Analytics & Data

Sports Analytics and Data Science: Psychology Explained

Explore insights from Hugh Gilmore on the connection between data science, athlete psychology, and coach development for improved performance.
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‍_A Guide by Hugh Gilmore, Sports Psychologist at British Weightlifting_

// Introduction

This article will challenge you to reflect on your decision making process, as a coach or practitioner. More importantly, it will make you aware of quantitative fallacy, the key pillars of goal setting and a useful exercise to create a shared mental model with your athletes. My aim is to help you become more effective at making decisions when working with athletes. Let’s begin with a story.

I first came across this fallacy when working with a Marathon de Sable’s competitor.  The marathon des sables for those who do not know, is 6 marathons over 6 days, across the Sahara Desert.  There is a catch though, you are on your own, you have to carry everything you need for the week (tent, water, food etc.). Before the race sets off there is a gear check. You are not allowed to leave the start line without a venom pump, medical kit, flare, enough water and calories to sustain yourself. When you sign the waiver to say that you are responsible for yourself on this competition, they mean it! Personal responsibility is one of the highest ideals. No excuses, you are responsible for your decisions.

What mistakes do people make in their judgement? They make decisions solely around quantity. They pick a number, and they think that it equates to performance.  Some competitors fixate on pack weight and find ways to reduce their pack by every single thread; unstitching logos from bags, cutting off unnecessary straps, calculating what the most energy dense food per gram so they can meet the stringent minimum requirements. Conversely, other competitors make the decision to focus on maximising quantity of food and water.

Both these approaches have the same fallacy being played out; focusing overly on a specific quantity, at the expense of missing the whole picture and being blind to quality. Humans can measure quantity easily; it is comfortable for us to compute and understand. That is why we often spend time overvaluing it because it gives us certainty, especially when under pressure in a performance situation.

In a race across a desert that breaks the most elite athletes in the world there is no certainty. Trying to control the outcome by over-controlling in other areas produces hazardous outcomes. Those who over pack end up stopping to throw out extra kit, while those who under pack at the end of the first day’s race, if they make it, can be seen bartering anything they can for extra food and water.

Marathon de Sables; 6 Marathons, 6 Days, in the Sahara Desert.

Marathon de Sables; 6 Marathons, 6 Days, in the Sahara Desert.

This is a mistake that all of us can make, thinking that numbers count and forgetting the importance of quality and its systemic and holistic effects. It doesn’t take much time in a gym to see versions of quantitative fallacy being played out on the bench squat or deadlift. But let us understand this fallacy. It occurs in the gym because we are biased to things that are tangible. There is a drive to see what is changed and improved, and as a result we focus on the number.

From a training perspective we know that when people chase personal bests in training, they can sacrifice quality in the movement or the quality of the entire training session just for a personal best. The obvious scenario in a session where someone is benching after squatting and pushing for a personal best on the bench. They may be motivated to slack off in the squats prior to bench to help the likelihood of achieving their bench record. In this scenario it’s a perfect example of how a training decision can be made by an athlete when the athlete or coach has over emphasised the quantitative importance of a single number.

// What Do I Do To Avoid Falling Into This Trap?

Become Aware Of Three Features Of Goal Setting:

1 // Maladaptive Goals:

Maladaptive goals, when achieved or worked towards, may be contraindicated to the overall end goal, for example weight loss is not necessarily always beneficial or a maladaptive goal may expose tan athlete to injury risk.

2 // Goal Blur:

Goal blur is when a person sets numerous goals without taking into account their resources to achieve them. It becomes impossible to keep all these plates spinning.  Therefore, it is important to have both clarity and priority in one's deciding of goals. For example, is the velocity the weight moves at more important than the weight, sets and reps and vice versa?

3 // Attentional Blindness:

Attentional blindness is when people focus on one thing, most likely something that grabs attention by changing or by being a hazard. For example, you as a coach continually see an athlete not making progress from a skill perspective but fail to notice the progress in other areas in the athlete's training. You become blind to things outside of that which have your attention. This is similar to quantitative fallacy, but a broader bias or processing flaw that humans have.

