Interview with Steve Barrett – Sports Scientist, Hull City AFC

Could you start off by telling us a bit about your background?

I’ve been at the University of Hull for a long time now (9 years)! Was previously an undergraduate and a part-time master’s student at the university. Currently finishing a part-time PhD project in association with the university. My first full-time job in football was with Scunthorpe United FC where I was an Academy Coach/ Sports Scientist/Performance analyst/ Scout (Many hats!). I then moved onto working for Perform Better for several years before ending up at Hull City. I also work for the English FA part-time as a sports scientist for the England Women’s U23/U18 teams during training camps.


How would you describe what you normally do on a typical day at the club?

Basically, setting up all of the athlete monitoring practices at the club. My aim is to be proactive with the data rather than reactive, so I spend time speaking to the coaches trying to help plan our training practices to fit our periodisation model. We then monitor the players real-time using the MEMS devices and we all muck in and do any additional sessions/ specific drills with the players during/ after training. Post-session I will conduct the training data analysis and longitudinal reporting before then speaking with the medical staff and coaches regarding the session feedback.


Do you normally travel with the team during match days? 

Not usually, my role is more analytical than actually travelling with the team. I still attend the home matches to better understand the link between performance and our training practices. One of the biggest things that is underestimated within player monitoring is understanding the individual randomization within each player. We have previously used match clips to under the ‘worst case scenarios’ of player’s and tried to replicate these within our training sessions so the players can be prepared for these outputs in matches. I learnt a lot from working within different sports in my previous job role and those experiences have helped us shape our monitoring/ analytical processes.


It’s a great point. Just as a broad question, what do you think are the main challenges you face when working within the applied sporting environment?

The issues you have are in gaining the trust of both the coaches and the players first of all. It might be the case of not overpowering people with information in order to build that trust and respect. Main thing for me is showing that you care and understand their emotions rather than just see the players as data. Just having a normal conversation with the players is often the best approach to generate some buy in and questions about their wellbeing.


Are they a good group at Hull City in terms of compliance with athlete tracking?

They are a great set of lads and a pleasure to work with! The equipment is now just part of their everyday kit. They have actually now imposed fines on each other if they forget to wear their MEMS device during training, which is something generated themselves. Nothing to do with the staff what so ever!


When and where did you first find out about Catapult?

My first exposure to Catapult was back in 2007 when Dr.Ric Lovell (ex-lecturer at the University of Hull, now University of Western Sydney) had one of the first systems in the UK. We were involved in a research project in conjunction with Teesside University and Middlesbrough quantifying the demands of matches and training in football (from which we published a research paper on). 


Seems like a long time ago now! So how long have you been using athlete tracking technology?

Been using the Catapult system for 8 years now. Prior to that had experience of using the old 1-Hz GPSports devices within the university.


Why do you think Hull City chose to go with Catapult and continue to use them? 

We use Catapult at the club because it’s the most validated and reliable product available that has been shown through peer-reviewed journals on a consistent basis. One of the key things when reporting data back to coaches and players is that you have confidence in the numbers you are feeding back. The fact you can check the quality of the data (HDOP, number of satellites, signal strength, etc.) is a big thing as a quality control check. As scientists we should always be challenging the data we get. Every time we challenge the data from catapult it’s a positive outcome.


Do you think that most clubs choose devices based on the reliability/validity of data or are they more concerned with fancy parameters and software?

I’d like to think so but I know that it doesn’t happen still. As sports scientists, we sometimes get lost in fancy terminology and forget to stick to the basics. We should be constantly challenging what we are doing and know exactly how each parameter is calculated and what is our criteria when comparing it to something. Is it a valid and reliable tool to measure what it is supposed to?


Guess we should be trying to determine what the signal and noise is from our data to identify the smallest worthwhile changes?

Definitely. As practitioners, we sometimes say we don’t have the time to undertake the necessary steps. However, you are actually saving time by doing so as using an unreliable and invalid measure will waste your time and money anyway!


How has Catapult influenced your role within the club?

It’s one of the biggest parts of my job at the club and provides us with objective data to give us confidence around the messages we are giving. It helps us to understand our training methodology and prescribe certain training drills to ensure a training load is undertaken for the session that ties in within our aims and objectives as a club. It also acts as an educate tool for both the coaches and players, in which they are starting to understand why certain parameters will differ depending on the drills used. Why should players/coaching staff look at high speed running for a drill that’s in a 20 by 20 area, when it won’t reflect how hard they work?


What are the most important parameters that you use to assess load?

It can depend both on the individual demands and also the positional demands. A lot of focus within football training is on small sided games, but training sessions consist of other components such as tactical drills which are just as important for the physical load a player experiences. A useful parameter for us is PlayerLoad to look at the players movements overall and in each of the individual axis. We will also look at ratios between different parameters, such as PlayerLoad and total distance, to assess player’s locomotor efficiency. All our reports are geared towards the individual’s maximal values (average of 3 maximum values), so the data is relevant to each individual.


How do you use Catapult from an injury prevention/rehabilitation perspective?

We aim to be proactive with our data, so we know the accumulated load across both microcycles and mesocycles. We never try and take players out of sessions completely if we think they are at risk. Instead, the coaches will use subtle changes to their training role such as using them as a floater in a drill to help reduce the load on the player. We have an excellent medical department at the club and use parameters during rehab that are specific to players. For example, we will look at both the absolute and relative values for velocity during different stages of rehab to determine the progression through each stage.


Do you have any practical examples of using the Catapult system to help shape your practice?

We have had an interesting case study lately in which we have been using a couple of Catapult devices on a player during rehab to understand limb imbalances. There are practitioners trying to use data gathered from the scapula position to understand these imbalances. However, when we have conducted research (published in IJSPP) we found that the centre of mass is a much better position to place the units to reduce the noise from the devices. We then look at the PlayerLoad that goes through both the left and right legs and use video to synchronise with the data during treadmill running. This has helped to make clearer imbalance assessments of the player during rehab. I must stress this is only during straight line treadmill running.


Sounds like an interesting internal research project. So you think that practitioners should be careful when looking at imbalance data when derived from the scapula position?

Definitely. Unless you have a research paper that shows it’s a reliable and valid tool then you shouldn’t be using it. Never take the numbers for granted and we should always look to investigate the science behind each parameter. Everyone in our department has or is currently studying for a postgraduate degree, which helps create a strong sports science/medical department as we are always challenging each other about what we do.


Finally Steve, how do you see the future of athlete tracking?

We will see less people looking at the ‘GPS unit’ and more at the MEMS device that we are actually using! I think the real-time capabilities and our understanding of the data will improve in the future. Not much research has been done around the use of real-time data in football, so I feel this is a big area we can progress in. Can we be proactive instead of reactive as a discipline? I believe a better understanding of statistical analysis work will help us understand the individual player better and support our work. Too many current articles are observing group trends, but the within player changes will be more powerful for practitioners and scientists in the future to help support individual players and coaching staff within their daily work flows. As technology progresses, so should we, BUT, we must always challenge the systems we are using to ensure we provide the best support to coaches, players and the club.