Hi-tech support for Steel

What do global digital information giants such as Google and Facebook have in common with the Southern Steel netball franchise? Brainpower. Or, more precisely, computer power.

Companies such as Google, Facebook and Uber have used machine learning to understand human behaviour. So, too, has a team of Otago researchers.

The team, including Hayden Croft (Otago Polytechnic), Dr Peter Lamb and Gavin Kennedy (School of Physical Education, Sport and Exercise Sciences, University of Otago), have developed a machine-learning approach to help sports teams, including the Southern Steel netball team and Otago Rugby’s Mitre 10 Cup team, gain a competitive advantage.

The results of their work are about to published in the International Journal of Performance Analysis in Sport.

Machine learning is a branch of artificial intelligence that can be used for finding patterns in large, complex data sets. Machine learning algorithms “learn” about the data.

While automated data capture systems have been used in rugby, Bobby Willcox (Netball NZ) has manually captured and coded performance data spanning more than 250 matches over the past six years.

This data has been used to “train” a neural network, revealing to scientists and analysts how certain playing styles fare against those of the opponent.

The Otago researchers discovered seven unique ways that teams played in netball’s ANZ Championship & Premiership – all with varying levels of success depending on the style executed by the opponent. Knowledge of these styles has laid the groundwork for the development of strategies as well as counter-strategies in competition.

This analysis has been presented to the coaches and players of the Southern Steel each week over the last 2 seasons in the form of an “opposition scout report”. The players and coaches then determined how to implement the information on court as part of a game plan, which was then worked into training when the team assembled.

Steel coach Reinga Bloxham says the analysis played a vital role in the team’s unbeaten run to the inaugural ANZ Premiership title this season.

“Researching your opponent has always been an integral part of sport. This technology has enabled us to take that to a whole new level, which is really exciting.

“As a coach, you want to utilise all the tools available to enhance performance and it’s been fantastic to work with Hayden and his team as they develop this. It’s also positively challenged my own coaching to figure out how best to incorporate it into our environment and use it most effectively.”

Captain Wendy Frew says the players enjoyed working with the information.

“It allows you to really hone in and focus on a particular opponent and apply strategy based on the analysis we receive. I think it’s awesome to see our sport continue to evolve in certain areas as new technology impacts on how we play the game.  

April 2018