GAA Football

Changing player behaviour: the art of performance analysis

Denise Martin with the Bob O'Keeffe Cup and Dublin hurlers Johnny McCaffrey and Stephen Hiney after winning the 2013 Leinster SHC.

GETTING a chair is a good thing in academia - but when it's all you're given in the world of sports performance analysis it can send you from the latter back to the former.

Let Denise Martin explain.

"Working with the Dublin hurlers a few years ago I remember being six months pregnant and they wouldn't let us into the press box in Portlaoise. The Dublin U20 footballers had got their stats team in beforehand but the senior hurlers, we couldn't.

"So I was standing, balancing, on the back of a chair, one of those collapsible chairs. My husband was with me, we did those things together, but at that point I was thinking 'This probably isn't right, it's time for me to take a step back.' [She meant that metaphorically].

"You have to make choices."

That's good advice for any performance analyst, in terms of presentations as well as careers.

After that anecdote, you're not sure where her reply is heading when you ask Denise if she would return to being an active performance analyst in sport: "Absolutely…would love to! But not at the moment, no."

For now she's a Lecturer in Sports Performance Analysis at the Technological University, Dublin, also heading the PA sub-group of the GAA's Gaelic Games Sports Science Working Group.

Yet, wobbly chairs apart, she loved her time working with teams and sports, starting out with Derry footballers in 2002.

Helping out the Oak Leafers was quite a step for the Carrickmore woman, in more ways than one, as she recalls with a laugh:

"I was in Jordanstown, doing a Masters, and Derry were looking for somebody to get involved – so I had to swallow my pride, that's too good an opportunity, even as a Tyrone girl! Eamon [Coleman] just captured everyone's imagination, he was such a phenomenal character, there was never a dull moment. It was great fun."

Always teaching

Her career has gone full circle, to some extent, even if she's now living in Donegal albeit employed in Dublin:

"I was a qualified teacher first, I taught in Castlewellan initially, so it was always something I felt I'd go back to.

"I went back to do the Masters at Jordanstown and I was really lucky because one of my lecturers was a guy called Peter O'Donoghue, who has since gone on to be the world expert in analysis. He's written about 10 books, plus plus plus.

"He was really inspiring, he got me the Derry gig. I was also lucky that Eugene Young [Ulster GAA's coaching chief] was looking at the area of analysis, he was involved with the Sports Institute, so when they were recruiting an analyst I got that gig."

Damian Cassidy and Marty McElkennon were the foresighted coaches who wanted performance analysis. The discipline has proliferated in the GAA since then, and altered immeasurably too, according to Martin: "It has utterly changed… What a completely different world – VHS. It's light years since that. It's a very different game."

Yet the fundamentals remain. The outside perception may be that performance analysis is extremely hi-tech, all number-crunching and graphs.

For Denise, though, it always has to be about working with people. And teaching, providing lessons.

"If a kid doesn't understand the concept of how to make a run, you send him with pen and paper to watch Michael Murphy. Watch where he is on the pitch, what does he do? Where does he be? What foot is he kicking off? That's a very simple intervention with kids, without needing a video or any tech.

Light-bulb moments

"While the tech has brought it on, people are honing in on the idea of the learning experience, the light-bulb moment. How do you translate data into actual behaviour? How do you change behaviour?

"A young guy might not be able to figure out 'Was that run good? Or where should I have been?'

"In my job I can cut together all the clips of the runs he made, or didn't make as the case may be, then he can sit down and look at that himself, or sit down with the coach, and see what he was doing and why.

"It's about trying to get players to be reflective, reflect on why they do what they do, take control of their own development. Some players will embrace that and some don't want to know about it, that's fine too.

"That's where we as analysts need to go, create learning opportunities; unless we're doing that then we're just giving out numbers, which aren't really relevant, it's just noise, data."

Filtering information

Indeed she sounds genuinely horrified at the thought that some analysts provide 'information overload':

"If you're bombarding players with data then you're in the wrong game. That's not good practice. You filter the data, work with the coach – What does this guy need to know now? What's going to help him improve?

"Some guys want to know everything, give me more, more. But other guys don't, they don't need it.

"There's more of a move to the idea of being a data translator. You see some [information] dashboards online and think 'Where are you going with this? No coach is going to be able to understand this, never mind players.'

"The skill is being able to filter that information, take the nugget out that the player needs; to be able to translate that into something meaningful. We have a way to go with that, we really do.

"There can be a lack of understanding of the discipline. If you're new and have this shiny toy that can give you loads and loads of numbers – just because you can measure something doesn't mean you should."

To assist that learning process, she and Leinster's Learning and Development Manager Colm Clear have written a National Introduction to Performance Analysis Course, which was piloted late last year and is now available online:

Panning for those nuggets, those golden insights, is time-consuming, but it's what has to be done, she insists:

"Less is more. That's been my biggest lesson. It's all about quality, not quantity. The quality of one or two really good insights are far more important than numbers."

