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Zone7 Supporting Sporting Directors with Performance Insights


Colm Hand

10 Min Read

May 15 2023

Zone7 utilises data and artificial intelligence (AI) to provide sporting organisations with a comprehensive range of performance insights. The company offers competitive advantage to its partners by providing injury risk forecasting, load management suggestions, and custom high-performance data science research options. Their services are trusted by football clubs in the Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, MLS and more.

Having joined as an official partner, Zone7’s Performance Director, Rich Buchanan, spoke to the Association of Sporting Directors about his career and how the company is working to support, connect, and develop sporting directors.

“I was always broadly interested in human performance and worked in football environments ever since qualifying in physiotherapy. Initially I worked as a physio with Wrexham AFC and the Football Association of Wales (FAW) and then, after some deviation into the military and Metropolitan Police as a rehabilitation physiotherapist, I joined Swansea City in the same role. My position with the club evolved over time and became more managerial with a transition into the role of Performance Director. During this period, I was responsible for managing up, down and across medical, psychology, fitness & conditioning, nutrition, and team management operations. I also supported the Head Coach and Chairman who also acted as the Sporting Director.

Upon leaving Swansea City I worked as a consultant within e-sports, ice hockey and Formula One with a private performance institution in Switzerland. I did this whilst immersing myself in further self-development which included completing the UEFA A Coaching and Elite Youth Licence. Later, I worked as the performance and medical auditor for the Professional Game Academy Audit Company, an arm of the Premier League, EFL and FA. I subsequently joined Zone7 as I found the company to be responsibly driving innovation in the sports performance space in ways that were aligned with how I saw data science and AI positively impacting football performance.”

Zone7 are industry leaders who offer actionable insights to football clubs to inform the physical management of their players. The company uses data analytics and artificial intelligence (AI) to deliver complex information to sporting directors and other senior staff through their own digital platform.

“Fundamentally Zone7 is a data science and AI analytics company. We help sports organisations make better decisions through insights from medical and performance data analysis.

If you think of the typical technology stack in a football club, the first level would be hardware for the generation of data and the second would be software for storage and organisation of that data. A classic example is GPS devices generating tracking data which is then stored in an Excel spreadsheet. Now, technology is evolving and becoming increasingly sophisticated. The AI data analytics that Zone7 conducts allows club staff to leverage the available data efficiently and effectively in their environments. Zone7 operates in the sophisticated third layer of that sports performance tech stack. We provide answers to questions which otherwise are difficult to answer through manual, analogue analysis”.

You’ve got all this data but what does it mean? What does it tell us? What do we need to do with it? Zone7 analyses all this medical and performance data to inform performance staff, coaching staff, and sporting directors which of their players are deviating from their normal training rhythms and are, therefore, at a greater risk of injury without some form of proactive intervention.

We are witnessing an arms race among well-resourced football clubs to collect all the high quality data they can and analyse that data to gain insights with a team of data scientists. Yet if you consider what they are trying to achieve from a performance perspective, it is nearly impossible. That is to collect data on every footballer in every training session every day across an entire season and then efficiently translate that into reliable insight which can be considered and applied by the head coach, fitness coach, sports scientists, and physiotherapists. And what about those clubs who simply do not have a dozen or so data science specialists to achieve this? Then these responsibilities are tasked to other staff members who may not have the necessary bandwidth or data literacy to effectively extract the necessary insights. Even clubs who are well versed in big data understand the limitations of manual analysis.

Ultimately, you wouldn’t give a skilled tradesman a task without also giving them the tools needed to complete it. And we are talking about the same thing here. You are asking people with high degrees of professional expertise to complete a task, sometimes without giving them the tools…”

Buchanan has enjoyed a fruitful career in elite football and his two decades of experience have equipped him with inside information on the needs of high-performing teams. After working with top-division clubs, leagues, and national associations, he is best placed to deliver Zone7’s insight to sporting stakeholders.

“In my time as a club-based practitioner and as an academy auditor for the Premier League, I have observed a diverse range of operational processes. This means I’m well versed in broadly understanding the daily internal challenges football clubs face. My role at Zone7 certainly calls on my experience as it helps us as a technology company to fully appreciate the performance needs of sporting directors and their relevant staff.

