 pound bench club plaques.  Yet the problem Stephen Few has alluded to is not that we have too much data, it's the ability to distinguish what is the signal and noise.  With the New York Knicks having an extensive budget, internet pundits are collectively right with asking is this "Manhattan Lab" working with publicly reported injuries like three season ending knee injuries.  I don't follow the NBA closely enough to know the answer, but every claim of success should be reviewed with a fine toothed comb as it's always told by a biased voice. Even the best coaches are handcuffed to bad situations and can't fix problems that a good parent deals with on a daily basis.

The final step is having a elegant approach to data collecting and intervention strategies. I have the 4 S rule with sports data. Simple, Speed, Sexy,  and Sticky are the four basic needs that teams have with data. Simple is perhaps the hardest as most needs are complex, but adding complexity can spell doom. To stay simple without being too crude is very difficult as well, because convenience of simple sometimes will distill things too much and loose out on the precious baby in the bathwater. Speed is vital, as time is the only commodity we can't reproduce. With a finite and tight schedule, wasting time with extensive set-ups and cumbersome hardware and software. Speed means essential, not just velocity. Sexy sounds like unnecessary, but engaging athletes requires great style and design to sell the program. Athletes are not always fascinated with training or even naturally hardworking, so creative approaches of doing smart hard work is the core of what we do. Lousy User interfaces, bra like GPS shirts, dated wired technologies all create poor sex appeal to equipment as well as poor compliance. Collecting data from an athlete is very unnerving as nobody wants to be probed by aliens, never mind coaches, sport scientists, or medical professionals. It's always good to share what data you collected and come back to the athlete to have them involved. Collecting HRV is repetitive and boring, so education may not be enough to keep athletes inspired to be compliant and consistently getting morning wake data.  Getting cortisol from saliva is an experience that nobody wants to repeat unless it's a game changing process or very convincing to the athlete. Having them shove a large cotton tube in their mouth repeatedly is like eating saltine crackers in the desert, something I have experienced first hand and I am happy I am using smart shirts. Remember what it's like to be the athlete or end user. Finally sticky is sort of a combination of of the first three needs of collecting and analyzing data. Is it sustainable over time? The current dashboard or AMS system may be great to a neophyte, but the experienced coach knows that they need other less common demands like a solid API to passively collect data. What about the ability to have offline data when cellular coverage or wifi is unavailable or poor? It's amazing how teams worry about "military grade" security when iPads have no pin codes or when athletes are tweeting X-Rays after games! What are the real challenges? Hackers finding out FMS scores or reducing our dependance to pain killers?

The needs of technology today is to reduce unnecessary use of equipment and get to the heart of the matter. Working with people. Technology can be a simple as a good notebook and pen, or as advanced as a full wireless weight room with iPads and Gymaware units. It doesn't matter so long as the culture respects the process and buys into the program. Every year the same challenges of eating right and getting good sleep, showing up on time, and focusing on doing the tried and true is the biggest impact to getting athletes better.

1 comment:

  1. Carl,
    that last sentence is the crux of the matter. Technology either assists this, or distracts us from what is important.