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In Focus: Does Sports Science Even Matter?

Thu 10th Nov 2016 | IT & Technology

Stephen Smith, Chief Executive of Kitman Labs asks "Does sport science even matter?"

this is a pretty cynical question coming from someone whose background and company are all about sport science. But as I travel the world and talk about the science of performance and injury prevention, I think it is a must-answer question.  

Why? It’s a question that is constantly posed by coaches and athletes and is the reason that many organisations push sport science out, or adopt it in a half-heartedly. Coaches frequently ask - why does this matter? Will this change anything? How will this help me win? Aren’t you just going to pull my athletes out?

Sport Science is just that - science. It’s not just about fancy graphs, charts and trend-lines. But similarly it’s not all about hypotheses, methodologies, findings, labs and universities. Sport science is the confluence of both and is about turning rigorous scientific process into something practical, achievable and actionable. It’s about turning science into actions and decisions, that help our teams to do one thing..... WIN.

But here’s the thing - very little of it is effectively communicated to non-scientific staff, management or athletes.  

After spending so much of my career in professional sport my belief is...

The term marginal gains gets used too frequently with regard to sport science and there is a misconception that sport science is a 1%er and that it can help our teams to gain that little bit extra. Sport science is not a 1%er. It has the potential if unleashed correctly to be a core pillar of any performance program and it certainly can help our teams to achieve the holy grail with regards to winning. With this belief in mind, we have performed some research to actually showcase that this in not an opinion but is grounded in science and is actually a FACT.

Injuries Matter Introducing the Kitman Labs Injury Impact Index

To connect these dots, Kitman Labs developed a new methodology to demonstrate how sport science can help teams win. Our new report - The Injury Impact Index (i3) - showcases how injuries directly relate to team performance and a team’s chances of making the playoffs. It also introduces two new key metrics - Salary Available to Winand Games Lost to Injury.

Existing reports in this area try to link the number of injuries, days lost to injury and/or availability % with team success and number of wins. But they do not factor in who is injured. An athlete who does not play much of the season most likely doesn’t affect whether the team wins or loses. An injured star player, however, is more likely to have have a detrimental impact on game outcomes.

Given that “stardom” is incredibly subjective, we believe that an athlete’s base salary is a good indicator of the value an athlete brings to a team. How then, do you correlate salary to wins?

To answer this, we created a new metric called the Salary Available to Win (SAW) for each team. Using data from the last 5 years, we calculate the team’s base salary and subtracted the athlete salary lost for each day an athlete is unavailable for selection.

The SAW for each team was then correlated with the number of wins for the season and we found a direct linear relationship between SAW and number of wins, in all of the sports.

We assessed the number of wins teams needed to reach the playoffs in the last five years. In the NBA, for example, 49 wins in the West and 43 wins in the East will secure a playoff spot 100% of the time. Those teams had $52M in SAW on average each season.

From this information we can derive what is “spent” on injured players. For an NBA team team, $12.9M in SAW is lost to injured player salaries each season (from all injuries). A breakdown of NBA injuries reveals that 63% of all injuries are ruptures/strains & sprains, commonly believed to be potentially avoidable. This means that $8.1M in SAW is lost to potentially avoidable injuries each year.

When we plot that $8.1M back on salary and wins ladder, we can see that it equates to 9 Games Lost to Injury (GLI) which, in NBA terms, is worth 3 places on the conference ladder.

The unfortunate part of this is that if teams have all the right talent on the payroll, all the right coaching but have “bad luck” when it comes to injuries, then the talent and coaching might not matter.  

Addressing this is not a marginal gain, it’s a new fundamental. Stop and think about this for a second... this showcases that sport science is not a 1%er, it accounts for greater than 20% of wins needed to reach the playoffs. That is a core pillar of any program and showcases why sport science needs to continue to evolve to a point where quantification of data allows practitioners to understand risk, communicate findings and impact decisions.

Sports Science - Proactively Keeping Players Playing

Teams can use science and technology to have an enormous proactive impact on injuries (and player performance at the same time!). We see it in our teams every day as evidenced in our Injury Assessment report and the results we see from our teams.

And these injuries were not prevented by pulling players out. The goal of sports science is player availability! Injuries are prevented by proactively seeing the signs of risk well in advance, and adjusting conditioning, training, or treatment programs that kept players in the gym and in practise sessions and ultimately ready to go for games.

Does sports science matter? Absolutely. In fact, it can be the difference between winning and losing and ultimately getting to the Superbowl, the NBA Finals or the Stanley Cup Finals.

Posted by: Aaron Gourley 

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