With another round of Six Nations rugby action starting tonight in Cardiff, Rugby Football Union (RFU) performance chief Scott Drawer tells Matt Packer that, in sports training, finely honed number theory provides fundamental support for natural determination
Is it grit or a knack with numbers that makes a sporting hero?
The question has been simmering away as a subtext beneath media coverage of some notable sports achievements in the past couple of years. While reports of Andy Murray’s Olympic success and Wimbledon victory remarked mainly upon the physical feats required to top a tournament, many articles also took time to explore the finely tuned science behind his game – comprised of a carefully calibrated diet, fluids and fitness regime.
Maths and rowing: an unlikely combination
Murray’s fellow GB Olympian, rower Anna Watkins, has credited her mathematical skills – which she is currently pushing to the limit in a PhD – as key to the Gold she won with Katherine Grainger at London 2012.
Indeed, her enthusiasm for the link between sport and numbers has led her to set maths-and-rowing tasks for schoolchildren as part of BBC educational programming. In the New Year, Watkins announced that she would be taking time out of sport for a while, including the Rio Olympics in 2016, to give her PhD full attention… but promised she’d be back in action before long.
To find out whether this focus on figures is entirely necessary, I spoke to RFU athletic performance manager Scott Drawer. If anyone is able to speak with authority on the role of numbers in sport, it is him.
Recruited to specialist high-performance agency UK Sport in 2000, Drawer went on to lead its Research and Innovation team where he oversaw the design and construction of training gear designed to minimise injury to athletes.
Subsequently, Drawer joined the English Institute of Sport as Deputy Director of Performance Solutions. Keen to pick his well-honed sports-science brains, RFU hired him in December.
So, just how common are numbers in sport? After all, recent damning findings published by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) ranked the number skills of young adults in the UK a lowly 21st out of 24 countries.
Why numeracy matters in sport
Drawer, though, assures me: ‘Numeracy is 100% widespread across all British performance sports. Science, medicine and technology are now an integral part of any high-performance sport programme. Every professional, Olympic and Paralympic sport will have some support services where numeracy is an integral part of practice.’
In Drawer’s experience, putting that science into action ranges across every area of an athlete’s training and development. ‘Numbers,’ he said, ‘are a fundamental, first-principles element of any sporting performance regime – through applied research to day-to-day practice, and covering the breadth and depth of processes and disciplines.
They cover such things as competition analysis (eg, split times), scores, notational analysis, technique analysis (eg, forces, speeds and joint velocities), physiological factors (eg, heart rates and measures of stress) and medical or health- related data, such as wellness reporting.’
Measuring, tracking and monitoring performance
Use of objective data, he explained, is important for a number of reasons, ‘but primarily for feedback and learning through support of the coaching process. The measurement, tracking and monitoring of performance, and its various underpinning factors, are an integral element of sporting performance – from athlete through to support staff.’
While the OECD has slammed our youngsters’ numeracy levels, British sport appears to be one area that has focused and distilled mathematical skills into a particularly concentrated isotonic brew.
‘The UK is certainly one of the worlds leading lights in the application of science, medicine and technology in performance sport,’ Drawer stresses. ‘Our “competitors” include Australia, the US, Russia, Germany and several other European nations – although the nature of the competition in this space depends upon sport, country and event.
However, Great Britain does have an excellent and growing reputation, and many of our competitors look at our performance system and structure in a number of sports with envy.’
That means it is imperative for UK sports scientists not to rest on their laurels – and to keep scrutinising data effectively. ‘We can always do more in the use of data and numbers,’ Drawer says, ‘but the real differentiator is not the ability to measure and capture numbers; it’s the interpretation and application through a robust, systematic process that engages athletes and coaches around their performance plans.’
With such a ravenous food chain for innovative thinking, not to mention thinkers, what would Drawer do to raise awareness of numbers in sport if he had a ‘money-no-object’ fund?
‘I would not use it to raise awareness,’ he said, ‘I’d use it on tools, technology and people to apply it in the right way. The use of data is implicit in the British high-performance system, and especially in my field of high-performance Rugby Union in England.’
Is determination or intellect more important in athletes?
And what of that core question – is it grit or intellect that wins the silverware? In Drawer’s view, the key requirement is a blend: ‘An athlete development process that mixes and matches objective measurement with high-quality coaching.’
He adds: ‘Athletes all desire and drive to the best in the world, and an environment that supports that process will always be the best mix. You will always get exceptions on how that mix plays itself out – and that’s the beauty of performance sport.’
You can read more about how numeracy, finance and sport work together on a number of topical issues in the latest issue of Accounting Technician magazine (AAT members only).
Matt Packer is a freelancer journalist who has contributed to Accounting Technician magazine, 20 magazine and the CMI website.