Interview with Andrew Gray (Athletic Data Innovations)
Andrew Gray is the Physical Performance Manager at Cronulla Sharks RLFC in the NRL, having spent 16 years at St George Illawarra Dragons RLFC as a Physiotherapist, Rehabilitation Coach, Sport Scientist, and ultimately their Performance Director.
Additionally, Andrew is an elite Strength & Conditioning professional as well as a qualified physiotherapist, and is also regarded as a world leader in how he analyses and interprets GPS data. This led to him being contacted by Nick in 2010, with soon after they began working together with Andrew’s specialised tool that he had created, known as the ADI Analyser (Athletic Data Innovations).
Interview with Andrew Gray 07/09/15
By Jonathan Bloomfield
JB: Andrew, welcome to Sports Discovery. Tell us a little about your journey as a professional so far…
AG: Thanks Jonny, it’s great to be chatting with Sports Discovery in memory of Nick, someone who changed my direction as a professional on so many occasions.
I started studying Physiotherapy at Sydney University in 1992 and began work as a physiotherapist at Sutherland Sports Injury Clinic in southern Sydney straight after I completed by degree in 1995. I was very lucky to be working for two of the best physiotherapists in Sydney at the time, Graham Vankan and Jenny Aiken.
In 1998, Graham’s career was heading in a different direction and he handed me the opportunity to purchase his share of the practice, an opportunity I jumped at.
Later that same year, two teams in the National Rugby League competition were merging to form the St.George Illawarra Dragons. The St.George Dragons, a club with a long and proud history merged with the Illawarra Steelers, a club with a large feeder area packed with promising junior players. The club were seeking to bring together new medical staff and I was approached by Dr. Martin Raftery, then the existing Sports Physician with the St.George Dragons (now IRB Chief Medical Officer), to fill the role of Physiotherapist and Rehabilitation Coach.
Between the years of 1999 and 2008 my role developed to include Sports Science and overall Program Monitoring. In 2009, rugby league’s most revered coach, Wayne Bennett, came to the Dragons from the Brisbane Broncos. I had one year to run on my existing contract and Wayne asked me if I was happy to perform ‘only the physiotherapy role’ as he was bringing Jeremy Hickmans with him from the Brisbane Broncos to coordinate the entire program. So I commenced a much simplified role in 2009 and looking back now, it was Wayne that created the ‘space’ for me to expand my interest in GPS analysis. Wayne Bennett left the Dragons at the end of 2011 after three very successful seasons. I remained at the club and spent three years as the Performance Director at the Dragons, a period that did not return much success on the field, plenty of salary cap pressures, but provided me an opportunity to produce strong performance systems throughout the club from the junior development ranks through to the elite NRL level.
Looking for a new challenge, I left the Dragons at the end of the 2014 season and commenced work at the Cronulla Sharks RLFC as Physical Performance Manager where I am looking to improve on the performance systems already existing at the club and play my part in the clubs maiden premiership.
JB: You’ve become well-known throughout the world for your ability with analysing GPS data, how’d that all come about?
AG: My first exposure to athlete monitoring began between 1999 and 2006, while Dr Raftery and I expanded the amount of monitoring we were doing with the Dragons players. Initially, our monitoring was centred on the collection of RPE data and physical screening measures, but soon developed into injury risk analysis relating to training load, training history and physical state. Dr Raftery left the Dragons at the end of 2006 and commenced working with the Australian Rugby Union as Chief Medical Officer for the Wallabies.
Also late in 2006, I first obtained GPS athlete tracking devices from GPSports. At this stage, the devices recorded a 1 hz sample and did not include any accelerometry. I could see the potential of such devices, but also their limitations at the same time. Being the only ‘Sports Science’ inclined staff member at the Dragons at this time, the GPS devices became a medical tool at the club.
I began tracking training & rehabilitation sessions and soon became frustrated that the movements I really wanted to measure and report on were being missed by the 1 hz data without accelerometry. We soon upgraded to a device that included a tri-axial accelerometry trace at 100hz and I finally started to find what I was looking for, I was hooked!
I began by exporting the raw accelerometry data in an attempt to understand what the accelerometer could uncover. As the GPSports devices moved to 5 hz GPS and improved signal quality, I began to build a large number of separate tools that measured my own metrics such as footstrikes, collisions as well as measures centred around the change of speed & direction from the raw exported data.
Soon after, I was contacted by the Australian Rugby Union who were looking to commence using a tracking system across the Wallabies and Super Rugby teams. I was asked to come and speak to the coaching staff as they were aware I had been using GPS technology over the last few years. The discussion was based on the fact that more than 40 players, located in different areas across Australia, needed to be monitored with a consistent approach, by several different strength & conditioning coaches. If we fast forward six years to the present day, this situation sounds quite commonplace, but at the time this was a significant problem without an obvious solution. Things certainly change quickly in the professional sporting world! That’s what makes it such an exciting place to be.
