Seeing the Unseen

Predicting Football Performance at Reading Football Club

 

“We don’t know enough about our players – we’re knocking on doors we don’t know how to open. If we’re going to work that out then we need to know more about our players from a psychological perspective”

Lee Herron, Reading FC Academy Manager


Every Category 1 Academy has an abundance of in-depth statistics on their players, from physical and tactical stats to technical and even demographic data. But there has always been a missing piece to the jigsaw, the glue that links all the other data together – the why behind what players do and how they do it: psychological insight.

This is what Reading Football Club candidly shared as being the biggest knowledge gap in their football club when Chemistry met with them in 2014. Since then, we’ve partnered with the club to change how Academy player performance is measured and developed. There are around 12,500 Academy players in clubs up and down the country, yet only 0.5% of under 9s make the step up to the First Team. As one of the most innovative football clubs today, Reading FC wanted to embark on a journey that no other club has yet explored: using psychology to increase the number of players who make it to the First Team and, ultimately, predict future performance.

The question the club first posed was: If Chemistry can predict workplace success to a high degree of accuracy, could we do the same for football Academies? In other words, could we predict the future success of players based on their psychological makeup? Even better than that, by making the right interventions, could we adapt player psychology to increase the likelihood of someone being successful?

So, the question we asked ourselves was: How similar are the challenges in the business and sporting worlds? The answer: almost identical. In businesses, spotting and developing talent is a subjective process that is full of bias. That means on-the-surface attributes like what someone has done in the past, or how someone comes across at first, are emphasised, with no data to suggest that these are the right measurement points. Football suffers from exactly the same bias:

 

  • The Relative Age Effect – If you look through Academies up and down the country, most players will have a birthdate between September and December. Why? Because when they’re aged 8 or 9, they could be up to a year older than a summer-born player and therefore bigger, faster and stronger. But how many times have we seen footballers reach their full physical potential years after their peers? And how often have these same players been disregarded at a young age for being ‘too small’, only to develop key characteristics and motivations by playing with bigger players, make their way to the top of the game and prove doubters wrong?
  • Subjectivity – Some players are taken on and prioritised due to a ‘gut feeling’ but fail to make the grade; others are released early but later develop into the finished article. The irony is that, as a nation, we often lament the fact that England aren’t creative or experimental enough; they’re too ‘rigid’ or ‘play too safe’ compared to our European counterparts like Spain or Germany. However, the reality is that football clubs are still using traditional methods of identifying talent, rather than digging a little deeper to uncover the hidden intrinsic qualities that an individual possesses – the real explanation behind why footballers behave like they do.
  • Overreliance on Past Performance and Statistics – We live in an era in which data, statistics and algorithms are increasingly widely used and important in the decision-making of football clubs, managers and coaches. However, the irony is that much of the time, clubs look at the wrong numbers – or use the right numbers wrongly – to inform their decisions. How many times have we heard of a team paying over the odds for a high-scoring striker from abroad because of their previous conversion rate in front of goal, only for them to struggle to adapt to their new club and environment? How many times have people raved about a player with a high pass completion percentage, but failed to notice that they were all from five yards and backwards!? On the other hand, how often do we take a step back to think about how, for example, a player will handle making a mistake in an important game or how a new signing would integrate into the team culture.

 

Of course, subjective information should not be rendered useless. When used properly, alongside objective data (lots of which is already being collected by football clubs), it can be extremely powerful. It is harnessing this mix which can help predict future performance more accurately.

So, what has Chemistry done with Reading FC to seamlessly fit into and compliment the awesome work the club has already done around player development?

 

Watch the video here to find out and discover the impact Reading FC has felt…

 

 

May, 24, 2017

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