The game’s not a bogey

The insights gained from processing huge volumes of realtime performance data obtained from athletes during training can push competitiveness in sport to the next level, according to Dr Malcolm Fairweather, head of science and innovation at sportscotland.

A proponent of big data, Dr Fairweather believes the move towards continuous monitoring of sportsmen and women – largely through technological advancements in wearable devices – can offer up new insights into the way the human body responds when it is pushed to the limits.

It is those discoveries which can help coaches develop new training methods: whether that’s the ability
to understand how to mitigate lactic acid build-up in runners, which causes muscle fatigue, or to help footballers score more penalties, the applications to high performance sport are potentially transformative.

“I think what this allows us to con- sider is how to improve upon current understanding of performance and enable new training and competitive behaviour that allows us to be even more competitive in the future,” says Dr Fairweather, a man with four degrees, including a PhD in Motor Behaviour and Skill Acquisition. “I think that’s where we’re heading – to build upon a strong basis and make it even more informed and astute going forward.”

Dr Fairweather demonstrated the effect of so-called ‘quiet eye time’ – where the eye is concentrating on one point – on putting performance in golf. He ran experiments at the Scottish Open and at the Ryder Cup, asking volunteers to step forward and try to putt a golf ball into a hole from a distance. They wore goggles tted with tiny infra-red micro-cameras calibrated to the participant’s pupil; the cameras then continuously tracked the pupil as it moved across the ball and the target area.

“What we know in target sports is that in order to get good comprehen-sion of the environment we need these quiet periods to exist – we need them to take place,” says Dr Fairweather. “And what we find with less expert individuals is that they have less quiet eye periods and less extended quiet eye periods. In other words they don’t search the environment in any way at all similar to how an expert would search the environment.” The experiment showed that in ordinary circumstances volunteers holed zero or one putts out of four, where the probability of success was 25 per cent.

By simply training them for a few minutes in the quiet eye technique, all volunteers were then able to improve their ratio to two out of four putts, with 50 per cent scoring three out of four putts. “It was quite incredible, these were scores that we wouldn’t have predicted, adds Fairweather.  “What we demonstrated was that this was a very powerful effect and once the body and mind had understood what was going on and the feed-back had its opportunity to take hold a simple concentration template then allowed vision and movement response to couple very well to golf putting.”

Other areas in which Dr Fairweather is involved include looking into how re- altime monitoring of lactic acid build-up can inform new interventions to help stave off the decremental effects of muscle fatigue in runners. Work at Strathclyde University, in which athletes are fitted with microelectronic devices, hopes to shed light on how training regimes can be improved. He is also looking forward to the new Oriam National Performance Centre at Heriot Watt University in Edinburgh, a £33m state-of-the-art sporting facility due to open this summer.

“All these things are brand new opportunities in Scotland and allows Scotland to look in a different way to what I would call an emerging opportunity in big data process.”