Top 5 Innovation Tips from Sports Performance Experts

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Top 5 Innovation Tips from Sports Performance Experts

I recently had the good fortune to host a panel on the topic of Innovation in Sports Performance when @soccerex came to Qatar for the first time.

The three speakers offered different perspectives – one from Leicester City FC Academy, one from Malaga FC first team in La Liga and the other from Aspire Academy with an overview of Qatar’s football performance and science ecosystem.

All shared the same challenge of operating within the relentlessly competitive environment of football business. No other industry operates in such a high profile results-driven setting as sport does. Results and tables are instantly available for the world to see. Today’s sport results are tomorrow’s water cooler moments.

The pace with which any team has to apply technology, interpret data and communicate its essential messages is also unique to sport. For example, GPS has been as trans-formative to sports performance as email has been to enterprise activity.

What the sports performance sector knows about Innovation can serve as a lesson for all other businesses.

Peter Drucker, the founder of modern business principles, has been quoted as saying that any business has two – and only two – business functions; Marketing and Innovation for they are the only activities that produce results.

Innovation is core business and – given the availability of digital technologies and level of automation that abounds – this is a responsibility of everyone.

These are my top five Innovation tips from the field of Sports Performance thanks to the insights of people far more knowledgeable than me.

  1. Innovation starts with Vision and ends with People

Qatar’s football leaders have a vision for a united football performance pathway that includes the youth academy, clubs and national teams. Anyone who works in football will know how ambitious this is, yet Qatar has succeeded and in 2017 will open a Football Performance Center which will be a physical manifestation of this success.

Vision only carries you so far – and really only to match kick-off time. From there the people need to make vision a reality. Pioneering into new space (which, thanks to digital, we are all now doing) takes shared trust, respect and action that is unified by a process owner who has the communication skills and knowledge to get everyone on board. The hardest part is getting started, then success builds success with a natural momentum comes from doing things in new and better ways.

  1. Know your Data and How to Communicate it

Any La Liga match will produce 200 pages of data which needs to be interpreted and acted upon if necessary before the next days training, which then brings the next data sets to be distilled. And on the seasons data cycle goes.

The First Team is in constant pursuit of meaningful values from their mountains of data. How do they manage this? The answer is in knowing their data. Over time, Malaga has innovated their processes to the point of knowing what their three highest value performance metrics are. They are looking for anomalies in individual player performance data such as running distance or intensity.

Similarly, Leicester City FC Academy manage the development program of 9 to 21 year old’s who are in pursuit of the dream to play first team football. They have refined their processes into a traffic light system. Innovation for them comes from the depth of insight behind the visual cues of red-amber-green. It also seems that there is something to the ‘rule of 3’ when it comes to the value of data.

In the frenetic and big-personality world of football, knowing what and how to communicate information to management and players is a highly evolved (innovated) process. Communication is limited to essential information that will (i) inform decision making and (ii) make performance better. Only when data is outside of norms (from important values) will reporting protocols commence and as close to real-time as possible.

Leicester’s visualisation of data into traffic lights is clever in its simplicity because of the intuitive call to action that is already embedded in these colour cues.

Knowing what, why and how to communicate the messages of data is an important innovation process.

  1. Technology Selection Process

In the business of sports performance, vendors knock on team doors on an almost daily basis given that sport is one of the most disrupted and fertile industries for developers.

In the first decade of the digital economy just gone, there was somewhat of a gold rush to grab new technologies and the term ‘shiny new toys’ was applied to this snatch-and grab-process. Some of these solutions undoubtedly now sit in the far recesses of the business. In venue-speak they would now be white elephants. Decision-making was sometimes flawed and centred on the wants of staff, rather than needs of the customer, fan or athlete.

Sports performance experts have developed a frame of reference from which to base their decisions on. This can vary depending on context; for one it might be to solve a specific issue such as real-time mobile insights or injury prediction technology. For others, the framework may be more general around the question ‘will this help the footballer’s performance?’ or ‘will it provide better data for our decision-making processes?’

These are the same two questions that any business can ask itself as it seeks to improve its customer experience journey.

  1. Innovation is less about Technology and More a New Way of Doing Things

In a @Sporttechie interview former Real Madrid Digital Business Manager suggested that ‘there is an 80/20 challenge between how much money you are investing in software versus how much money you are investing in brainpower to analyze all the data and analytics that you are obtaining’.

One of the reasons that sport performance experts have also become more selective and cautious about technology investment is because they now understand from experience the resource cost of gaining benefit from the new solution – let alone maximising its investment (what others might call ‘sweating the asset’).

Technology does not give any business a competitive advantage; any business is capable of buying that same solution. Innovation is the process of turning the product’s promise into a strategic asset that produces the results Peter Drucker would have us pursue.

These days innovation (competitive advantage) comes from collaborative, multi-disciplinary and committed focus to mining the advantages that come as features with any new technologies but realistically start as possibilities.

  1. Open Innovation

Aspire Academy moderates an ambitious platform of knowledge sharing amongst 50 of the leading football clubs in the world, including FC Barcelona, Paris St Germain and Manchester United. To date, the program’s ‘Fellows’ have shared more than 100 presentations and articles between them. Why would competitors share information so willingly? Because they all appreciate that any match is played for 90 minutes and the rest of the time is focused on the same preparation and innovation goals, so why not share. Why not indeed! A rising tide lifts all boats.

In La Liga, the league introduced a video analysis tool for all clubs to utilise that includes physical, technical and tactical data of each club. Malaga FC and all teams are able to contrast styles of play and use the technology to prepare strategy for the next match. Why has La Liga done this? Simply because they understand that knowledge sharing is Innovation’s fuel.

Innovation is not an internal or isolation exercise. More industries are realising the value of exchanging knowledge through formal alliances.


Innovation is a process of mining and refining technologies, processes and data for new insights and better ways of doing things.

In previous times, the industry of sport has sometimes felt inferior to other industries because it arrived late to the corporate world. The area of Innovation is one area that sport (particularly sports performance) can now teach to other businesses and professions.

Remembering that Innovation is one of only two purposeful activities that any business undertakes, these are powerful leadership lessons.