- GPS tracking devices, drones, apps have infiltrated Premiership Rugby clubs and changed the way coaches train players.
- A Harlequins sports scientist showed Business Insider the extent of how technology is at the forefront of a top rugby club’s training sessions.
- Innovations include Harlequins players sitting inside IMAX video booths and watching drone footage of their performances.
Premiership Rugby is undergoing a technological revolution and it is changing the way coaches prepare training sessions and how they analyse player performance.
Business Insider visited Harlequins Rugby Club during a pre-season training session at Surrey Sports Park in Guildford. We were given a glimpse of how Harlequins coaches use performance tracking tech to ensure players are prepared for the 2017-2018 Premiership season.
The tools include:
- Global Positioning System (GPS) devices — handheld systems that are placed into a pouch on the back of each player’s shirt.
- Drones and fixed “lamppost” cameras — training sessions and live matches are filmed from unique vantage points so coaches can analyse drills and passages of play from all angles.
- Phone apps — players fill out surveys on a daily basis so coaches can monitor sleeping patterns and live match recovery.
Meshing sport and tech is not a new phenomenon. Aussie Rules has used GPS since 2004, Premier League football clubs also get players wearing tech during training sessions, and NFL teams have toyed with drones since 2015. Now it’s rugby’s turn.
“Technology has gotten into sport just like it has gotten into every part of life,” said Tom Batchelor, the lead sports scientist at Harlequins. He went through each piece of tech with BI before a midweek morning training session in August. Here is what he said:
1. Global Positioning System (GPS) devices
Harlequins / Catapult
Athletes wear GPS devices on their backs.
“When I first started my career, we would work with athletes on a one-to-one basis,” Batchelor says. “You could have a conversation for an hour in the gym and understand how they’re feeling, how sore they feel, and whether any old injuries are recurring.
“But when you scale that up to 60 athletes at a Premiership rugby club, there are just not enough coaches to give that level of one-to-one support on a daily basis. GPS allows us to get as close to that level as possible. GPS gives us the ability to track exactly what’s happening on the pitch.”
The GPS system that Harlequins uses is an OptimEye S5. The unit, pictured above, is wearable technology used by 10 of the 12 Premiership rugby clubs, five-time football World Cup winners Brazil, and the 2017 NBA champions Golden State Warriors.
The units fit into a pouch on the back of each and every athlete’s training kit and a powerful microprocessor computes 1,000 data points per second during training sessions.
For Harlequins, the data points the club is most interested in, includes:
- How far each athlete has run (distance)
- Sustained high-speed running (time spent at maximum velocity)
- How quickly each athlete changes direction (turn of pace)
- How fast each athlete can accelerate
- How quickly each athlete can decelerate
- When “significant load” has the potential to cause an injury (sharp changes of direction can impact mechanical load on the body)
- Total time spent on the field
“Of all the data points GPS gives, we focus more on the ones that are related to performance,” Batchelor says. “We can see how hard the players are working and whether they are doing what the coaches set them out to do. For instance, we can monitor ‘kick chase periods.’ This is when somebody sends a kick up the field and we can monitor how many guys are actually approaching their high velocities when chasing after the ball.”
Scrum algorithms have also been developed. When five GPS units are aligned at certain angles, the algorithm understands a scrum must be happening.
“The units don’t talk to each other, but sync in a way where you can have them collectively tell you how long the scrum goes on for and how many scrums there were,” Batchelor explains.
A meaningful pace for each athlete is determined using a standard test — a six-minute run consisting of laps around the rugby pitch. “That six-minute pace you get to, the average pace, is the meaningful pace. Anything below this is a speed your body won’t find tiring. Above this, what we call high-speed running, would physically fatigue your body.”
Batchelor stresses that meaningful paces can vary according to each athlete and also according to position. “Generally wingers are fast whereas guys who weigh 120 kilograms are not as fast. But we’ve got British Lions prop Kyle Sinckler who is not only rapid, he’s 120 kilograms. Individual thresholds are therefore taken into account.”
He adds: “Everything gets tracked. Everything. Tackle completion, line-up completion, scrum completion, system errors in defence, you name it, it gets tracked.”
Then it’s about crunching the data.
“After a training session, we plug all of the GPS units into a dock and, via USP, the data is pulled into a console. We then sync that up to our cloud. The cloud lets us take relevant data from it and we can then build a database of knowledge as training sessions turn into weeks, weeks into months, months into years, and so on.
“A cloud system means we can access all information regardless of which teams, units, are training away, or at home. Over time, you can track what each athlete’s highs are, what the lows are, and what is average.”
