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Switch the Field: Focus on the Right Data

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A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend the United Soccer Coaches Convention in Chicago. This was my seventh time participating, and I had a terrific time seeing old friends and immersing myself in all things soccer. I even had the opportunity to help U.S. soccer legend Alexi Lalas find his way to the futsal court. I hope Alexi found it, as I never saw him again.

Spending most of my time in the Exhibition Hall, I was struck by the number of vendors showcasing a plethora of gizmos and gadgets that purport to provide important diagnostic data and performance metrics. Earlier this spring, the U.S. Soccer Federation signed a $1.5B deal with an Irish company to provide monitoring devices for what is projected to be 'millions of registered' soccer players in the U.S., with the aim of creating the world's largest player data monitoring program and 'revolutionizing' American soccer by 2022.  Predictably, clubs are now clamoring to similarly outfit their youth and amateur teams in order to demonstrate that they, too, are on the cutting-edge of soccer.  From wearable sensors paired with smartphone apps to balls embedded with motion detectors, the options are dizzying. I chuckled as one vendor touted the simplicity of his product while simultaneously claiming that the device was capable of completing nearly 2,500 measurements per second for a single player.  Wait, what?

As a behavioral scientist and admitted soccer fanatic, I wholeheartedly endorse collecting data for the purposes of enhancing fitness and performance—and the sport.  But before falling in love with nifty toys, we need to ask what are we measuring, why we are measuring it, and perhaps most importantly, what exactly do we do with all that data? From my experience, most youth clubs don't have the time or resources to devote to such in-depth data collection let alone the expertise to meaningfully analyze, interpret, and apply such information. And even if they did, to what extent does tracking the hourly blood pressure of 2,000 young athletes or the speed at which a struck ball is traveling add up to a more meaningful club experience?  Despite sexy marketing and technical wizardry that promises metrics and analytics at our fingertips, most of these monitoring devices yield data that has little relevance in enhancing the overall quality of a typical youth club experience.

So before distributing 'smart' vests to 15-year-olds, we might be better served by focusing on those critical factors that drive the broader player experience, family engagement, and the continued professional development of coaches. Things like the quality of feedback and guidance players receive from coaches; the value provided for dues and fees; and the extent to which families feel engaged and included are far better predictors of successful clubs than individual measures of cardiovascular health, muscle strength, acceleration, and distance covered.  Measures such as these move beyond data collection as a borderline promotional gimmick and into the realm of real, actionable information that ensures that the roughly 8M U.S. youth soccer players receive the education, experience, and environment necessary for them to reach their full potential in playing the beautiful game.
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Dr. Michael Warech presenting at Youth Sports – Go...
Bringing science to sport
 

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Wednesday, 21 August 2019

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