After a couple of days of thought, I used this problem as an opportunity to create a software program that could make the transfer of large amounts of remote data much easier. This is also something that seems so simple in 2015 but was a challenge back then! I worked directly with a software development company and developed a solution that allowed the GPS data files from across Australian Rugby to arrive in one location, thereby making consistent analysis a reality whilst also providing me the opportunity to take my algorithms and see them come to life. Athletic Data Innovations had begun.
In these early days, the process was very slow and cumbersome but being able to work directly with a development team and quickly see my numbers come to life kept me very motivated.
It seems that several other GPS users around the world were experiencing the same frustrations and could see the same potential in the technology as I could. Not long after, I received a ‘cold call’ from a UK number, I thought it was a ‘wrong number’, but I just had a feeling I should take this call. Nick Broad was on the line. He said that he had heard about the work I was doing and wanted to get together. I remember laughing and
reminding him that Sydney was not quite ‘next door’ to south-west London. Nick’s drive,
enthusiasm and focus broke down barriers and brought people together, a true pioneer.
After a brief trip to Chelsea FC in 2010 I began working closely with Nick and he became instrumental in the ongoing development of ADI, his ability to challenge my way of thinking and see the end game earlier than anyone else helped us develop a strong friendship. Over the course of the next twelve months ADI expanded to provide services across international rugby, football, rugby league and Australian Rules Football.
JB: Tell us a bit about your work with Nick, he rated your analysis service very highly and recognised a lot of value in the outputs you could provide.
AG: Early on, my work with Nick was focussed on providing Chelsea FC with my unique set of metrics and providing support to his staff around the use of these numbers. Nick soon become motivated by what else was possible and we began developing projects involving third parties in an attempt to streamline the analysis process, integrate video and GPS tracking data and improve the presentation of results.
JB: What makes ADI so unique? Why is it different to any other GPS analysis system?
AG: Its uniqueness most probably stems from its independence, and also the fact that it’s driven by end users, not by engineers. Also, having strategically not aligned with any GPS manufacturer has allowed ADI to forge its own development path whilst remaining agile and able to create what a client wants, quickly. Much of ADI’s ongoing work with teams involves the interpretation of results and optimising its use within a professional team structure. The fact that those who have helped input into the development of ADI have worked in this environment for collaboratively over 50 years provides a distinct advantage for ADI clients.
JB: That’s very cool. Who else have you provided the ADI service for?
AG: Real Madrid CF, Paris Saint-Germain FC, England Rugby, NSW State of Origin Rugby League, England Rugby League, West Coast Eagles (AFL), Australian Rugby Sevens and all Australian Super Rugby provinces amongst others
JB: Can you share with us any relevant examples of how ADI has impacted player performance?
AG: Having metrics that provide a more complete picture of the work involved in a session, week or month gives the user a better understanding of ‘where their players have recently been’ from a physical standpoint. The quantity, quality and density of the work completed all provide insight into the physical load. Therefore, whilst the ADI measures may have complex underlying components, their use becomes simply; How much? How well? At what rate? Is that significant for that athlete? Do I need to ‘push’, ‘persist’ or ‘protect’ that athlete.
Gaining insight into the ‘footstrike’ is a very valuable tool during the rehabilitation process of an athlete. The ADI footstrike module provides information regarding the running pattern of the injured athlete to support the decision making progress involved in load progression.
For example, looking at the symmetry component of high speed footstrikes for the inured athlete provides the user with some objective information that may not otherwise be captured by even the most experienced eye. I’ve lost count the number of times I’ve been able to identify a player with an issue that may lead to a hamstring tear, identified through ADI imbalance in accelerating footstrikes, and been able to provide early intervention and ongoing management & monitoring. Every training session becomes an assessment!
This information also serves as a very useful (daily) screening tool for the entire squad and this has proved to be a valuable piece of data for medical staff as they now have objective measures to utilise prior to a player presenting with injury symptoms. Let’s also not underestimate the psychological benefits of being able to illustrate the detail of progressions to a player and the confidence that can be added to a rehab programme and the player’s behaviour and welfare. In my experience as a physio, this can sometimes equate to a 1-2 weeks acceleration in a return to play process.
JB: Finally, what does the future hold for ADI and how can other teams start using it?
AG: Well, hopefully many more exciting turns as ADI continues to grow. I am currently partnered with Prozone to provide the KINETIC athlete monitoring service internationally. We are focussing on the integration of various GPS tracking systems with Prozone video tracking for professional teams. Being able to provide professional teams with one solution to standardise the analysis of their training and match data whilst also using the unique ADI analysis measures is really exciting and I look forward to getting started. Get in touch with Prozone if you want to learn more.
Andrew, thanks very much for your time this afternoon and we look forward to seeing how ADI & KINETIC develops over the next period.
Good luck with the remainder of your NRL season with the Sharks.