In this interview Kitman Labs’ CEO Stephen Smith and Kitman Labs’ Performance Scientist, Darcy Norman explore how data can be used to build the framework for a team’s success, both on and off the field.
“Vision without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future,” reflected MIT Sloan Lecturer, Peter M Senge. “It leaves no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.”
Never has this quote been more applicable in the world of business than in the business of sport. In the highly-emotive world of sport you would be hard pressed to find any team without a clear vision. If anything, creating a vision is the easy bit. However, executing on this vision is where a lot of organisations both sporting and otherwise tend to fall short. This is because they oftentimes lack a logical, systematic approach that aligns the entire organisation, including the actions of business and performance practitioners under a shared vision.
Darcy Norman, the new US Head of Performance Science for award-winning Silicon Valley company Kitman Labs, believes the process of systems thinking is a reliable way to put the pieces in place that will allow an organisation’s vision to become a reality. In his interview with Kitman Labs founder Stephen Smith, Norman talks about the importance of supporting these systems by collecting objective data to build a framework for development and to combat the traditional heuristics and biases that are ever-present in sport. Organisations who develop strong systems and who know how to leverage their data are what Norman calls a ‘learning organisation’ – the ultimate success case of a business who is perpetually learning, innovating and advancing over their competition.
Norman himself has been involved in a number of recognised learning organisations, including Italian Football team AS Roma and the prestigious German National team during their 2014 FIFA World Cup victory. In this interview, Norman talks about his decision to embark on a new role with Kitman Labs and how it was influenced from his own experiences with systems thinking in sport. This interview is perfect for people in the business of sport, both on the commercial and performance side, who recognise success happens as a result of a team effort and want to continue to drive their organisations forward.
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Stephen: Given the level of experience you have, and the multiple teams you have been involved in over the last 10 years, what was is about Kitman Labs that really struck a chord with you and made you choose to walk away from a professional team?
Darcy Norman: Over the past 10 years the whole data thing has really been an evolution. I probably started like everybody messing around in Excel, but my first experience IN data was in Bayern Munich where we were using an immotio-system. We would get a ton of data and try to figure it out – yet with more and more data the system would just crash and we would have to rebuild. This was just to get basic daily, monthly, seasonal reports, etc.
Yet the more I continued, the more I learned to navigate through the technical world of spreadsheets and databases and so forth – which is what got me to AS Roma, where we had a great system of collecting meaningful data. But I still really struggled to take it past that level, to go beyond the basic – I wouldn’t even say basic because were we’re doing some advanced recording in Roma – but to take it to that level that Kitman Labs is at now with the multivariate analysis, to take all these different sources of data and intermingle them just see what is statistically valid in an unbiased approach. And being able to ask questions and have the system put out those answers.
To me that is the game changer, because it supports the effort it takes to collect meaningful data and gives you usable information to start putting actionable change into place to continue to upgrade the process within the team, the organisation, coaching staff and backroom staff. And it also links the medical with the performance data, with the tactical – it’s the best thing I’ve seen today in the analytics side of giving a meaningful actionable information that is beyond when I’ve seen out there today
Stephen: I think your journey from Bayern Munich to AS Roma, and your experiences would resonate with a lot of people in our industry. What would you say to people listening to this, who have come through the same journey as you, what advice would you give to them so they can continue to move forward?
Darcy Norman: You don’t know, what you don’t know. Working in professional sports it’s hard get exposure to other things because that’s the IP that teams have. Other than their player group, what they do with the information, what things they put into place – that’s all part of their competitive juice. Oftentimes you go to sports conferences and you don’t get a lot of the detail that you need. And that’s what I realised after going through case studies in this analytical space with Kitman Labs.
Our secret sauce at Roma was totally different to somebody else’s secret sauce just because of how we did things, how we collected data, the background of our staff, etc. And thanks to using Kitman Labs’ case studies I knew how to continue to upgrade our existing processes.
An example of this is where you have a certain type of injury that keeps occurring in the team and you’re not really sure why. You feel like doing all the right things – you have injury prevention pieces in place, you’re monitoring all your athletes… you’re doing all the necessary steps.
Yet the injuries still happen. You know there’s gotta be a deeper relationship between those pieces which is why the injuries keep occurring.
By using Kitman Labs’ multivariate analysis, you say ok we’re gonna start with injuries and look through all data, from strength and training data, to technical and tactical, to medical – you look through it all until you find where the statistical, relevant relationships are. Then you can ask, are there any other relationships related to that? With [the multivariate approach] it goes down deeper and deeper into the data so you might end up going down three, four, five levels and at each level the significance gets higher and the risk percent gets higher, and it gives you more ideas about when to intervene.
It really helps you get to the point quicker and then it makes you realise how interrelated all this data is but yet how deep the relationship is that there is no way you could recognise it now or in a monthly, daily, weekly acute-chronic dashboard.
