Still looking for an edge? Sport may be off for now, but the quest to improve, innovate and scrutinise continues. Lucy Higginson investigates behind the scenes in British sport
Could fighter pilot technology help give Britain’s equestrian teams a competitive edge for Tokyo next year? What sounds like a comic teaser on Have I Got News For You, in fact is not: the British Equestrian Federation (BEF)and BAE Systems really have been working together to develop a “bespoke environmental monitoring unit” called Equus-Sense.
The unit builds on the sensors used to monitor cockpit conditions and air quality in Eurofighter Typhoon combat aircraft. Now our horses should benefit from technology developed for pilots, as the system will monitor sound, vibration, humidity, dust and more as they fly all the way to Tokyo.
Welcome to the diverse and often secretive world of performance analysis, whose tendrils extend to data and video analysis, nutrition, performance lifestyle coaching, strength and conditioning, sports psychology and mental readiness, and much more.
For many of us, the words “performance analysis” conjure up ideas of video and data crunching, and ranks of boffins watching cricket, rugby and soccer matches from behind their laptops.
“People can only recall about 30% of what’s happened in a game,” explains Emma Bird, a performance analyst for hockey and climbing working at the English Institute for Sport. “So statistics give a more objective picture.”
Her job includes looking at key performance indicators – “who’s had more shots, corners and so on – but in a lot more detail than that”.
“A sport like hockey will need more tactical support, video delivery and providing statistical feedback,” explains Emma. “Other sports like swimming or cycling might have more biomechanics involved.”
From how you performed in a match to how you slept the night after it, sport is now underpinned by “big data”, and any elite athlete will be used to an extraordinary level of scrutiny from the performance analysis team.
Sporting annals are full of tales of teams going to extraordinary lengths to optimise their performance — be that Team Sky’s Tour de France cyclists taking their own hypoallergenic mattresses and bedding with them to each hotel to improve their sleep quality, or the University of Bath giving athletes basic training in Japanese culture, travel and common vocabulary to help them feel comfortable and settled as soon as they arrive in Tokyo.
Keeping sporting dreams afloat
Equestrian sports are of course atypical in many ways – not least because our riders are often far older (and stiffer!) than your average Olympian – and each of them must run a complex business to keep their sporting dreams afloat.
Britain’s equestrian performance director Dickie Waygood well knows that such athletes need to focus on the things that really make a difference for them: “You can track your riding, heart rate, breathing… but all that’s only as good as the people who put the data in and read it,” he points out. “We have a sports science team looking at these things and seeing if they’re worth doing. Some are, some aren’t.
“It’s really down to the athletes to pick the bits they feel are most useful to them,” he continues. “Everything is on offer to all the disciplines, but there are big challenges around some of our athletes who are very rarely in the country – the showjumpers are often based in America and so on. But there’s support there if they want it.”
This suite of expertise includes the obvious things such as nutrition and strength and conditioning, and also human and equine physiotherapy.
“The riders at the top regularly visit the gym, and work with conditioning coaches and nutritionists,” says Dickie. “A lot have gyms in their houses, and we can help with gym access for those who need it.”
But it extends to many other areas too, and to helping the home team on the yard, coaches at home, grooms and owners. Performance lifestyle advice, for example, helps people to manage their business.
“Without that, you can’t fulfil your competition aspirations,” explains Dickie. “Every rider’s situation is different; are they renting a yard, do they have children, do they have five or 20 horses to ride each day? The variables are massive and the solutions very bespoke.”
He gives an up-to-the-minute example: “Tonight we’ve a webinar for all athletes and staff on the situation now [with Covid-19] and the effect on their businesses and what help may be available for them — with an expert coming in to host it.”
A lesser-known area of the BEF’s performance offering is its contract with Chimp Management, which “helps people to gain insight into how their minds work and develop the emotional skills to be able to manage their minds effectively”, according to its website. Again, “Some love it, some don’t need it,” says Dickie.
Britain’s equestrians appear to be among the very best resourced in the world, thanks to years of Lottery-funded professionalism.
“There is more of it here than I saw in Germany, though they would find whatever we needed,” says eventing’s performance coach Christopher Bartle, who was previously team trainer to Germany’s event riders.
Even so, some of the most useful technology for elite riders is some of the most readily accessible. Dickie credits everyday WhatsApp as a game-changer for equestrians who rarely get to spend time at a desk.
“You can download WhatsApp in seconds in a field and zoom in and out; it has transformed the way in which we can share information,” he says.
He also points out that “in jumping, especially, there’s hardly a round that’s not livestreamed now” too, in itself very useful.
British Dressage’s performance manager Caroline Griffith points out that simply FaceTiming a practice test can be a very powerful thing – if you’ve got the right high-level judge viewing it and giving feedback in the build-up to a major competition.
Nor does high-tech necessarily need to be high-cost. Dickie speaks highly of apps like Coach’s Eye: “You can send a video to a coach and get a voiceover on there, scroll it backwards and forwards in slow time, draw on lines… and just for a few pounds.” Such technology can benefit riders at every level.
The detailed data produced by EquiRatings is another tool available to the BEF and other federations, though Dickie stresses it’s “paramount” that you couple hard statistics with what he calls “tacit knowledge” – an understanding of an athlete’s experience, personal situation, injury history and more.
“So many times people select [for teams] on science and forget that it’s an art,” he says.
Flawless riding positions
The BEF has long worked with Dr Russell Guire of Centaur Biomechanics, whose work in high-tech gait and positional analysis readers may well have read about previously in this magazine, exploring “the interaction between horse, saddle and rider”. Obviously most of our elite riders have pretty flawless riding positions, but Russell explains he often works alongside other practitioners such as saddle fitters, human and equine physios and so on: “We’re trying to improve performance but also reduce the risk of injury.”
He’s also involved in measuring whether certain adaptations in kit can help deliver a performance benefit, as he did in 2012 when the then new Fairfax Performance Girth was found to increase hind and forelimb extension and improved symmetry of movement. Fairfax was asked not to launch their new girth on to the open market until after Team GB had been able to use it in the Olympics. The move wasn’t without controversy, however, as the decision to use the girths caused friction between some riders and their existing saddlery sponsors.
How does it work then with equine nutrition, when so many riders have obligations to use a specific sponsor’s brand?
“We find the level of delivery from those sponsors is very high,” says Caroline Griffith, explaining that it’s usually when a rider wants to change something in a horse’s feed programme that their sponsor’s nutritionist might then liaise with the BEF’s own expert.
Collaboration between sports is something that excites everyone in performance analysis, and leading figures in British high-performance sport come together in a “performance conference” to trade ideas – “a wonderful thing”, according to Caroline. “We’ve learnt so much from other sports.”
Asking a performance analyst for insights isn’t always easy – they’d sooner shoot you than share secrets that could keep them one step ahead of the opposition. So Caroline cannot elaborate on the work being done currently in kit development, just as Russell Guire politely declines to tell me exactly what technology he’s hoping to borrow from Formula One.
But when our chosen riders do finally touch down in Tokyo next year, we can be certain that despite the chaos of 2020, no stone will have been left unturned in the bid to have them ready to give their very best.
Ref Horse & Hound; 9 April 2020