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The Irish sports tech firm helping soccer, rugby and GAA stars stay in shape during the lockdown

Newry firm StatSports, valued at over £200m, work with many of the top sporting organisations in the world.

AS SPORT ALL over the globe grinds to a halt, the top athletes must contend with training alone over the coming weeks and potentially much longer.

england-training-session-watford-training-ground Manchester City star Raheem Sterling is an investor in the Irish firm. Source: Jonathan Brady

And many of the leading teams across European soccer, rugby, NFL, NBA, AFL and GAA will be monitoring players wearing products made by Northern Ireland-based sports tech firm StatSports.

The company, which turns 13 this year, was founded by Louth natives Sean O’Connor and Alan Clarke.

They have developed wearable devices that contain GPS technology and heart-rate monitors. They track player performance in real-time, providing live data to coaching staff across various metrics like distance, speed, fatigue levels, playing positions during games and even risk of injury.

StatSports have carved out a lucrative niche as the technology supplier to organisations at the very elite level of world sport.

From some of the top soccer sides in Europe like Barcelona, Juventus, Liverpool and  Manchester City, to the international soccer federations in England, Germany and Brazil. A host of rugby teams employ them, including more than half the competing teams at last year’s World Cup in addition to all four Irish provinces.

Major organisations across a range of other professional sports, including the New York Knicks and Oakland Raiders, plus 24 inter-county Gaelic football and hurling teams are now signed up to their services. A new streamlined product rolled out for club GAA teams has recently hit the market.

The company is now valued at over £200m and last year brought England internationals Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on board as their first outside investors. The pair each put in seven-figure sums and became global ambassadors as part of a new funding round by the Newry firm.

“I see no reason that StatSports cannot be the next billion-dollar-plus wearable company,” Sterling said last year.

But like many industries that revolve around live sport, StatSports have been impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the company’s sports scientists, Connor Clancy, was due to spend a chunk of the summer as part of Germany’s backroom staff for Euro 2020, which has been postponed until next year.

“I was with them all throughout the Euro qualifiers, for all their camps for the last year and a half,” he tells The42.

“That was my gig pretty much. As an account manager, I was looking after the German FA and still am. I’ve been their primary analyst for the whole qualifiers campaign. I was due to go this morning for a week for a camp and we were due to play Spain and Italy.

“The end date was the Euros. That was my plans for the summer scuppered.”

german-national-soccer-team-training-in-tallinn German national soccer team manager Joachim Löw. Source: DPA/PA Images

In most cases, StatSports provide the technology to the top-level sides, educate their data analysts on how it works and leave them to their own devices while providing ongoing support.

When they signed up, the ever-efficient German FA requested for StatSports to give some help as they got to grips with the technology.

That meant that Clare native Clancy was brought into Joachim Löw’s inner sanctum for the entire campaign they topped Group C, finishing ahead of the Netherlands and Northern Ireland.

He spent a significant amount of time working alongside American strength and conditioning coach Shad Forsythe, who combines roles at Germany and Arsenal.

“The Germans want the same team around them and don’t want a huge amount of change so they were happy to keep me on and I’ve been going ever since,” he says.

“It was unreal. I would have had a huge amount of dealings with the players because I’d be in the dressing room with them before training sessions setting them up and getting feedback from them.

“So that was unreal, even as a fella from a GAA background. I’m a complete sports fanatic and to be in with (Serge) Gnabry, (Manuel) Neuer, (Joshua) Kimmich and those boys was something else.

“The whole set-up is just completely different to anything you’d seen before. It’s a well-oiled machine. You’re going into hotels and there’s security everywhere around them. They’re that high-profile over there and it’s really a religion in terms of Die Mannschaft, the national team, is completely sacred over there.

“The players are absolutely sound guys and the vast majority of them are dead on. You wouldn’t know that they’re multimillionaires. I’m going in there and getting paid nothing extra but I’d do it in a heartbeat because it’s such a serious experience.

“I traded it all in to be going into Slaughtneil, An Ghaeltacht and these teams. So that will be my summer now instead.”

A large amount of uncertainty surrounds the European football season as players are tasked with keeping themselves fit.

image Source: StatSports

Fitness coaches at every club have created week-to-week conditioning programmes, many of them personalised for individual players. The StatSports technology will prove useful in tracking the load on players during this tricky period where collective training is banned in most countries on the continent.

“In terms of our elite clients, your Premier League or rugby clients around the world we’re keeping them happy as much as we can,” explains Clancy.

