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British rowing team employs SAS analytics to prep for Olympics

Forced to train remotely during the pandemic, the British rowing team has used SAS software tools to develop training programs for its athletes ahead of the 2021 Summer Olympics.

With the Summer Olympics less than three months away, Great Britain's rowing team is employing analytics from SAS to reach peak performance for the games in Tokyo.

In fact, with team members unable to gather during the COVID-19 pandemic, the SAS analytics platform has been a key tool in both monitoring and planning training over the past 15 months, according to Brendan Purcell, director of performance of Great Britain's rowing team.

On May 18, during the keynote address of SAS Global Forum, the analytics vendor's virtual user conference, Purcell said the pandemic wiped out the 2020 rowing season, including the Tokyo Games, which will now take place this summer. So, Great Britain's rowing team needed to figure out a way to keep training and peak for 2021. The first step the organization took, therefore, was to supply each individual athlete with an ergometer (indoor rowing machines also known as ergs). The ergs collected data about each athlete as they trained remotely, and using that data and analyzing it in SAS -- not unlike a business looking at financial metrics -- the coaching staff was able to track key performance indicators.

But something else happened.

Unlike in the past when the team trained together and workouts were tailored toward the group as a whole, the coaching staff was able to design workouts for each individual rower based on the data received from the ergs and analyzed in SAS, which the British rowing team has been using for five years.

The more we can use analytics to look at the actual individual performance versus predicted performance, we're able to tailor each individual program to get the most out of the crew, rather than the average out of the crew. That's a really important thing.
Brendan PurcellDirector of performance, British Rowing

Athletes were, thus, given their own programs and emerged individually stronger than they would have, had they been doing workouts designed for the team as a whole.

"You normally look for the trends across the group, rather than understanding the individual variances," Purcell said. "The more we can use analytics to look at the actual individual performance versus predicted performance, we're able to tailor each individual program to get the most out of the crew, rather than the average out of the crew. That's a really important thing."

In addition to tailoring workouts, as 2021 began and a return to competition loomed, when the time came for the coaching staff to choose which rowers to place in which boats, and where to place them within those boats, the decisions were more data-driven than they had been in the past, according to Purcell.

In an eight-seat boat, for example, the most technically proficient rowers often sit in the bow and stern, while the strongest are placed in the center.

"Crew selection has been successful, but too often it's relied on the coach feel, the coach experience, the coach knowledge -- which is absolutely critical -- but with better data analytics we can blend the coach's instinct, feel and experience with real insight that either corroborates or challenges what we've been doing, so our crews are more functional and more cohesive," Purcell said.

As a result of what it was able to do with data during the coronavirus pandemic, both in terms of training and crew selection, when the team finally gathered from April 9-11 for its first meet in well over a year at the 2021 European Rowing Championships in Varese, Italy, Great Britain led the medal count for the first time since 2016.

Great Britain was first among the 22 teams competing with 10 medals overall and tied with Italy for the most gold medals with three. Including para-rowing events, Great Britain's medal count was 12 with five golds.

As recently as 2018, Great Britain won just four overall medals and none of them gold.

"It was an outstanding performance from all our athletes, and just a great way -- it had been 20 months since we last raced -- to start racing again," said Purcell, who noted that the British rowing team has been using SAS as its analytics platform for five years.

Beyond supplying all of the athletes with ergs, one of the key data-driven decisions the coaching staff made was to alter the training schedule. The Tokyo Games were postponed on March 24, 2020, and by that time, it was apparent that the pandemic was going to have a lasting effect on the sports calendar and either delay events for months or cancel them entirely.

Normally, rowers have a winter training program for the months when they're not competing and a summer training schedule for the months when they are competing.

The biggest physiological gains come during winter training, according to Purcell. Summer training, meanwhile, is more of a balancing act attempting to peak for key meets without overtraining and burning out. So, with all competition canceled in 2020, the decision was made to add an additional winter training season during summer 2020 to maximize potential physiological gains.

"We have a young group of athletes who are still developing their physiologies, so we did an extra winter block to accelerate [gains], and then we went into another winter block at the normal time," Purcell said. "With the data, it just allowed us to make sure we tailored training to the right people at the right times."

With the European Rowing Championships complete, the goal now is to reach peak performance in concert with the start of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Just as it did in training during the pandemic and now with crew selection, SAS' data analytics platform will play a major role. Using data, the British rowing team is now training to try to improve performance without pushing to the point of exhaustion and burnout.

"The real work now is looking back at all the data we had about our predicted performance going into the European Championships, balancing it against the actual, and using that to plot our way forward with less than 100 days to Tokyo," Purcell said.

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