Data 'surveillance' can lead to anxiety and fatigue, report finds

A huge amount of data is collected and then analysed in elite sport

A huge amount of data is collected and then analysed in elite sport

DATA collection and analysis in elite sport can amount to “ubiquitous surveillance” and result in feelings of anxiety, precariousness and performance fatigue among participants, new research by two academics from Bath University has shown.

Dr Andrew Manley and Dr Shaun Williams investigated the “implications surrounding a comprehensive and intensive mode of organisational surveillance” and “the consequences of deploying data-driven systems of performance management” in elite sport.

To do this, they interviewed 12 people - 10 players, the head coach and performance analyst - from a Gallagher Premiership rugby union team with “a long history of success in both the English and European club game”, to which they gave the pseudonym ‘Ravens’.

Each interview was ‘semi-structured’, took 60 to 90 minutes and involved a sample of players from “across the spectrum”, ranging from new professionals to experienced internationals.

The results - particularly the first-hand testimony of the interviewees - make for fascinating reading, painting a picture of a Big Brother culture in which everything is measured and monitored at all times. However, the effects on the players are not always realised and the way in which an influential Work Efficiency Index is calculated is not fully disclosed to them.

As in football, a range of technology is used by the Ravens to map, track and monitor players, including GPS, camcorders, heart rate monitors, skinfold callipers and mood score sheets. Most of these methods have been covered in articles on TGG.

The collected data is analysed and presented in edited videos, heat maps, descriptive stats and charts, while being pushed through a bespoke algorithm that produces a measure of individual and team performance called the Work Efficiency Index.

All this is disclosed at a weekly Monday review meeting, which is attended by all players and coaches. The players are also required to review their individual data on an app that shows their video footage, stats, wellbeing data, biometric data, medical information, schedules and a message board.

While data can undoubtedly lead to better-informed decision-making, as we’ve discussed many times on this site, the study by Manley and Williams, published on January 6th 2020 and entitled ‘We’re not run on Numbers, We’re People, We’re Emotional People’: Exploring the experiences and lived consequences of emerging technologies, organizational surveillance and control raises a number of issues created by this almost constant surveillance.

First of all, the anonymous players who are interviewed suggest an obsession with data can result in players thinking about themselves rather than the team.

When asked whether there have been situations in which players were reluctant to take risks in a game because of data scrutiny, one replies, “Yeah, without a question. Fear, fear. They were, ‘I can’t do this because my stats might be wrong, might look wrong and why would I put myself in that position on a Monday morning because I can’t win’."

Another says: "In all honesty, it makes it more individual in my eyes. You then take on your individual responsibility, as opposed to you’re a member of a team and you need to do whatever you can for that team in order for it to succeed.

"It tends to be now that you’ll get guys that will be like, 'as long as all my lights are green and everything’s good I’m happy days, I’m sat back, I’m fine,' and that for me takes an emphasis off of what you’ve actually got to do for the team."

Another admits “you’re trying to affect your Work Efficiency Index rather than the result of the game.”

Of course some things, such as the impact a player has on his team-mates, or his leadership qualities, are also difficult to quantify and measure.

The players also highlight how invasive the monitoring process can be.

“Every month you’re pinched off of 11 sites," one reveals. "You’re given an average skinfold. This year they’ve been very brutal... so the off-season is gonna be tough for boys who struggle to keep weight off. This year they put fines on it, financial fines.

"So if your target is 70mm, if you come back at 71 there’s a £200 fine; if you come back at 76, which is 5mm more, £400; 5mm more, so 81, £600.”

Another says: “There’s not many jobs where you go to work and every once a week someone pinches how fat you are, or you have to weigh in everyday.”

The report outlines how the development of technology has led to "hyper-connectivity", with the players feeling as if they are under constant surveillance via their iPads and mobile phones.

"If you’re goin’ out on the weekend, for a couple of days with the family, you don’t wanna bring your iPad with you. But they’d expect you to do that, you’d pretty much have to do that,” one says.

Another adds that “unless I lose Wi-Fi and it’s a dream... then otherwise it's the app and phone going Ravens rugby, Ravens rugby, Ravens rugby!”

The players feel there will be consequences for their careers if they aren't constantly connected to the app.

"One player actually left because of this app, well not purely because of this app... he had a phone, which was just a phone that couldn’t get emails just text messages and phone calls that was it," a player explains.

"He said, ‘I’m checking my emails and when I get your [the coaches] message I’ll look at it, but if I’m out doin’ something and I’ve got my phone with me I won’t get it’. And they [the coaches] said, ‘That’s not acceptable, you need to get a new phone’.

"He said, ‘No I don’t, it’s a phone, it works’. And that was where he fell out with coaches and was never picked again really, but because he stood up for it and went, ‘look while I’m at work you can contact me on my phone, if you need to directly contact me then call me, if not, I’m not at work’... it’s that environment now that you’ve got to do it all or you’ll get the boot.”

The Work Efficiency Index (WEI) is highly influential in the Monday review meetings, and in decisions about whether to retain or release players; yet the exact way it is calculated remains unclear to the team.

One understands that the WEI is “basically like everything you did divided by how many good things and bad things". He adds: "The crazy thing was is that it literally gave you a figure.”

Another says: “It counted up everything you did in a game, every instance. So normally there’d be like 70 things you did in a game. It would then work out how many were negative and how many were positive and do some sort of calculation divided by the time you were on the pitch, and then you’d get an actual figure of your WEI, your Work Efficiency Index.”

The players realise that statistics can be manipulated and that the algorithm is a tailored instruction for the data.

“I’m very much aware of how you can make statistics appear a certain way to certain people and manipulate them, so that’s only where my concern comes in," one player says.

"One minute it’s positive but at whatever point they want, because of the amount they have on you, they can turn either way, they can bend it wherever they want.”

Another says: “Stats are like a bikini - what you can see is adjusted, but what you can’t see is essential.”

At the end of the report, the authors conclude: “What was of key concern, both in relation to the well-being and future employment of interviewees, was not necessarily the amount of data obtained but the manner in which data were interpreted and communicated to the players and across personnel.

“It is necessary that further critical questions are raised concerning the ability of employees to gain access to the analytical procedures tied to knowledge production and the manner in which managerial decisions are being inspired by an algorithmic way of thinking.”

  • You can read the full report HERE.

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