Improving players

Another part of the PA process is giving the coach what he or she wants: "My role isn't to tell the coach he hasn't done a good job. It's to ask 'What do you want to do with this player? Where do you think his strengths and weaknesses are? Right, how we can give him the 'light-bulb moment' of 'Gosh, this is what I want to work on'.

"I can tell you 100 times you need to do X, Y, and Z – until you realise yourself that you need to do X, Y, and Z, it's entirely pointless.

"Where analysis works well, it's where the coach works hand in glove with the analyst and there's a common goal. They have to be on the same page.

"That's why your philosophy of practice is very important in terms of what you're trying to do as an analyst. It's not about the analyst, it's about what the coach needs at that moment for the team. What might be needed is S & C [strength and conditioning] work or something different.

"We're very aware that analysis is the icing on the cake, it's the bit extra. Unless you have quality players who are strong, fit, and healthy, analysis isn't going to make any difference."

Working with coaches is key, and Denise believes her gender helped rather than hindered in that regard: "An analyst can be a threat to a coach but as a woman I was never a threat to a coach, I was never going to take a coach's job. As a woman they assumed you didn't know much, so if you knew anything at all it was a bonus.

"It was a big advantage to me, although I've never had anything but complete respect from every player I've dealt with in GAA circles, and coaches. You just become part of the furniture. You're there, you do your job, and it isn't an issue.

"The learning happens on the training pitch. I can tell a coach and players that an opposing team is going to set up in a particular way, but that's just telling. We need to set up our team like that and let our players figure out how we play against that, how do we break them down?

"There's no point saying 'Oh, Dublin are going to do this…' We all know what Dublin are going to do – but how do you break them down?

"The work is done on a training pitch. You're trying to replicate what happens in a game on the training pitch."

Building trust

Having said that, she acknowledges that "there are instances where you see stuff happening on a pitch and you can make interventions.

"I remember watching a really key, important player, seeing the data that he wasn't getting on the ball. Next thing his free count is starting to go up, he's fouling, still not on the ball. You understand that he's completely frustrated, just by his body language. You must know your players.

"At that point I expressed concern about the player at half-time to the coach, I was worried about him, pointed out he'd got a yellow card – and was told, 'Oh, he'll be grand'. Second half he goes out and he's sent off after five minutes.

"There's a process of building that trust with the coach. The next day I say something like that the coach will pay a bit more heed. You can make differences."

Giving insights not print-outs matters, and that comes from understanding the game, not just the data:

"Seeing a guy go 20 minutes without touching the ball, what usually happens? Take off the corner-forward! I'd say, 'No, you need to switch this guy out, do something to get him into the game'.

"They're not my decisions. If I say a corner-back has lost four out of five balls that came in, the management have seen that too, they know that, but putting a number on it can emphasise it. You give them the chance to do something about it.

"Or maybe he's marking somebody brilliant and the guy still hasn't scored; it depends on the context.

"If a guy's job is just to mark, stop, a Ciaran Kilkenny, well his stats aren't going to matter, you just want him to stop Ciaran Kilkenny. You don't want him on the ball necessarily, you don't care. You need to understand what a player's job is on that day."

Her own job has changed regularly, at least in terms of title and teams she's worked with, taking in Dublin hurlers – and their Leinster SHC success in 2013 – as well as the Ireland rugby team and athletics.

She's modest about her achievements, labelling herself 'lucky' [for which read 'intelligent, industrious']:

"It's just a career trajectory. I was very lucky, when I was finishing my Masters the Sports Institute [Northern Ireland, aka SINI], was starting up, and I was in the right place at the right time. I've Eugene Young and a few other people to thank for that.

"Then I went out on my own, I was doing athletics and rugby. Then, I was 35 and thinking 'I probably need to think about getting married and doing that stuff in life.'

"I think I was always going to go back into education. I ended up working in Dublin; my husband, who's a Donegal man, was in Naas at the time, so I got a job at what's now the Technological University."

Despite her spells with other sports, it was inevitable that she'd be drawn back to working with the GAA, she feels: "Being from Carrickmore, I was reared on football, that's what we did every day. Every Sunday, you were baled into the car to go somewhere."

Knowledge providers

She and others are now passing on their knowledge to a host of enthusiastic amateurs within the GAA, with an official accreditation process and a guide for practice being formulated:

"A lot of people in the community are doing this for nothing, up and down the country, dedicated to their trade, seeking to improve. Every time we run a course or a conference we're turning people away at the door, we've had a massive response, really positive people who want to learn.

"That's the beauty of seeing Ben McGuckin of Derry stand up and say 'GPS stuff? I give the players one stat from that'. Wow.

"It's hard for a young practitioner to realise that's fine – but they really need to get that message. That's where the guide for practice comes in…

"Analysts need to understand that the coach might only use five per cent of the information you provide – and that's fine. That's the gig. You still need to have all the work done to find the right five per cent.

"In a sense it's thankless and there's a huge amount of work to be done to get to that five per cent of data; discarding the other 95 per cent is a killer. Coaches need to understand the work involved, it's almost a vocation."

The chairs may still be wobbly on occasion, but now there are more helping hands to steady them.

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