Virtual coaching: is it the next sports frontier?
It was in the middle of round 3 at the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Zone C diving national qualification meet when the NCAA cancelled all athletics for the rest of the year. Emily, a Purdue diver in her last season of eligibility, was training for the Australian Olympic Trials when all her expectations for what the future held were unequivocally changed. She will never forget March 12, 2020, and all the emotions that accompanied that day: anger, disappointment, confusion, and stress. But Emily was not alone in feeling this way. Athletes in every sport across the globe suddenly had their seasons cancelled, and everything they had been working towards seemed to have been ripped away in an instant. There were no answers to the questions every athlete was asking: when will we get back to normal? What does this mean for the Olympics? Has all my hard work been for nothing?
As the sports community started to regain their footing, coaches and athletes began to explore how technology could be used to get back to training and competing. In talking with four professionals about the future of virtual coaching, it became clear that technology has been vital in keeping athletes engaged and active during the COVID-19 pandemic. Defining virtual coaching gets tricky because there are two components to it: all the different technologies that are integrated into sports, including video analysis and sensors, and then having to coach an athlete from afar. The nature of the sport – team or individual, contact or non-contact – determines what balance of the two definitions will be the most pertinent. For example, in swimming, virtual coaching is most commonly for communication when the coach can’t be in the same building as the swimmer, but in football it’s more about the sensor and video technology.
The power of data
In American football, technology has been used for film analysis since the 1960s, but it was not until recently that more advanced analytics, such as data from sensors and GPS tracking, were introduced (Healy 0:26). Andrew Healy, vice president of research and strategy for the Cleveland Browns explained to us that the coaches are taking advantage of the next-gen stats (NGS) that come from the sensors to develop a more objective way to evaluate and rank players. He believes that the advances in technology now allow teams to better measure player performance objectively, and it’s likely that this approach to coaching will be seen in other sports like soccer, baseball, and basketball (Healy 2:36). Sailing also has a need for objective evaluation of crew performance. Marty Kullman, owner of Hydra Sailing Solutions, a company that supplies data driven solutions and coaching expertise to sailors, gave us some insights on the two performance factors considered when coaching sailors: boat and crew. Boat tactics and how a team moved around the course is analyzed by collecting and comparing data from the whole fleet, whereas crew performance is analyzed by reviewing video from the boat.
Up close and personal
Bruce Gemmell, swim coach at Nation’s Capital Swim Club and coach of five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, has an alternative view on technology that was brilliantly unexpected. While digital technology is beneficial and has its applications, there is so much left to be discovered about the human body. (Gemmell 2:51) "The human body is such a great machine and source of data that it’s better than any technology we could ever think about or invent,” which brings up the question: are we relying too much on technology to bring us to the next level of sports when there is still untapped potential within us? Further exploration of the human brain could lead to a way to see how engaged athletes are during practice and coaching off that information would allow for a more engaged, productive practice. There is no universal way of coaching. Now with the ability to combine virtual and in-person coaching to design an athlete-specific training program, every athlete is afforded the greatest opportunity for success.
Going virtual has had some unexpected positive outcomes. Teammates have been given the chance to learn more about each other’s lives off the field and discovered a new way to connect and communicate with each other. Purdue’s vice president and director of Athletics Mike Bobinski noted that using virtual platforms for the past few months has really allowed relationships to grow and develop in a different and maybe more productive way, and hopefully, this is an insight that will be taken from the current conditions. While the reliance on virtual communication is not ideal, it has come with laughter and opportunity to get through this together.
The sports world has been forced into the virtual world more abruptly than expected, requiring coaches and athletes to adapt to a new way of doing things. So, what is the future for virtual coaching? It looks different in every sport. As technology continues to advance, there will be more ways it can be incorporated into sports, from more sensors to new metrics to enhanced video analysis tools. However, it’s imperative to remember what Gemmell shared, that “we’re dealing with human beings, so no matter what the physiology or the science or the technology, that’s great support, but at the end of the day you’re dealing with emotional human beings,” and until you can replace the subtle body language and social aspect of coaching, virtual coaching will remain as a supplement, not a substitute. Even though virtual coaching is not the next frontier, it will continue to grow and be a useful tool in the kit for coaches in all sports.
Since March 12, Emily has been able to get back into training, thanks to video analysis and the ability to send her practices to her coach for review. She went back to Australia when there was still hope for the Olympics happening as planned, but as event after event got postponed or cancelled, the realization that she would have to rely on virtual communication to keep training with her coach at Purdue hit. Luckily, there was an app where she could log her training and TVs for video feedback so she could keep learning and improving with her coach. This available technology was the necessary supplement to keep her training on track, and now Emily has her sights set on Tokyo 2021.
This article was produced by Purdue University for Games Flash, an internal emailer of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). As part of this collaboration, Purdue develops periodical content highlighting insights about the latest technologies impacting sport globally. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and not necessarily those of the IOC.
The conversation goes on: check out the expert interviews below for more insights.
Andrew Healy is the current vice president of research and strategy for the Cleveland Browns. In this role, he leads the integration process of data and advanced insights into all realms of football operations, and along with Browns senior football staff, is a contributing member to all roster and strategic football decisions. Healy received his bachelor of science degree in applied mathematics and bachelor of arts in political science from Yale University, and his Ph.D. in economics from MIT. He was a professor of economics at Loyola Marymount University for 11 years before joining the NFL as part of the Browns family.
Mike Bobinski is currently the vice president and director of athletics at Purdue University and has served in this role since 2016. Bobinski graduated magna cum laude from Notre Dame in 1979 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration while playing on the varsity baseball team. His career in athletic management began in 1989 at the U.S. Naval Academy where he was the associate director of athletics until 1994, when he became athletic director of Akron. He served as athletic director at three Division 1 schools prior to Purdue: Georgia Tech (2013-2016); Xavier (1998-2004, 2006-2013); and Akron (1994-1998).
Bruce Gemmell is currently a swim coach at Nation’s Capital Swim Club, one of America’s top swim programs. Most notably, he coached five-time Olympic gold medalist and 15-time FINA world championship gold medalist Katie Ledecky, and his son, Andrew Gemmell, who was a 2012 Olympian for the United States, in addition to being named to several USA Swimming international staffs. Prior to becoming a full-time coach in 2012, he was an engineering manager and industry consultant for more than 20 years and has 11 patents. Gemmell swam at the University of Michigan, where he earned All-American honors and set a school record in the 400-yard individual medley while receiving his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in mechanical engineering.
Marty Kullman is the owner of Hydra Sailing Solutions, a company that supplies data driven solutions and coaching expertise to sailors of all levels. Having been a sailor his whole life, he saw a demand for a cost-effective way to help teams get better. He uses virtual coaching, video analysis, and boat data to help the crew sail the boat faster and more efficiently. Kullman has earned many accolades including three-time All-American sailor at Old Dominion, Farr 40 World Champion, and J/111 World Champion, in addition to coaching several sailors to world championship victories.