Team GB: Using Analytics (and Intuition) to Improve Performance

It’s not just about talent, skill and hard work. Elite sports are increasingly using analytics to hone competitive performance and training.

Becoming an elite athlete — or coaching a team of this rarified breed — has as much to do with talent and skill as it does with experience and intuition (not to mention some serious hard work).

And data is increasingly part of that mix at the highest echelon of sports: the Olympic Games.

At Team GB — the name used by the British Olympic Association (BOA) and British Paralympic Association for their Great Britain and Northern Ireland Olympic team — analytics are used to both monitor the performance of athletes and to predict how well a team will perform. But what could the future hold? Evidence-based coaching — and training — that is as much a factor of sports as evidence-based medicine is now a factor of healthcare.

That transition is easier said than done. The blending of the age-old art of intuition and experience and the newer practice of using analytics to guide strategy is a path beset with both successes and challenges (in sports and in business).

Dr. Marco Cardinale, Head of Sports Science and Research of the British Olympic Association, in conversation with MIT Sloan Management Review contributing editor Renee Boucher Ferguson, explains how data analytics are used within Team GB, the future of analytics within the team and the sporting world at large, and the cultural issues that need to be overcome to achieve the potential of analytics.

How does Team GB use analytics?

I have to say, we don’t have big data as in incredible large data. Team GB is made of various national governing bodies. There are different sporting organizations in Great Britain responsible for funding decisions. So the use of data varies from performance reasons to funding decisions. At the BOA, we use data for two reasons. Some of the analytics work goes into monitoring the performance of Team GB athletes, so we access large databases to look at, for example, how many medals our athletes win around the world in their events and in their sports, or how many athletes rank between fourth to tenth place and have medal potential.