Before taking up his pivotal role in professional rugby, Sir Clive Woodward was a former international rugby player himself, but not before an 18-year career in business, including a stint at printing brand Xerox.
When he took up his role as England’s rugby coach in 1997, he brought the IT knowledge he had picked up along the way with him.
“I do believe whoever wins in IT tends to win, and I don’t think sport is any different” he says.
While Woodward had sound knowledge of IT, he knew how important it was for his team, and his players, to catch up with latest technology and software advances to boost their chances of winning matches.
“The key was the players having those skills as well. We put on a big IT programme.
“At the time I was absolutely ridiculed”, he adds.
“I gave 70 players laptops and training courses. Suddenly you would have all these big heroes, like Johnson or Dellaglio coming down from training with laptop computers. The press had a field day. I can see the press, ‘what on earth is he doing giving players laptops, why isn’t ge giving them raw meat?”
Joking aside, Woodward says that his players were told they wouldn’t get far if they didn’t adopt the IT-first way of thinking. The coach was planning software programmes for training analysis and team participation was crucial.
“You couldn’t stay in the team if you didn’t engage and develop your ability to use the software”, he says.
Woodward first learnt of sports analytics software Prozone through Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger in 1997. Woodward insists that winning matches comes down to great talent, but, “then it is what you put on top of that - you are not going to win just because you have a talented team.”
The team began using Prozone, data analysis and video analysis so they could study what players were doing.
Woodward was able to split the game into 7 areas, or chapters, including defence, attack, kicking game and pressure. By understanding what players’ winning moves were, Woodward was able to direct the team to replicate them.
“If you capture all this knowledge, you can study it and find out why you are or aren’t winning.”
SAP Match insights software
Like all industries, sport must not become dependant on data analysis, Woodward warns.
“I just hope the day doesn’t come that you rely entirely on data, but that it is reinforcing what you are thinking. If you think a player is tired and the data backs that up that is great.”
However, Woodward adds, if the data is saying to take a player off due to facial recognition technology that suggests he is tired, but he is playing well according to the human eye, you should stick to your instincts.
“It is exciting, but as a coach you have just got to keep everything in balance.”
Next section: Phil Neville: ‘Data is making football more interesting’
Phil Neville: ‘Data is making football more interesting’
The former Manchester United coach turned BBC sports pundit makes a painful admission regarding the German national team.
Speaking at SAP’s sport business event in their headquarters in Feltham last week, Neville told the crowd: “They [Germany] have the best football team even though it kills me to say that, and hopefully one day England will get to their level.”
Neville puts Germany’s dominance in international football down to its use of cutting-edge technology. Partnered with SAP, the World Cup champions were powered by high speed data analysis. One team, FC Bayern Munich, will be migrating its core systems on to SAP Hana this weekend.
“Data is so important and obviously helped with the German national team. I know about how they are progressing, and that players are becoming more digitally aware. You can see how the German team was set up - so well organised and they knew everything about the opposition and themselves,” he says.
Neville says he found data useful during his time coaching, “as you can’t hid away from the facts”. It allowed him to show players evidence to back up the choices he was making.
“If Southampton are constantly getting in down the right-hand side and the players come in at half time saying there’s no danger down the right-hand side you can pull up a screen and show the attacks - it makes your job much easier.”
Technology has increased fan’s entertainment and engagement with the sport too, he adds.
Neville describes how using cameras and magnifying things like head movements in players to reveal how they always have time on the ball is “just as entertaining as the football side.”
The former coach says if he was a player he would want to play for longer with the technology and data available currently.
“With the cut in injury rates clubs are going to improve performance on the field.”
Yet, like Clive Woodward, Neville believes data cannot completely compensation for the instincts of gifted coaches and managers.
The one-time Manchester United player says: “Sir Alex was quite unique. He had the best technique he was actually better than the computer, but he was open minded. He knew he wasn’t great with technology; but he would employ people to do the technical data and he would come in at the end to put the cherry on the top.”
Recalling when the former Manchester United manager would predict the same results as the data analysts, Neville jokes, “he was a freak of nature”.
SAP have announced a set of sport products including CRM, ticketing and finance systems specifically for sports teams and branding as well as technology to improve players’ performance.
Bernd Leukert, executive board member and head of application innovation at SAP told ComputerworldUK that it is in talks with many major UK teams across different sports, and that their dream would be to work with large football brands like Chelsea.