Widely collected by endurance athletes, data is becoming increasingly valuable in team sports.

Athletic performance is half art, half science, and half luck. The luck part is out of your control, and the art comes from experience. But the science is one aspect that every coach can better utilize.

But getting good data on multiple athletes at the same time poses a unique challenge to every coach. Getting athletes to buy in, stay accountable, and utilize that data to improve can be tough. Before you collect a single number, be sure to define your purpose. Whether it’s injury prevention, improving fitness, or just promoting accountability, having a purpose is critical to making sense of your data.

Once you have a purpose, what you measure is up to you. But here’s what you need numbers on:

  • Performance – wins, losses, shooting percentage, goals, times, etc.
  • Fitness – mile time, VO2max prediction, 1-rep max, or whatever you think applies to your sport
  • Fatigue – although it’s an indirect measure, session RPE is the best; if an athlete perceives a workout to be harder than usual, that athlete is fatigued

When you know why you’re collecting data, and what numbers you want, use these five tips to get it done:

  1. Explain the purpose of data collection to your team. Does your team fade away in the second half? Start slow in the first half? Do you have a lot of injuries? We want to know why. Without going into any scientific details, you should be able to explain to your athletes that tracking training loads and their responses to that training will help everyone get better. Instead of it being homework for the athletes, it’s a tool to get the most out of a team.
  2. Show athletes how monitoring data can help them improve. Data should help athletes train smarter, not harder. When athletes get immediate feedback and pair that with the data, they see objective measures of their strengths and weaknesses. And data is valuable to an athlete beyond their official team playing career. I know too many former athletes that have no clue how to exercise without being told what to do by a coach. With data tracking, they can start to see how a specific workout or training load elicits a performance response, even if they don’t come back to that data for a few years.
  3. Keep it simple, especially at first. Unless you have a strong background in biostatistics, the amount of raw data that comes from measuring multiple things can be overwhelming. If you’re just starting out with data collection, track one variable from each category (performance, fitness, fatigue). Don’t worry about body fat or any other numbers just for the sake of having numbers. Tracking only a few basic variables is easier for the athletes, and it also makes a coach’s life easier when it’s time to analyze the numbers and look for trends.
  4. Have a consistent routine. Athletes are creatures of habit, and they don’t want to think. You do the thinking, they do the doing. Getting into a routine of reporting data will make it a component of training, not an extra chore. Make the reporting process a private one (use a smartphone!), and the availability a team thing. The whole point of collecting data is to evaluate the training response of individual athletes, and how their responses influence the team. Asking everyone together tends to bias responses – athletes will think about what others are doing instead of focusing on themselves. You want good, honest data that the whole team can see.
  5. Lastly, have fun with it. Athletes need to buy in, and having team competitions is a great way to promote enjoyment and accountability at the same time. Utilize team leaders and assistants to make sure everyone is on the same page