The link to sporting directors is increasingly important as we see that role evolving. It seems those holding the position today are taking on a larger scope of responsibilities across all football departments. Specifically, that includes management of medical and performance staff who, traditionally, have been very autonomous due, to a certain extent, to the distinction and independent regulation of those professional disciplines. I see these professional disciplines as the latest branches of a football club to fall under the management of sporting directors, as they seek to align them with the wider sporting strategies and objectives.

My experience in elite football allows Zone7 to better understand this. We want to help sporting directors open dialogue with these members of staff about their work. This includes discussing how it fits into a club strategy and even assisting them with setting relevant KPIs to assess the department’s success.”

The role and responsibilities of a sporting director have changed over time and do not solely focus on player trading. Many expect those in the role have a strong understanding of fitness, medical and performance, given their importance to the development of an elite football team. For those who are not experts in these areas, Zone7 offers crucial insight and knowledge that allow relationships between sporting directors and the relevant club departments to flourish. 

“Beyond the increased awareness of medical and performance operations and how they fit into the sporting management of a club, we help sporting directors in several ways. The first is an extension of that increased awareness which makes them think strategically about technology in general. This begins with identifying a use case for technology in their club operations, then scoping out suitable implementation before finally considering how they can sustain continued tech innovation over the long term. I think that is a big challenge for any organisation, so Zone7 are happy to help sporting directors navigate that framework.

Another topic is one that used to concern me when I was in my roles within football clubs; the financial implications of player injuries. This historically has been and in some places still is an accepted norm but the economic impact on the organisation is significant. This includes paying the salaries of players who cannot be deployed on to the pitch, direct costs of medical treatment for injuries, increased insurance premiums and, in some cases, the price of replacing an injured player with the acquisition of another player. In many football leagues there are not huge amounts of liquid cash so it makes sense to be strategic with technology when you calculate how much capital could be saved for player recruitment costs.

Football clubs dedicate so much time, energy & money to talent identification and player recruitment with the objective of increasing performance. Sporting directors should certainly consider applying the same logic to the assets they already have at their disposal, not just the ones they wish to have.”

Technological innovation is an area of focus for leaders in all industries. Yet in football it is a continuing topic of discussion due to the competitive advantages it can create on and off the pitch. With so many developments it is critical that sporting directors know the prevailing trends and how they can be accounted for in their own role.

“There is certainly an ongoing trend around improving player welfare. Injuries can have a significant impact on a player after they return to playing. This is due to both the physical and psychological effects that being ruled out and working through rehabilitation can have. Furthermore, the clearer information you have on player loads means the better you can proactively manage them to sustain their availability across a season and throughout their career.

The availability of a squad of players is arguably the highest priority for sporting directors. There is a huge responsibility to maintain and develop these players’ conditions, both physically and mentally. That impacts everything else in terms of performance and results.

I think another trend relates to the role of sporting director itself. Those in the role often look to implement long term strategies and KPIs accordingly. It can be difficult to measure the success of medical and performance staff if you just look at a short period. However, over the course of seasons you can measure the changes in player availability due to injury as well as the recurrence of injuries. You can also effectively apply learnings and augment operations to find an optimal solution for the club. It is crucial to find ways to benchmark this performance.”

The objectives of the Association of Sporting Directors are to support, connect and develop sporting directors. It is clear to see the alignment between those and the partnership with Zone7 given the mutually beneficial relationships which have been created and led to a greater technological understanding of how medical and performance operations directly impact club strategy and team performance.

“The partnership between Zone7 and the Association of Sporting Directors is a two-way street. As much as we want to educate the members on what we are doing in the medical and performance space, it is also about us better understanding the landscape. Being able to learn what challenges they face and how they have adopted tech to solve problems then allows us to refine what we do and how we can work with them. We can also share our own insights and best practices for the benefit of all the games stakeholders, such as our recent report into applying AI within high performance environments.

Being able to actively contribute valuable insight and become a trusted go-to resource from a tech perspective for the members aligns well with that. This partnership is very much about learning together and growing together.”

Zone7 offers cutting-edge data science services and has a proven track record of working with clubs from the biggest football leagues in the world.

With a combination of data analytics and AI powered insights as well as industry expertise from the likes of Buchanan, the company has placed themselves as a leader within the industry in managing and improving medical and performance operations.

Article wrote by Matthew MacDonald.

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