“Obviously lot of them are training remotely, players are doing their own bit so we’re trying to help them out as much as we can. A lot of clubs are sending their GPS units home with their players and we’re putting structures in place that they can send data back to their coaches.

“The GPS analysts and sports scientists of this world can keep on top of it and keep a level of control over the workload of the players over the next couple of weeks, hopefully it won’t be months.

“Some clubs are very much keeping in-house what they’re doing but we’d have a very good relationship with some of the clubs especially in England being so close and them being the first wave of clubs we had.

“They’d be very much bouncing off us for ideas in terms of how to keep a good track on it and a bit of education for the players as well. 

“In normal circumstances, the players would come into a dressing room, put on the GPS vest, go onto the training pitch and then chuck it into the middle of the dressing room at the end of the session and they’ve nothing to do with it.

“So they have to be educated a little bit these weeks so they can work it properly and make sure the proper data gets back to the coaches. We’re putting together little tutorials to make it as easy as possible for them and to keep the ball rolling over the next few weeks. 

“With Premier League clubs they were over halfway through the season so they were in peak condition coming into this.

“From GPS analyst or sport scientist point of view it’s just about keeping their levels of distance, high-speed running thresholds, make sure they keep hitting 80-90% of those max speeds so that when they come back we can throw then into training as they plan to do rather than starting in a pre-season phase again from an injury prevention point of view.”

the-dublin-team The Dublin football team is signed up. Source: James Crombie/INPHO

Inter-county teams are no different. Dublin, Mayo, Tyrone, Tipperary and Kilkenny are among the counties using the GPS technology and Clancy says half the battle is ensuring players don’t overdo it.

“I know at county level there are still structures in place. Obviously there’s no group training but the guidelines around what players have to do would be more detailed. It takes out that margin for error in terms of what players are doing.

“The coaches would be more worried about the players overtraining than undertraining and underdoing it. That’s probably the big change between now and 15 years. It’s trying to keep guys in that sweet spot rather than overdoing.

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“If players are doing three or four sessions a week, the coaches are getting that data back and putting it into an existing database for the season and tracking it. 

“They still have the communication lines to feedback that ‘tomorrow we’re going to have to up the high speed running’ because a lot of players will just go out for a jog or whatever but they need to keep the match specific high-speed stuff up to prevent that injury risk when they do come back.”

Various GAA club outfits – including  Slaughtneil, Castleblayney, Stradbally, St. Finbarrs and An Ghaeltacht - have recently signed up for new Coach Series product which is a slimmed-down version of their more expensive Pro Series tool.

image-3 Coach Series: Player comparison feature - two midfielders shown here. Source: Statsports

image-4 Coach Series: Individual player view - midfielder with five-minute breakdowns and heat maps. Source: Statsports

It’s going to come in handy over the weeks ahead as players come to grips with the new reality. 

“It’s a huge thing for clubs now because they don’t know when they’re going be brought back,” he continues. “They know these guys are still tipping away on their own so when it happens that they come back in at a later stage.

“It even helps to keep a bit of competitive edge and craic going. They can still put up on their communication channels that these are the top five guys for this week and keep the players bought in. Because it’s very easy for club players to take this as a break and come back and put themselves in a higher risk category without a full pre-season block like a usual year.

“With guys even playing at a high level in club, players know how to look after themselves a lot better now. We’re trying to give them an extra edge so they can track themselves a bit more. 

image-2 Coach Series: Top performers page - five top performers shown for each metric after session/game. Source: Statsports

“So they’re going out doing a running session on a field and they have the figures there so they know the percentage of what they usually do in a training session or the percentage output of a game. A coach can say ‘Go at 60% of a match output on a Tuesday evening.’ 

“If it’s going to cut down on the risk of injury for a player, it’s worth it. Clubs teams know how big of a difference one or two injuries can make throughout a season.”

As well as monitoring training loads, the units provide the sort of useful information that professional sides would be looking at post-game, such as individual distance covered, high speed running, maximum speed, number of sprints and meters covered per minute.

“Then from a coach’s point of view you’re getting your tactical tools in terms of heat maps, sprints and where sprints occurred. So if you’re giving a wing-back a role to get up and down the field you’re able to see that.

“You can also see the percentage of time spent in different parts of the field. So if you’ve a midfielder you can see how much time they spent in the attacking or defending third.

“So it’s not all a load of numbers, we’ve really developed it to be quite simple at the start and we’ll develop it every couple of months now when we get a bit of feedback from clubs.”

*****

Statsports are offering free online demos to interested parties over the coming weeks, contact c.clancy@statsports.com for more information

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Kevin O'Brien

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