It’s beyond my capacity as a human to take in all the data and process it in my brain. Yes, I can provide the context, but it’s hard to understand the statistical, analytical relationship quickly without a system like Kitman Labs.
Stephen Smith: From your perspective, and after spending some time now with Kitman Labs. What are you most excited about that you are going to be able to contribute to different teams and clients of ours?
Darcy Norman: The ability to solve those day to day problem, that when they all of a sudden get the numbers in front of them and provide some context around, that they have some actionable information that they can go and make a change. For me it’s all about that practical information that allows you to make day to day changes and continue to upgrade your systems, iterate and move forward.
I recently had a great conversation with Kitman Labs’ Performance Scientist Andy Shelton, it’s like the analogy of the JFK story about putting a man on the moon…. We don’t know how we’re going to get there but we’re working towards that.
I feel like this day to day problem solving, this is the moon, this is where everybody is been trying to get to but it’s been really difficult.
You know resources, technology, knowledge and I think where Kitman Labs has been able to put all that stuff into play and have a refined system, to be able to walk teams through it and make it not as time consuming as they may think. Now teams don’t have to wait 6 months for some research paper to come out, Kitman Labs let’s you get the party started right away and that helps to reinforce teams on why they’re collecting the data in the first place and putting that effort forward.
Stephen Smith: Talk to us about your interactions so far with the team at Kitman Labs and how the organisation itself seems to be learning and growing. What’s that meant for you?
Darcy Norman: It’s really like having your ideal backroom staff. Everybody is working in a collaborative way to put their heads together to solve these problems and take up their experience. So Andy Shelton and his rugby experience, yourself and then Kevin McLaughlin as an ex-player, Stuart O’Brien and Adam Conway and their backgrounds in applied sports science, even from the marketing team, as just general people listening to us discussing our nerdy stuff, asking us to repeat it in English to know how it can help them in their role – everyone in Kitman Labs is trying to work together to move the needle in the right direction as quickly as possible to solve these problems and help teams better execute.
Stephen Smith: I’m glad you say that and you recognise that we operate as a backroom team at Kitman Labs. People often assume the answer to analytics and sports science is to just get a good data scientist, but it’s never just that easy. It is having that whole backroom team, with multidisciplinary skill sets, that really helps bring out good ideas and execute them. I’m very excited to keep seeing these skills and talents grow to maturity in Kitman Labs and where we can go with them
Darcy Norman: I think big piece there too is just the learning of it all. Going through these kind of case studies and team case studies, you know there’s just so much learning about how to collect data in the housekeeping of data and the quality of the day.
Something that was always interesting for me as a practitioner is when you collect this data and you’d report it back and you’d see this data point way out there. You’d go back and realise that someone entered it in wrong or maybe the summary data was coming out wrong in the GPS system or you found a bug. So you’re recording and seeing this data, you know you’re getting data but are you really getting good data?
I think that learning experience of going through all these different datasets from different platforms and tools also gives you a really good sense of where you can go wrong – I’m definitely guilty of it. When you have a big dataset and you realise the data doesn’t look right, you may then realise you have improve the workflow of how the data was entered or collected just it can be more meaningful. You see the importance of the data in the time spent with the staff’s use of that information, has their learning working with all these groups gone back into improving the system itself. That in turn helps you collect more data and get a quicker analysis, a quicker turnaround and quicker insights to keep the needle move forward.
Stephen Smith: What will you get out of this experience?
Darcy Norman: For me it’s really around the analytics and statistics and really understanding what’s relevant. It’s that part I struggled to tie together in my last experience at Roma, you know that three years that we spent collecting data to really take it to the next step and understand meaningful change then using that data to confront some of heuristics and biases that are commonly used in in teams or within coaching staff to make decisions. To really help teams create a strong learning organisation. I’m also excited to interact with all the groups we work with and to see what other professionals are trying to do things on a high level, I think it’s such a massive opportunity to learn.
Stephen Smith: Tell me about this term you keep using – a learning organisation – why is that so important to you – why do you continue to gravitate towards this concept in your own profession?
Darcy Norman: It’s about the continual upgrade. I’ve been on this kick around complex systems in sports and one of the buckets in there is having a strong learning organisation. To be able to look honestly and candidly at the mistakes you may be making or situations that have happened and how to learn and grow from that. Some other content I was interested in was supply chain management and human performance, and it’s all around having objective data that was consistent with the value and mission of your organisation that continues to upgrade systems. I think a lot of this interest comes from my physical therapy background and being able to differentially diagnose what the situation is. There’s kind of this rule of thumb of three tests to know what you’re looking at – is it a false positive or two falses and a positive, etc – I need some other dictation to know what i’m really looking at. That’s always how my brain has worked, so i’m always trying to find more information to know that this is the right path and this is the right decision and I have the objective information to support all that.
