Microsoft’s hardware has already made its way onto NFL sidelines, as the company’s Surface tablet is used by coaches and players to strategize during games.
But now its software — specifically, Microsoft Azure and Power BI — is also increasingly making an impact for top professional teams like the Seattle Seahawks, which use the company’s latest machine learning and predictive analytics technology to help predict and prevent injury.
Microsoft in June debuted its new Sports Performance Platform, a product born out of the company’s internal incubator that helps coaches and trainers gain insight into injury prevention, or analyze the proper workload for a practice regimen.
Now the Seahawks are lifting the hood on how the platform, in combination with other sports tech hardware and software, helps with data-driven decision making. Other teams like Real Madrid; Cricket Australia; SL Benfica; and some U.S. colleges are also using Microsoft’s technology.
At the Seahawks practice facility in Renton, Wash., not far from Microsoft, sports science gurus crunch heaps of data drawn from a variety of sources, ranging from Catapult GPS movement trackers to the wellness report surveys players take before and after practice on Surface tablets with facial recognition.
That information is analyzed with Azure, plotted with Power BI, and ultimately fed to Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll.
“He doesn’t wait for us with bated breath to make his decisions,” Sam Ramsden, director of player health and performance, told GeekWire in an interview. “However, he does count on the information to make the best decision for his team.”
Ramsden has been with the team since 1999, and in 2012 he helped create what was the NFL’s first sports science group. With better technology and more historical data to work with, Ramsden and his geeky colleagues have become an important part of gameday preparation.
The data can help the coaches and trainers better understand how certain practices affect players, particularly at different stages of a season, and make subsequent changes. Players answer questions that help calculate a “perceived rate of exertion,” or how tired they felt after a given workout.
“Sometimes as the season goes on, you can be doing the same practice and the load is the same, but players start reporting that the practice is harder,” Ramsden noted. “Then you can start getting a sense that mentally and physically, they are starting to feel the effects of that kind of monotonous training.”
The sports science team talks a lot about a “dose,” or how much activity Carroll prescribes for a given practice. That dose is affected by different factors, including what type of equipment players wear — cleats vs. tennis shoes, or pads vs. no pads, for example — and is compared against how players respond after practice.
This helps the Seahawks better measure the impact of a practice and ultimately notice trends if there are increases in soreness or stress for particular players.
“Once those triggers are hit, then we can have a very confident data-based conversation with the coaches,” Ramsden noted.
While the main purpose of Microsoft’s platform is to help teams keep their players healthy, it’s difficult to see any impact from such an analysis without historical data. But now that the Seahawks have been using Microsoft’s software for three years, there’s enough information to spot trends and correlations between practice loads and player durability, Ramsden said. The machine learning and predictive analytics also help.
“We are starting to really see things more crystal clear,” he added.
One might question the team’s sports science clout given all the injured Seahawks this season. Star players like Richard Sherman; Cliff Avril; and Kam Chancellor suffered season-ending injuries. Meanwhile guys like Earl Thomas, Dion Jordan, Thomas Rawls, and Chris Carson have been held out of multiple games.
Ramsden wouldn’t go into detail about any trends the team is seeing this year with the injuries.
Players, meanwhile, seem mixed on the benefits of sports science, especially if the data can be used against them. Speaking at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit last year, wide receiver Doug Baldwin said the potential downside of data collection is that a lot of players are worried that coaches use it to chart whether a player is declining earlier than when coaches are able to see “with their eyes on the field.” Players are worried they could be cut due to this type of analysis.
“Some guys are really anxious and really excited about getting their feedback about their workload about what they did that day or that week,” Baldwin said. “Other guys are like, ‘Don’t put it on me, I’m not gonna wear it.’ For the most part a lot of guys are buying into it slowly.”
Ramsden said sports science is all about relationships. He and his colleagues try to distill the technology into something that’s relatable for both coaches and players.
“Ultimately, the better information they provide us, the better we can take care of them,” Ramsden explained. “If you went to the doctor’s office and you didn’t tell them what your signs and symptoms were, they wouldn’t be able to take care of you. Sure, they can take your temperature and blood pressure — those are all measurements and data — but it’s going to be the relationship and the story that you connect the data with each [person]. It’s also the coach and the player working with the information as well. That’s what launches sports science and what makes it special.”
Carroll said that looking at the sports science data and information has become part of the team’s routine.
“The support system allows us to really be able to evaluate each guy, based on the load that he’s undertaking and all that. It does help us,” he said last year. “And we really are responding to that regularly, throughout the week, regardless of what happened the week before. It’s a common practice for us now to check it out, know how many plays a guy got, what kind of exertion, and we can estimate from the games what’s necessary for the next week. So there’s a big process involved there. I really appreciate it.”
“If you asked me four or five years ago if I’d be doing this I would have said, ‘No,'” he continued. “Coaches for years have done it through their sense and instincts and savvy and all of that and now we have some more support and it’s proven to us to be very effective.”
Microsoft has plans to work with more teams and evolve the sports performance platform.
“Our aspiration is to continue to evolve an open-source version of the codebase as well as work hand-in-glove with our key partners to both develop and deploy the platform into a broader set of customers,” Steve Fox, a principal software engineering manager who works closely with sports-related projects at Microsoft, said in an email. “Future versions will cover a broader set of core scenarios that augment the performance side and health side, make predictive modeling more accessible and integrate more with core business operations.”
The sports science work that Microsoft is doing with the Seahawks is a separate effort.
“More broadly, our goal in engineering is to drive technology partnerships — we code with our key sports customers and partners — as opposed to pure marketing or sponsorship-only partnerships,” Fox noted. “For us, we see an amazing knowledge, technology and innovation exchange emerge from this type of partnership.”
Microsoft’s push into sports helps leagues use its technology to improve their processes; exposes Microsoft’s products to more consumers; and now with the Sports Performance Platform, helps improve player health.
Fox said there are multiple teams working on sports at Microsoft, ranging from engineering, marketing, sales, and services. He called it a “cross-company and broad effort for us and our partners.”
“We love seeing our technology and innovation help athletes and teams — this comes from deep passion in sports,” Fox said. “We also believe that the patterns of innovation that are driven by and with the help of such a dynamic industry can scale to other industries — e.g., healthcare.”
“When we look at where we want our products to show up, one of the questions you ask is, what are people’s passion points?” Chris Capossela, Microsoft’s chief marketing officer, told GeekWire last year. “A few of them really spike to be much, much bigger than all the rest. Sports is really high on the list.”