Big Data: Predicting and preventing rugby injuries

Bath Rugby players training

Rugby Union is becoming an unlikely benefactor of the so-called data revolution by using information about players' health to predict injuries.

Rugby is perhaps one of the last industries you might expect to be embracing Big Data, but some clubs and coaches are finding ways to use it to their advantage.

Data analytics - the study of information with a view to using it to predict the future - could revolutionise the sport by helping coaches put together the strongest possible team based on such factors as a player's health or stress levels.

"We're very interested in the science; we're very interested in monitoring the players," says Bath Rugby's Head Coach Gary Gold, who is overseeing this new dawn of West Country rugby.

"The players are our biggest investment, they're the people we need to deliver the product."

The thinking behind data analytics is simple: the body sends messages about how it is.

Heartbeats that are irregular or fail to return to normal after exercise are heartbeats that are sending distress messages.

Other parts of the body also send out these calls, but until now we have not been able to use the information.

But all that has changed, or is changing. Sam Seddon from IBM, who are developing the technology, explains:

"We're working to catch information about the players so you can understand what their heart rate is like during a training session.

"If you monitor that heart rate over time you understand what norms are for an individual player, so you can start to see ahead of time whether that player might be fatigued or have an illness.

"What you can then do is address their levels of performance in a training session and stop them training if you think they might be susceptible to an illness."

So what impact could data analytics have on the sport as whole? Gary Gold sums up his hopes for the future like this:

"We would like to get a situation where the best preventative methods are put in place to ensure that a player is not going to have a stress fracture in three weeks' time, because we've been able to pick up that that joint is taking more of a load than it needs to and therefore we can do something."

One ex-player who perhaps could have benefitted from Big Data is the former Bath and England prop David Flatman - now increasingly in demand as commentator and pundit - who listed his injuries:

"I had finger problems on both hands, I broke my right hand twice, I broke my right elbow and had it reconstructed, I had two further reconstructions on both my right and left shoulders."

He goes on: "My right bicep ruptured, I damaged ligaments in my neck, I damaged my eye socket, my nose, my jaw, I tore my hamstrings, I ruptured ligaments in both ankles which no longer exist...

"But apart from that things went swimmingly."

Rugby is of course a rough game and it will always hurt - that is the point - but Flatman's view is that some of his injuries could have been prevented if the information about his body had been to hand as it is for today's coaches.

Even current players are noticing a change in approach. Stuart Hooper, Bath's veteran captain, identified three stages he had played through.

He says: "The first year I played it was kind of, 'Can you walk? You're playing.' And then: 'Can we get you on the pitch? Can we get you right to play?'

"Compared to now, where it's: "We want you on the pitch at 100%, we do not want you on the pitch at anything less because it is not good enough."

The monitoring of players will likely become more and more intense as time goes on, but so will the amount of data that sports fans will have access to on match day on their mobile devices in the stands.

The other side of the big data revolution in rugby is the fans' enhanced fun. Nick Shaw from the Rugby Football Union says big changes are on the way.

"You'll be seeing in real time what that player is doing - the yardage they've run, the tackles they've made, the passes they've completed," he says.

"But what we'll do is we'll interpret that based on the position they're at on the pitch. So If you just took the raw data it wouldn't necessarily tell you the whole story of what is going on.

"A commentator may say that this person is the man of the match but actually the statistics and the data will say something different."

But maybe all of this misses the point of sport, which ought to be rooted in chance and risk and unpredictability and those glorious parts of being human that are not capable of being chopped into digital facts and spewed out by IBM.

The question is: will the big data revolution enhance or destroy a game who's essence still revolves around big men with odd shaped balls knocking each other over and shaking hands afterwards?

Based on a story first broadcast on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

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