Wednesday, February 21, 2024

‘Hockey analysis is throwing up interesting findings, there is still little research’

We speak to Simon Blanford, who runs Inside Hockey, the coaching and analysing field hockey blog

What have you learnt from your game analysis in your coaching and how has your coaching changed as a result of your analysis?

Analysis informs not only my knowledge of the game generally but also more specifically the teams I coach. For the latter some examples are: a four year analysis of defending patterns helped demonstrate how particular coaching emphasis was helping/hindering match outcomes; taking data from wearable GPS units allowed us to correlate fatigue with running speed and introduce a better substitution rotation; data changed my mind about how to use the aerial ball; proper statistical comparisons of individual players allows better communication about who is in and out of match day squads. I could go on.

Have you found any interesting results so far? 

Most of the detailed analyses are throwing up interesting findings. Much of this is because there is so little research on hockey and how it is played that everything I look at is novel. 

Is possession important? 

No. At its simplest evaluation (the possession percent shown on TV during half- and full-time) possession doesn’t seem to have any correlation with any attacking metric. 

So it doesn’t matter in hockey. Except it might depend on how one measures possession – the amount of time with the ball or the number of times your team has the ball. These two metrics are similar (the latter will influence the former) but may result in different outputs. 

The second part of your question is interesting. Football has gone through an analytic revolution in the last 20 years. The outgoing director of research at Liverpool FC came from theoretical physics, no football background. Hockey hasn’t even started down this line. A (not very rigorous) search on a scientific database for papers about hockey and possession shows no publications. For football there are close to two hundred.

Do you think that international hockey sides should be putting more of a focus on statistics?

It is difficult to know what international hockey sides are doing in terms of proper statistics – whatever they do stays in-house and is not published. Of course international teams do the sorts of coding and analysis that every good team does nowadays, looking  at video, summarising events. 

But the last time I had a conversation with a national head coach it was clear that he thought the only use for statistics was to tell him when a goal was going to be scored, otherwise … meh. 

And I should add that much of the initial research is curiosity driven – it may inform (international and other) hockey sides immediately or in the longer term but to start with may just serve to inform us about how the game (generally, out with a focus on one particular team) is played. Something that, as I have said, is lacking in hockey currently.

What is your background in hockey, and what level do you coach at?

I started coaching in the late 1980s and while in England coached across a whole range of age groups and abilities from junior development work in inner city London, schools, club men’s and women’s first teams as well as England U16, U18 and U21. I also did a lot of coach education work.

In the early 2000s I stopped coaching because my research job became too busy – lots of field work abroad as well as moving to Edinburgh to start a new research theme at the university. I ended up in the USA where I started to coach again in 2015, initially at a small club (my daughters began to play) and then with two different division 1 university teams in the collegiate system over there. Almost three years ago I moved to the Netherlands and I am now head coach of a women’s first team and head coach of the club’s girl’s U18 first team.

I think the important addition is I have also spent 20 years in research and hence know how to collect, organise and analyse data. In hockey, as far as I am aware, this gives me a fairly unique combination.

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