// What Next?

If you focus solely on the numbers, you lose the quality. If you focus on too many things you get goal blur, and if you are focusing on one thing you can fail to see the risks and rewards of the bigger picture.

Because you have now read this article, you think you are more educated about these blind spots, and less likely to make these mistakes. This is not the case. Because you have read this article you are more likely to assume you are now immune to these bias’. Unfortunately, biases are automatic features of quick habitual thinking.  You can only combat bias if you become procedural and logical in your thinking.

// Nested Goals And Shared Mental Model: Combating Quantitative Fallacy And Maladaptive Goals.

How Does What You Coach Nest Into The Athlete’s Goals And The Programs Goals?

The author, High Gilmore, suggests the following exercise:

  • Write down your goals for the athletes then ask them to write down their training goals.   Then compare (show yours after you see there’s, that stops them writing what you think and gets them to think).
  • After comparing, ask yourselves; in 3-5 years’ time will what we are doing today get me to where we want to be?
  • This procedure will help you build a shared mental model. You get clarity of what they know and think their goals are, and you can compare what they think, to what your expertise would advise.  This is a perfect opportunity to educate an athlete why you use quantitative measures of fatigue or velocity for example as part of ensuring quality control.
  • Together you can then prioritise, combatting goal blur.
  • When doing the “Nested Goal Process” you might find you or your athlete has too many goals.  A simple way to deal with this is:
  • 1 “Need to have” per day,  1 per week, & 1 per training block
  • 1 “Nice to have” per day, 1 per week  & 1 per training block
  • The consequences of doing everything is nothing usually gets done. A technique from psychotherapy to build confidence is never planning to do anything in the next two weeks that you and the athlete are not 80+% confident will be successful.  This ensures that you are most likely to be successful in your endeavour.  From a strategy point of view, it’s the number of successful weeks you have that make a good training program. Some people might look at the above and say that is too simple. Well yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to do.  If you have an athlete that can prioritise more than two things, sure do that. But remember if your plan is not being acted on by the athlete, it is the wrong plan for that athlete. This is where keeping good training data and accurate measurements of training loads can provide accurate data to see if your plan is the athlete’s priority.

Attentional Blindness

Attentional blindness is often an emotionally driven bias.  A great way to combat this is to separate the facts from the judgement. Judgements are laden with emotion and values.

Take this example:

●  Judgement: Susan’s squat annoys me because she still does not hit depth.

●  Fact: Susan did not hit depth in the squat on that rep.

Next time you think you are getting frustrated, annoyed or overly happy as a coach, ask yourself what the facts are, because emotions come from judgements about facts and not directly from facts. This technique again seems simple but is not easy and takes practice. As I often say “Anger” is only one letter away from “Danger”.

// Key Takeaways

Your processes are why you are successful, and hopefully this article has given you pause to consider how you relate your process to your athlete’s progress. The numbers do count, but you have to make the decisions to ensure they are the right numbers and also consider the qualitative at the same time. Do not get blinded by quantity and forsake quality, both are integral and implementing systems to ensure you consider both is essential to effective decision making, and this is what we will discuss in part 2 of this article series.

// How Can This Article Help Me Use Output Sports Data More Effectively?

