Tennis is about 7 years behind Australian Rules Football in data analytics. It’s probably further behind other sports like NFL and cricket. We need to catch up, starting at the grassroots level. And we can, no matter our budget or expertise.
In 2007, as part of my high-performance tennis coaching qualification, I was required to spend a few weeks as an intern in another professional sport. I was lucky enough to get a spot with Richmond, an Australian Rules Football club. I remember thinking I would probably learn a heap of different coaching techniques employed by coaches of a team sport that I could then apply to tennis in an innovative way. Instead, I was blown away by their data - how they collected, analysed and collated it. We are talking an offensive breakdown, defensive breakdown, stoppages, turnovers, how they played last time, what worked, what didn’t and more. Presented in both video and written forms.
Back then, I knew data could be useful. I even used my own match tracking system to analyse my players and their opponents, but compared to Richmond’s 96 page, full-colour detailed approach, it was clearly old school.
My old school data approach
But the challenge for me as a tennis coach was how do I start collecting, collating and using data better? Obviously, I didn’t and still don’t, have the resources of an AFL club like Richmond. Neither do most tennis coaches. But over the years I’ve become resourceful and developed some cheap, easy, but effective solutions all coaches can use.
One thing I do, is I try to prioritise data when I can.
As director of the tennis program at Maribyrnong Sports Academy I’ve introduced two things that have made a huge difference.
First, I bought six $20 phone fence mounts. The players pop in their phones to record their matches or training. They then upload their footage to a closed YouTube Channel. Players can use the footage to analyse their game and their opponent’s game. It also forms the basis of our wet weather program, to teach strategy and tactics.
The second thing I did was employ Shane Liyanage from Data Driven Sport Analytics instead of an on-court coach. Twice a year, Shane downloads the data from the YouTube Channel and produces a world class data report. We then use those reports to analyse and improve each player’s game and drive training priorities.
A sample of the data provided to students at Maribyrnong Academy
Is data really that important?
But do we really need all this data? Or are we just becoming side-tracked by fancy diagrams and compelling video annotations? Is being caught up in the numbers taking away from what truly matters - connecting with your players, having a holistic view – in short, the art of coaching?
It’s a balance for sure, and I talk about science vs the art of coaching in another blog which you can read here. But any way you look at it, data in sport, including tennis, is no longer a nice to have, it’s a must have.
And here’s why.
In tennis, marginal gains can make an enormous difference. Rafa – who has the best record of any player, ever, on clay has only won 56% of the points he’s played.
He’s won 91.3% of all his matches, but only 56% of the points.
Think about that for a moment. If a match is made up of 100 points that means, Rafa wins 56 points on average, to win a match. And his opponent wins 44. That’s a 12-point difference – 3 games. Not insignificant.
But tennis scoring doesn’t work quite like that, because for every extra point you win, your opponent loses a point. So, the Rafa equation looks more like this:
And the difference becomes only 6 points. 6 points and his opponents are even. 7 and they are up. And this is using the greatest winning record as an example. Which means, in general, the difference between winning or losing is usually a handful of points.
So, if we can analyse how our players are winning and losing points in a clear, impartial, data driven way, we can possibly tip the scales in our player’s favour.
And that’s what I’ve managed to do. By using data to enhance my coaching practice I have improved the performance of my players from my grass roots kids to my elite athletes. Data has helped me focus my coaching for each individual player in all four of the fundamental areas - technical, tactical, physical, and mental.
Data made a difference when I worked with several WTA and ATP players who ended up going deep in grand slams and even winning grand slam titles.
It informed my coaching when I helped Romanian junior Nicholas David Ionel to win an Australian Open junior doubles title.
And most recently, data made a difference when the boy’s team from Maribyrnong Academy won the Australian Schools Title against schools with two to three times the funding of our program.
So, how can you help improve your players’ performance using data?
There are actually quite a few things you can do, and in next week’s blog I will go into more detail and tell you what they are.
By Marc Sophoulis.
Can’t wait until then? I also cover this and more in my Unlocking the power of data analytics in tennis workshop for coaches. I’ve already presented in Melbourne, Cairns and Brisbane, but there are still spots available in Hobart, Adelaide, Canberra, Geelong and Sydney. Click here to come along. I’d love to see you there.