The Role of Football Technology & Performance Analysis in the AFL

The Role of Football Technology & Performance Analysis in the AFL

We catch up with Dale Holland who works in Football Technology & Analysis at the Gold Coast Suns. We discuss his path to working in the AFL, the evolution of data & technology in high performance sport and the impact of coronavirus on the Australian sporting landscape.

Tell us about your background

I find it funny actually because I am still studying my sports business degree that I started as an eighteen year old and then put on pause when I got the job with the Swans. Study wasn’t one of my natural gifts but it’s pretty obvious how important it is today. I will get back to it soon but just trying to find the time at the moment.

I spent 5 years working in performance analysis & technology with the Swans. Started in the NEAFL which branched out into the Academy and finally ended up with the senior program. Really enjoyed every stage of that progression as each program had their unique differences which provided me a really broad base of experience.  End of the 2018 Season I decided to move to the Gold Coast where I have been working ever since.

When and how did you get your first opportunity to work in the AFL?

I got my opportunity from doing an internship at Sportstec (What Hudl was called before the merger) where I was completing my first year Uni industry hours.  It all started out from filming my local footy team and cutting some edits in iMovie and sharing them with the team through our Facebook page.  That’s when the careers adviser at Uni suggested doing an internship with Sportstec.  This was probably the first thing I had fully committed to post school where I was driving from the Central Coast to Mona Vale twice a week to sit in the office and help the support guys out. 

When that finished they called a couple weeks later saying the Swans are looking for someone to help with the NEAFL team and at the start of the 2014 season.  I had a trial during a NEAFL practice match and to be honest what got me the job was probably the fact that I was offered to sit in the stats box for the AFL game which ended up being the first time GWS beat Swans which made for a “frustrated” senior coach.  Long story short I probably heard some things that I shouldn’t have and they ended up giving me the job that next week.

How were you spending most of your time back then?

Back then I was doing a lot of coding, filming and processing. It probably should be the same these days if you start out in the industry, it’s the best way to build your foundation and skills base.  My Manager at Sydney was very particular on getting that process right and being able to do it hundred times over the exact same way or if someone else from the team took over halfway, they knew exactly what stage you were at.  It was frustrating at times back then because all you want to do is build a cool output window or get into the guts of the analysis but as I grew into the role it was the best thing for me. It allowed me to be confident when I finally got into the more analytical side of the vision, allowing me to trouble shoot quicker and find different ways to present. That’s probably when you start to gain the coaches trust and build that relationship to start working closer with the coaches.

You spent almost 5 years with the Sydney Swans. Tell us about the evolution of data and tech throughout that time?

Technology is interesting because you are always trying to balance getting your system and processes right so it has optimal function but also try new technologies out and how they can improve performance or give new teaching methods.  Training sessions are probably a great example of this, when I started we had handy camera’s up a 25 foot scissor lift just filming training for a couple of hours then packaging it together for the coaches to use post training. Then we purchased IP camera’s which saved the need for the scissor lift and a sore back after training, from there that opened up the ability to push the vision live to the coaches via  iPads. 

Although it sounds easy and one thing rolls into the next it’s not. A lot of testing and planning goes into each step and sometimes what sounded like a great idea is an absolute dud when it comes to executing.  In the end I think the best training setup we had was using three camera angles at training on the SCG all being live streamed down to the bench where I was able to connect to the scoreboard and use it as a big display screen. 

There was a bit in the setup to start but after a couple of training sessions we had this process pretty slick which allowed for the coaches to use during the main training sessions in-season. I would just be on a phone call to a coach in the middle of the oval which ended up being important because if players asked questions or they wanted a different angle I could hear all the conversations and make changes based from the conversation.  It is important that the coaches and players see real value in this and that’s where all the testing and having confidence in the technology makes a difference because it allows your presentation to be really smooth. It was something that was easy to present and delivered the message really clearly and effectively to make instant adjustments if required rather than waiting for the training session to finish.

