The Seattle Seahawks have the NFL’s second-best winning percentage since 2012. One of the secrets to that success may lie within the team’s sports science department.
Seattle has separated itself from competitors with its usage of technology and data analytics to help maximize player performance and ultimately win more games. The Seahawks were the first NFL franchise to establish a sports science group seven years ago, an effort spearheaded by general manager John Schneider and head coach Pete Carroll.
Fast forward to today, and almost every major league sports team has some type of sports science or analytics arm. But the Seahawks certainly had a head start on most NFL squads, and continues to stay at the forefront.
Dean Riddle, an applied sports scientist who joined the Seahawks staff in 2014, lifted the hood on some of the latest tactics used by the team at an event this month at CenturyLink Field hosted by CenturyLink.
Sports science has come a long way since Riddle worked with top cricket, soccer, and rugby teams in the 90s and 2000s. The first data management platforms he used consisted of floppy disks and stopwatches — “a miserable experience,” Riddle recalled. But the New Zealand native was on to something.
“I always knew data was hugely important to inform my decisions,” Riddle said.
Here are some of the key takeaways from Riddle’s talk:
- The team uses a combination of GPS trackers, player surveys, and other inputs to create a data ecosystem that is stored using Microsoft’s Azure cloud and crunched with Microsoft’s PowerBI software to analyze, visualize, and deploy information to coaches, medical personnel, and other stakeholders. Microsoft, headquartered just up the highway from the team’s practice facility, is a key partner. “We are in a real hotbed here to do something special,” Riddle said of the local tech ecosystem.
- That information can help produce “readiness” and metrics such as RPE, or rate of perceived exertion. This is calculated by comparing wearable device data (distance traveled during a practice; total time) to a survey that asks players how difficult they thought a given practice was. If there’s a gap, then the team knows a player is overtraining, for example. The data can help coaches and trainers better understand how certain practices affect players, particularly at different stages of a season, and make subsequent changes.
- Microsoft’s Surface Hub device is used to help players easily see data and video after they do certain tests, such as jump testing.
- The Seahawks worked with another local company, Boeing, to build a chair that measures muscle force they are producing. The test can help prevent potential injuries from happening.
- Facial recognition technology identifies players when they fill out readiness surveys on tablets, or when they sit in the Boeing chair. The idea is to maximize speed and efficiency of data collection.
- The team uses blood panels and has experimented with gut health testing to tweak nutrition plans.
- It is also testing a visual training assessment tool from Senaptec to gain insights into cognitive function.
When Riddle and Sam Ramsden, director of player health and performance, were initially implementing these technologies, getting player buy-in wasn’t so easy. There were concerns that the data would be used against them in contract negotiations, for example.
But over time, players are realizing that the sports science innovation can not only improve performance but also help prolong their careers. The younger guys are also being exposed to technology at the university level more frequently.
The coaches are also seeing the value, too. “If you asked me four or five years ago if I would be doing this, I would’ve said no,” Carroll said in 2016, per ESPN. “Coaches for years have done it, really just through their sense and instincts and savvy and all that, and now we have some more support. It’s proven to us to be very effective.”
To help encourage more participation, the sports science team has focused on making data collection as seamless as possible for the players.
“It’s massively changed over the course of five years,” Riddle said of the perception from players. “We’re in a really good position.”
Riddle said the team hopes to find ways to make his group’s work more dynamic, so they can collect and analyze data more quickly and act in real-time.
Data helps off the field, too
The Seahawks are also using data to improve the fan experience — and, as a result, the team’s bottom line.
Jeff Dunn, vice president of business strategy and analytics, also spoke at the CenturyLink event and talked about how the front office crunches numbers just like any other company working with a lot of data.
For example, fans take surveys that gauge their level of happiness with everything from concession stand options to WiFi connections. Recent results showed complaints about stadium audio issues — but only when the Seahawks created a heat map of the data did they figure out that the issues were relegated to the four corners.
“Fans were telling us this information, but we never visualized it,” Dunn said.
It turned out that speakers were never actually installed in those corners when the stadium was built in 2002.
Instead of replacing the stadium’s entire audio system, the team was able to spend a fraction to fix the issues that the data visualization surfaced, and used the saved costs on other more pressing capital expenditures.
Another example of using data to improve the fan experience: beer selections.
At a typical CenturyLink concession stand, there are two beer options: Bud Light, and another generic mass-produced choice.
The team also created portable stands that offer more unique beer brands. Data showed that these were popular with fans. The problem was that fans would go to the portable stands, and then have to wait in another line for food.
The Seahawks looked at their data and made a change, swapping the generic mass-produced option with something more special that was traditionally sold at the portable stands.
“By doing this, clearly fans told us this was successful — in the permanent stands, beer sales were up 20 percent,” Dunn said. “That is really difficult to do with the same number of attendees from year-to-year. Some of that cannablized the portable locations, but for us it was a net positive as it allowed the fans to wait in one line.”