As I mentioned there is so many heuristics and biases that we use in sport on a day-to-day basis because it’s such a fast moving, high-stress environment, that people come up with these rationales, that when you sit and think about them – you know that don’t make any sense. So when you have the appropriate data to help you make those choices, and have a more rational way of making those choices then i think you’re in a much better way.
Stephen Smith: Who are the best learning organisations on the planet? Who do you look towards for guidance?
Darcy Norman: That’s a challenging question – you’re kind of calling me out here and I will add to your comment a bit further – I know i’m riding on the coat tales of Brett Bartholomew here – but it’s also about taking that information and how you interact with the people that you’re trying to interact with. From a learning organisation side it’s hard to say, I’ve been in a little bit of a bubble the last 3 years with Rome, I would like to say we were a learning organisation because we were constantly trying to upgrade things and look at why things weren’t working the way we wanted them to or why we weren’t getting the wins we wanted to get.
I think the German national team is a phenomenal example of a learning organisation. I think it took great courage for the federation to not let the staff go after the World Cup but just to take a step back and reflect and think through what needed to be changed or upgraded and not concede to the majority of the pundits out there who thought that maybe change was needed in that role.
That’s part of the heuristics and biases, there are things that we tend to use to make these off the cuff decisions and they’re not really thought through. It’s better when people people arm themselves to not jump on that wagon right away and to really think through what it is they’re trying to do and does it align with their missions or their values, that takes a lot of courage, especially in the sports world where it’s all about wins and losses and in the right now and next week. There are groups out there that operate at that level, although it’s hard for me to call them out as I haven’t walked in there day to day to see how they operate.
Stephen Smith: That’s fair. It is easy to get caught up in the emotion and hype of things and takes a lot of maturity to step back and keep an objective view. If there are coaches sitting out there listening to this, who recognise some of the challenges you mentioned, where do they start to improve these?
Darcy Norman: Like anything it’s around the process and you have to have a process. Once you have a process, then you can continue to refine that process and that’s where the data piece comes in it tells you if your process is working. That is the inspiration of the supply chain management conversation, the presentation that I’ve done in the past is you gotta start somewhere and you gotta put a stick in the stand to be be able to objectify where you’re going, where you’ve come from and how far have you made it. From here you can continue to refine and simplify things and then know do you have the right people with shared values and a shared mission on what you’re trying to do and this is another big piece where the data is really important in providing the opportunity to talk about each other’s mental models and what it means – I communicate based on my experience and my values and how I think about things. You may take that information in based on your context and values and experiences but it may lead you down a different kind of mental path. Data allows you to get clarity on different perspectives and have deeper conversations on how to upgrade things, and that comes back to the very definition of that learning organisation we spoke about earlier.
Stephen Smith: You just mentioned that data plays an important role in communication, and we all know communication is king especially for getting people aligned for the success of the organisation. What if there are people listening who are not from a learning organisation, that collect data today but don’t really use it as a fulcrum for the decision making that goes on in the organisation – where and how can they start this journey?
Darcy Norman: Great question. From my end it’s you gotta start somewhere, even if it’s just collecting some data. Data is all around us, so it’s trying to use that and listen to the questions that people are asking, the information that they really wanna know – and a lot of that can be answered by what I called descriptive data which is just basic recording daily, weekly, monthly and seasonal recording. From there you have a small framework to begin having conversations and eventually build to a bigger framework to start interacting with the data, and the ability to understand what other data you need to collect to answer more questions. From there you begin to use a system, like Kitman Labs, that reinforces what you’re collecting because it’s giving you real-time insights that are appropriate or not appropriate to the types of questions you are trying to ask. This also allows you to get more laser focused on what you’re collecting and how you’re collecting it – it really becomes an exponential force multiplier because it keeps moving the need faster and faster, and as an organisation you keep getting smarter and smarter.
Stephen Smith: It is quite common for a lot of teams to be dysfunctional in how they do things today – either they don’t know what to collect or why they’re collecting things or perhaps different people have different views on things. Really it starts by getting alignment on the problems they are trying to solve as a team, regardless of how they’re going to solve it. From my experience of working with many teams, I really suggest that people start their performance journey not with the what, but the why.
Darcy Norman: Absolutely, that comes back down having that shared mission and shared values, you need those aligning to really move the needle forward. It is a step by step process but you can even start simply – like starting with your calendar, which is a plethora of data and gives you a perspective of what’s really happening that can inform your planning. From here you can continue to grow the data you are collecting, which grows your choices and improves your decision making and eventually this can lead you down the path that you want to go.
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About Kitman Labs
Kitman Labs are committed to the evolution of performance. Through advanced statistical analysis, rigorous scientific research and over 200 years of unparalleled industry experience, their system evaluates athlete injury and performance with unprecedented precision. Kitman Labs works with over 150 teams worldwide, with its system available in 30 different languages.
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