An Afterword From Dr. Martin O’reilly, Output CEO

Output Sports technology is diversely capable. The system offers over 100 different assessments, each which produce multi-variable performance metrics which objectively quantify an athlete’s performance of such tasks e.g. stability and duration in balance tasks or force, power, work and velocity variables in every rep of a weightlifting programme. Such objective data can be highly useful in combatting attentional blindness and subjective bias. However, it is crucial that when you work with athletes towards a goal in a training cycle or programme that you create a shared understanding of a key task and key variable that represents success in achieving and trending towards that goal. In this article, psychology expert High Gilmore suggests a simple and effective framework for nested goal setting:

  • 1 “Need to have” per day,  1 per week, & 1 per training block
  • 1 “Nice to have” per day, 1 per week  & 1 per training block

Whilst working with your athletes to develop clear shared goals through Hugh’s suggested method, there is also a tremendous opportunity to agree and educate the athlete on key exercises and measurements which represent this goal and monitoring methods which can help optimise progression towards this goal. Let’s take an 18 year old academy rugby player, where a needs-analysis has shown a requirement to build more lower-limb power to compete at the first-team level. There are likely hundreds of Output Sports variables and measurements which could capture an element of this goal, and inform the coach on an athlete’s progress towards it (hang-cleans, squats, deadlifts, countermovement jumps, reactive strength tasks, speed, agility…… the list goes on). Utilising this diverse set of measures and exercises in your programming and decision making could be incredibly useful for you as the coach, however for the athlete trying to inform them on every variable and every exercise could drown them in data and cause confusion or goal blur. Therefore, for each goal you set with an athlete, we recommend a simple framework:

The “Need to haves”: for the coach and athlete

For each goal per week/training block:

  • Agree 1 testing day exercise and 1 key variable from this task which represents success and progress towards the goal. Utilise this task and variable at the start and end of a programme and at key milestone intervals within the programme e.g. at end of each microcycle. e.g. the rugby player will intuitively understand that countermovement jump height strongly links to their lower limb power. You could even frame the key goal specifically around this exercise and variable e.g. we are aiming for +4 cm increase in countermovement jump height.

For each goal per training day:

  • Agree 1 key monitoring variable per key exercise in each training day of your programme. Do not feel the need to also quantify auxiliary exercises with the athlete e.g. on a squat day focus on mean power during working sets, on a hang-clean day focus on peak power during working sets. It is crucial that the athlete understands the importance of these key variables and metrics, in order to avoid any over focus on the key training block exercise and variable.

With the above choices it is essential to educate the athlete on the importance of these exercises and why the chosen variables matter. It is also essential that the chosen exercises and variables are truly representative of progress, effort and reward towards the primary goal. This will ensure avoiding the quantitative fallacy trap. In the absence of this, the rugby athlete may focus on the wrong numbers e.g. weight on the bar for every lift.

It is also highly recommended that you use these key exercises and variables to aid objective and effective communication with the athlete throughout the programme. How often have you heard athletes sigh that they seem to have a million data points collected on them but it never gets fed back to them? Focusing on key variables and exercises, eliminates this and can create a great culture and buy-in with your organisation.

The “Nice to haves”: the coach’s additional insights

When used correctly, data is the key to providing insights for effective decision making. For the practitioner, there may be an array of auxiliary exercises, metrics and data points which can help you more effectively understand your athletes and help optimise their performance e.g. you may find great benefit through analysing an athlete’s range of motion, Work, Force and Power in combination in each lift in the athlete’s programme. Output allows you to dive deeper in to the data when needed to help you make programming and coaching decisions. However, for most athletes keeping each training cycle focused around clearly understood key goals, exercises and metrics could be most effective.

…An extra take-home message:

You often hear us refer to Output as a ‘Swiss-army-knife” tool equipping you to truly understand and optimise athlete performance. When setting goals with athletes, consider what part of this multi-purpose tool will allow you and the athlete to effectively achieve this current goal most effectively… and then get started working towards the ‘Output’ of most relevance and importance.

// About The Author

Author sportsdtat.png

Hugh Gilmore from Podium Psychology is an applied sports psychologist currently working with elite level athletes preparing for the upcoming Olympic Games including British Athletics and British Weightlifting. Hugh holds an undergraduate degree in sports and exercise sciences and a masters in applied sports and exercise psychology, and is a trainer in motivational interviewing for performance.  Hugh is also an accredited sports psychologist with the Irish Institute of Sport & BASES.

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