GETTING TO THE GAMES WITH DATA
TEAM CANADA ADDED ANALYTICS TO ITS TRAINING REGIMEN TO MAKE IT TO TOKYO SAFELY
More than a year into the global pandemic, Anne Merklinger did something you might not expect – she breathed a sigh of relief. Not because things had changed with regard to the disease ravaging the world, but because as CEO of Own the Podium – which provides technical leadership and guidance to help Canada win more Olympic and Paralympic medals – she knew the Canadian Olympic Committee now had a new way to keep Team Canada as safe as possible.
The COC had already been partnered with SAS since 2017, using data and analytics to optimize training and performance. But in the months leading up to the Tokyo Olympics, both sides built off the existing partnership focused on athlete performance to use those same tools to keep the various Canadian sports teams healthy and safe from COVID.
Medical and sports staff used a dashboard like this one to dive into details around positivity rates of COVID testing over time.
“We’re able to provide the kind of information that athletes and coaches can use to make evidence-informed decisions – better decisions than they would’ve been able to otherwise. Decisions that they know are protecting their health and safety,” Merklinger says. “So you can just sigh and say, ‘Well, we’ve got this piece covered by a world-leading corporation whose expertise is better than anyone else’s.’ I think that provides tremendous comfort and confidence.”
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Based off information from a series of athlete questionnaires, SAS data scientist Stephen Ondrik created what he describes as a “buffet” of analytics visualization dashboards.
He knew that Own the Podium and the COC might not use them all but anticipated that different information was going to have value for different stakeholders – from individual coaches all the way up to the Chief Medical Officers – who shared a common goal but all needed to potentially look at the data differently.
“There’s no one piece of information that’s helpful to everyone,” Merklinger says. “So providing a menu of data analytics really served Team Canada well.”
For Ondrik, the goal was to create as much flexibility as possible for the dashboard users. That’s why through more than a dozen iterations, the number of dashboards grew to more than 20, each one taking a different angle on the same data.
“These tell a story,” Ondrik says. “The goal is to convey as much information as possible without being overwhelming. And this is why I’m passionate about helping people understand their data. I can take information that looks kind of bland and make it really telling.”
The insights from these visualizations allowed Team Canada to feel confident in returning to training and competition in the midst of the pandemic, even as inevitable positive tests cropped up throughout the 16-month leadup to Tokyo.
The dashboards tracked things like training days lost, hospitalizations, symptoms in positive tests, reasons for testing and medical complications to paint an instructive picture for individual sports and the program as a whole.
Dashboards like this one provided in-depth insights into a variety of factors associated with athletes and staff who tested positive for COVID.
“Each one of those [positive tests] was a learning moment for the sport to prevent infection,” Merklinger says. “So that was tremendous information. When we have that information, then we’re able to look at prevention.”
Even after the Olympics are over, Own the Podium plans to revisit the dashboards to learn more about what worked well and what they can continue doing in the future to safeguard the health of the high-performance athletes on Team Canada.
Merklinger knows what that means to these competitors because she is no stranger to the experience of elite athletes. She was a member of Canada’s national swim team from 1977–81 and earned a silver medal at the 1979 World University Games. After her swimming career, she went on to become one of the foremost curlers in Canada.
So it’s no surprise she breathed that sigh of relief knowing that data and analytics had been added to the arsenal of training resources. Because feeling better protected from COVID let the athletes focus on what they do best – competing.
“They had every possible resource to prepare for the games in a safe and healthy manner,” she says. “That gives you this kind of inner confidence as an athlete. I’ve never seen partners come together like they have to get these athletes prepared for Tokyo.”
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