A storyline on the rise across the sports world is how professional teams are investing more and more money into not just acquiring players, but coming up with high-technology ways to track aspects of their players' performance and improve it. The high-tech approach is making its way into Olympic preparations as well, and as Ken MacQueen details in Maclean's, the $1 million in funding Own The Podium is distributing annually for technology initiatives is seen as a key way to help Canadian athletes not only win medals, but keep themselves performing at their peak levels so they can collect more hardware down the road. MacQueen's piece is a fascinating exploration of some of the diverse initiatives this project (formerly "Top Secret", now dubbed "Innovation For Gold") is funding, but one of the stories he relays stands out; it's that of the Canadian women's soccer team, a group where this funding could make a critical difference long beyond the 2012 Games. Here's how MacQueen starts his story:
As a midfielder on the Canadian women's Olympic soccer team, Desiree Scott ranges some 11 km during a game, sometimes at a lope, often with explosive sprints and violent course changes. She can run, but she can't hide. For games and practices in recent months, Scott and every member of the team have been fitted with global positioning system (GPS) units and heart monitors allowing coach John Herdman to measure their speed, field sense, efficiency and fitness levels. "Before there were large fitness gaps in our team, now we're closing in on each other," says Scott. "Come the Olympics, we'll be good to go." Those and other measures of performance and endurance are part of Herdman's push to take the team from good to great, as he puts it.
There's undoubtedly other technology involved as well, but the GPS units and heart monitors themselves represent a significant step. This isn't research that's new to the soccer world; many big European clubs have been carrying out these kinds of analytics for some time, and various soccer broadcasts have even started tracking the distance each player covers during a match and relaying it on-screen. However, it's much less common in women's soccer, where there are only limited professional options and most national teams don't get a huge amount of funding. This is valuable information; it's not merely about how far a particular player travels, but how that running's done (is it from frantic attempts to get back on defence after a making a costly mistake, or from a well-timed surge forward to join the attack?) and what areas it comes in.
The heart rate information also could be crucial in telling Herdman which players are the best choices as starters, which ones are good candidates to be replaced as the match goes on and which members of his team might be better coming off the bench for the last 30 minutes or so. Analytical information isn't going to instantly turn the Canadians into world-beaters, and it doesn't replace raw talent, but it can be used to get the utmost out of the talent you have. In a sport where Canada is a promising team but hardly a dominant powerhouse like the U.S., every little detail could be crucial to success in London.
What's interesting is that the women's soccer team is a group where the benefits of this kind of investment could go well beyond just these Games, even if they don't immediately seem to be on a grand scale. Oddly enough, soccer (men's and women's) may be the one current summer Olympic sport where the Games aren't unquestionably the biggest international competition out there. On the men's side, they're certainly not, as the quadrennial World Cup (and even the European Championships) are much more important, which has led to the Olympics becoming a primarily U-23 tournament. On the women's side, the Olympics are more consequential, but the Women's World Cup is as least as important if not bigger. Soccer also might be one of the worst Olympic events in terms of medal return on investment, as there are only three medals up for grabs and it takes a whole team to get one.
Still, this Canadian team is largely young and promising, and they're a team with the potential to do Canada proud in London. What may make them even more worthy of this funding, though, is that many of their players will likely have the chance to represent Canada at least two further high-profile tournaments, the next Women's World Cup (which will be played on Canadian soil in 2015) and the next Olympics in 2016. This kind of technology might be perfectly suited to helping the coaching staff identify new players who can play vital roles, and it could also allow the team to develop, maximize and effectively utilize the talent they already have. A little investment could go a long ways here, and this might take them from good to great.