The relationship between the Sport Ireland Institute and SAS, the global data technology company, took years to come together and the benefits of what they are doing together are based on the horizon rather than the immediate present but they are very much worth it.
Yesterday we looked at some of the detail around the programmes that are coming to life ahead of next year’s Olympic ambitions in Swimming and Boxing.
Today in the second of a four-part series we look at why the sides came together in the first place.
We sat down for a wide-ranging chat with Sport Ireland CEO Liam Harbison and SAS Senior Director of Consulting and Professional Services for SAS UK & Ireland, Scott Comber and Marketing Director Rachel Lockwood.
SfB: Tell us a little about the history of SAS
SC: SAS is primarily a business service but has been involved in sport and teams for a long time.
We have a variety of links into teams in the NBA and elsewhere around their engagement with fans. What we have here now in Ireland is a look at how analytics and visualisation can improve sporting performance as well as the business of sport.
We have been in existence for over 40 years and we are very keen on what we can do to make things better through data.
RW: Data is everywhere. It’s a question of what we can do to make organisations better through understanding the benefits that can come from analysis.
We have always had a strong sense of corporate responsibility and the impact of what we do on us all as people. Machine learning and AI are important parts of the business but we never forget the human side.
One of our first historic projects was analysing the impacts of crop rotation. What could be more human than the need to improve food production?
Sport is very much a human endeavour and we want to work with Sport Ireland to see how that can be enhanced through better use of data points.
SfB: Is this a first for SAS?
RW: We have worked with leading rugby teams, with British Rowing and more but this is an exciting departure with a very forward-looking Sport Ireland Institute.
SfB: The benefits of data for business are clear, whether in algorithm-based sales of financial trading. Sporting performance and the many different elements that make up a good one is less of a straight line. Is that difficult to map?
SC: We had a recent SAS customer event recently where a former NBA star spoke of how sport away from the spotlight was actually quite boring. It is about the repetition of tasks, marginal improvements and working hard in a narrow framework to get better at what you do.
In that sense sport and business can be very similar and the gains that come from analysis of data are obvious. It’s like how Strava helps to make individuals cycle or run better by showing them what they have achieved and helping identify some of the factors that help them go quicker.
RW: A performance director we have worked with said that we have any amount of data but it is how we explain that data that makes the real difference. It’s providing another level of advanced performance preparation.
SC: I was talking to a commentator in Cricket recently and we spoke of how even in a sport like his where numbers of runs and balls bowled are very objective, there is another psychological impact on the partnership at the crease at any one time.
We provide the platform to look at data inside out and upside down. But it’s a help really in terms of how that can be applied by individual coaches working with individual athletes.
SfB: How does the relationship work between the two organisations?
LH: The Institute is here as a conduit between SAS and the Performance directors that we work with. It is a central resource and over the course of the partnership, we will develop four individual projects, each one of which we hope will have a real impact for individual sports.
The first two of those are up and running with swimming and boxing. We will learn from each of those and we will continue to develop the tools of visualisation based on the reaction of those that are benefitting.
SfB: How much can you talk about it in advance?
LH: Well yes we want to make sure that the benefits we gain are seen in actual competition.
It’s been a very important part of the relationship that we both recognise it is not for a quick hit but that the long term benefit for us both will be delayed.
It will be stronger for being longer term.
SfB: Why Ireland, and what if the US Olympic Committee was to come and ask you to work with them on an exclusive basis, paying a lot more?
RW: We believe in long term relationships. We have worked with British Rowing over a long period of time and that started off with best intentions. There is a commercial reward but we were approached by another larger team at the time and we turned them down. We do believe in doing the right thing.
SC: We have a streamlined partnership and we are all learning together. Time to value is important for any business but we are really enjoying the work with the Irish team.
It is clear that this is a partnership with mutual benefit and that those who are working on it enjoy working together. That’s important in every area of life.
Over two more elements of this series, we will look at questions of whether Big Data might ever be too much data and also at where the gains of analysis fit in the evolution of performance enhancement.