Batchelor tracks player performance for certain drills — high-speed running, scrum completion, tackle completion, and more — with charts like the one above.
The acute-chronic ratio line is at zero during off-season, or rest days. When this line rises, it means the player is performing well against his averages. When it falls, it may not necessarily mean the player is under-performing, but rather that the athlete is getting more and more accustomed to the drill or exercise in question.
“My background is in banking, working as a prime brokerage relationship manager for Paribas,” Batchelor says. “This means I’m handy with a spreadsheet. It’s probably one of the reasons Quins hired me five years ago!”
2. Drones and fixed “lamppost” cameras
“At training, Harlequins have what I call ‘lampost cameras,'” Batchelor says. “They sit at one end of the pitch and provide the coaching staff with really high-quality images.
“We’ve used drones before, too. Drone operators sit at one end of a pitch and move the drones around manually. You get completely different camera angles and perspectives throughout the training sessions and throughout a live game.
“This high-level tech — the video, the GPS — is great as it makes our lives as coaches easier. But it is important to have specialists, high-level coaches, and sports scientists, who can interpret the data from that tech, correctly.”
Coaches review footage with players in IMAX-filled analysis rooms.
“Every single training session is reviewed from a really basic stationary skill session, to a full rugby session, in an analysis room.
“There are five IMAX booths set up in there. Our players can log in at any time and we see how often they watch and which clips they watch. All training clips, all match clips, and all individual clips are available, so every athlete can watch what ruck they have hit, even going back years and years. Most of our boys tend to watch the entire games back.”
How has drone use, lamppost camera footage, and IMAX booths assisted the rugby coaching process? “If one player has had a conversation with a coach and has been told his defence wasn’t great, he can then watch every tackle he made and every miss-tackle, over a two year period, in ten minutes.
“The coach can then sit down with them and say ‘you’re positioning is wrong,’ or ‘your tackle choice is wrong.'” Solutions to the positioning, or tackle choice, can then be discussed.
3. Phone apps
The work-related apps rugby players have downloaded on their phones fall under two categories. The first is for video use and the second is for wellness.
“We use Vimeo,” Batchelor says. “Players log in via Vimeo to have access to our private videos.” These private videos loops back to footage Quins filmed during training sessions and competitive rugby.
“Our boys also use wellness apps, too,” Batchelor adds. “Every morning, at 8 a.m, they will have answered a series of questions.” Here’s a selection:
- How well did you sleep?
- How well do you feel?
- How well recovered do you feel?
- Do you have lower back pain?
- Do you have any previous injuries that are causing you issues?
“Our guys score them on a scale of one to 10 of how bad they are, 10 being awful. That comes in centrally to us. We see it in Google Docs and put that in a spreadsheet so we can track that as the season progresses.”
Players are expected to register scores of eight or nine the morning after a competitive rugby game. Coaches then expect that score to reduce down to two or three as the week progresses. However, if nines are continually logged, then Batchelor would have a one-to-one with the player in question, pull them out of a training session so they have a better chance to recover, and potentially send them for additional massage or ice baths.
“We use the data we receive from the phone apps on our athletes phones, to direct where the players are going on a day to day basis. Whether that is full contact rugby training sessions, all the way through to rest sessions.”
A problem of soreness can sometimes be down to something simple — like a lack of sleep. “We’d certainly talk if they had a bad night’s sleep as there are things we can do to help.”
All players also have access to psychologists.
Tech is revolutionising rugby
Rugby is an unpredictable game. Batchelor’s job at Quins can therefore present more problems than if he were working in another sport.
He explains: “In rowing and cycling the sports are black and white. If you can produce x-number of watts for x-amount of time, then you will win the Olympics. More watts generated means you go faster and means you win.
“In rugby we are talking about a ball that is purposely designed to not bounce evenly. There’s even more variables. There’s weather, there’s 15 individuals, and you’ve got an outcome that isn’t ‘do it fastest.’ You don’t even need to score more tries to win. It’s a more difficult sport to go x = y.”
The technology detailed here — from the OptimEye S5 GPS devices and drone use to wellness phone apps — eases Batchelor’s job and he says the technology, as well as the interpretation of data, “has been revolutionary” during his five years at Harlequins.
The Premiership rugby season kicked off last weekend. Harlequins had its first match on Saturday but lost 39-29 at London Irish. It will be back to the IMAX booths to analyse what went wrong.
“The goal is to push into the top four. We are trying to get back into Premiership title-winning contention, winning Europe, and everything else,” he says. We are an ambitious squad, improve, get better, those are the ambitions.”
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