I guess the 2016 Grand Final could be the best and worst combined.  The entire week and experience of Grand Final week is certainly amazing and then you get to game day and the crowd is deafening, even in the sound proofed coaches boxes you struggle to hear the person beside you speak.

Data is a whole different area in itself, Sydney developed their own Athlete Management system which essentially housed a lot of their data from recruiting to players wellness.  I really enjoyed using the system because of the ease of use and how tidy you could store data.  Excel would still house certain data sets but there was a focus to transition everything to the online system, which made sense. 

It’s actually when I got to the Gold Coast and realised how important having a system to house and centralise all your data is, that I witnessed the biggest changes in data and how it was captured, analysed and shared.  We as a club have really focused energy towards getting this right and its grown so quickly from not only the quantity of data, we have centralised but how we are analysing through data visualisation tools (PowerBI) and the efficiencies we have attained from this is great to see.  A combination of technology and API’s are what allow us to achieve these efficiencies and allows the data to be delivered and analysed quicker, effectively helping make more informed decisions.

You’ve been with the Gold Coast Suns for one full season. How was the transition?

Uncommon I guess is the best way to describe it, leaving a club that is at the pinnacle of performance and demands performance consistently, to a club that was so far from that probably isn’t the most common career progression.  I was well aware of the choice I was making; I certainly haven’t looked back since, I have really enjoyed the challenge of being a part of a club that is looking to really improve their image in every way possible on-field and off-field.  That’s the difference in the two clubs at the moment, Gold Coast is very open minded about ideas and embraces all different personalities trying to harness them in coming together to achieve their goal.  Sydney knew what works for them and what had worked for them for so long so there was less change.  Sydney is like a production line compared with Gold Coast it was still in the manufacturing stage.

It’s a tough time for everyone in sport right now. How have you and the people in your network been coping with being stood down?

Yeah, it’s certainly a tough time in society as a whole at the moment.  Probably fortunate I did make the move to the Gold Coast with a slower lifestyle, cheaper cost of living and my partner still working we should able to get through this period of being stood down. I am probably not as affected as some other past colleagues I know that’s for sure. 

Overall, I think it’s been good for everyone to have some time at home to recharge the batteries. The surf has been okay up here so I know I certainly am feeling mentally fresh and ready to go back to work whenever that is but also enjoying time that you probably wouldn’t normally get.

It must be pretty cool being involved on game day. Best and worst moment in your time in the industry?

Yeah game day is obviously the best day in the week and certainly some serial moments and great memories/stories will be associated with them.  I guess the 2016 Grand Final could be the best and worst combined.  The entire week and experience of Grand Final week is certainly amazing and then you get to game day and the crowd is deafening, even in the sound proofed coaches boxes you struggle to hear the person beside you speak. Then the last couple of moments was just this collective feeling of nothingness and the absolute silence in the box was deafening amongst the roaring Western Bulldog fans. 

The worst moments are when the technology fails on game day. AFL coaches’ boxes are extremely detailed with technology and hours of preparation goes in each week to make sure when the coaches walk in its all ready to go. So, when you drop your vision feed or Champion Data drops out or the Comms from box to bench go down it makes for some frustrated coaches because they have become so dependant on having all this ready and available each game day.  The best part about being involved in the industry is the people you get to meet and learn from, then the friendships you build overtime also.

What advice would you have for the next generation of sport science/analytics people coming through?

My advice would be get involved wherever you can, elite sports is going to look different with COVID-19 and my recommendation would be to start getting involved with a sport at any level rather than waiting for the ideal role to appear online.  I started at local footy and had no idea I would end up where I am today but I think it’s really important that you get out and start working for a team at any level, get your foot in any door and build yourself up from there.  The sooner you can start applying/learning skills you will start to develop a true understanding for the role and how you can add value to teams or individuals in sport. 

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