Critical Thinking in Selecting Tracking Systems and Metrics for Team Sport

Team sport is a diverse and growing discipline with a range of sports including basketball, tennis, football and volleyball. It is characterized by a simultaneous presence of competition between the members of the team and cooperation to achieve performance success. The competition is a driving force to motivate the team and, in turn, the individual athletes. It is also a way to foster communication and coordination among the players.

Increasingly, team sport coaches and teams are utilising tracking technologies to monitor and evaluate athlete external load. These systems provide a means to describe, plan, and monitor training and competition characteristics that can be used to support evidence-based decision making. However, this information can be difficult to interpret due to the varying contexts in which team sports are played and trained. This article aims to outline the critical thinking required by practitioners in selecting suitable tracking systems and metrics, along with describing varying evidence-based applications of these data within the context of seven different team sports.

The selection of appropriate tracking systems and derived metrics for each team sport requires a critical evaluation of their validity, accuracy and precision. In addition, the metric selection process is informed by the context of the sport, and must be relevant to the training and competition objectives of the team.

Tracking systems can capture a wide range of locomotor and biomechanical characteristics, which can be used to describe, plan and monitor training and competition outputs in line with the specific characteristics of each team sport. For example, GPS technology is a popular choice to assess the high-intensity demands (HSR) and accelerations of a player in American football [99]. Its ability to record directional movements is useful for assessing the impact of skill involvement in rugby, and its capability to quantify head kinematics during collision sports has been demonstrated to assist with concussion detection.

However, these systems can be difficult to use in a variety of sports and playing positions, and they are often restricted by field size, stadia and the nature of the sport itself. In basketball and netball, where training is predominantly indoors, GPS technology can be rendered inoperable, whilst in Australian football and rugby codes, the field sizes vary significantly from ground to ground and so, LPS, IMU and optical tracking are more appropriate.

Determining the most accurate and appropriate metric is an ongoing process of testing, analysing, and updating the quantitative description of a sport as new systems become available and the physical characteristics of the sport evolve. This is a time-consuming process that will need careful consideration and communication between the practitioner and physiotherapist to ensure the most effective and ecologically valid metrics are selected for each sport.

A key element of the critical thinking process is ensuring that the metric is representative of the sport’s physical demands and enables comparison between athletes. This is particularly important in sports that do not have an ‘average’ player, such as basketball. It is also vital that the metric provides a representation of an athlete’s performance in the worst-case scenario, given that these scenarios may represent their most demanding moments in the sport.