“Provoking collective behaviour will help improve weaknesses and develop tactical strategies”

The University of Vienna has been integrating the Inmotio LPM-system into their research and development studies for a few years now. With the introduction of Inmotio Hybrid, the university was very excited to also integrate video tracking into their research on collective behaviour. 

We interviewed Juliana Exel, researcher at the University of Vienna, about the way she applies Inmotio’s tracking systems within her research.

© https://univie.ac.at/en

The interview

Can you give a brief description of yourself and your background in research?

Exel: “I’m Brazilian and I did my MSc and PhD in Biomechanics, part in Brazil, part in the US. During the whole grad studies, I applied sports biomechanics in issues related to performance in team sports, especially football association. So, since I finished my master in 2009, I’ve been involved in research related to physical, technical and tactical aspects of football association performance. Afterwards, I moved to Portugal, where I was hired as a post-doc in a great research centre, and deepened my studies on collective behaviour in team sports performance. I moved to Austria in 2020, to work as a post-doc at the University of Vienna. One of my main tasks here is to integrate the Inmotio Hybrid-system, which combines the LPM-system with optical ball tracking, in Sankt-Pölten (an Austrian football club), to improve our possibilities research-wise. 

For example, in one of the studies we found out that during offensive sequences which resulted in shots on goal or defensive tackles, the movement of the area surrounding each opponent team showed some in-phase coordination (expanding or contracting almost at the same time), although not a real lock in this pattern. The small time-lag found between the coordination patterns of the opposing areas shows that efficiency in attacking or defensive plays can also be related to the capacity of a team leading the opponent. In other words, we found that it is possible that a given team “drives” the behaviour of the opponent from its own dynamics and organisation on the pitch, and that is related to performance outcomes.

 In general, I have been developing and applying methods of analysis to assess the behaviours underlying players’ actions during matches or training. The road from America to Europe has been long, but fun and fruitful in the development of my career, especially in the sports performance analysis area.”

© Juliana Exel

What kind of research are you and your research group interested in?

Exel: “Our research department has different research groups, and the ‘Computer Science in Sports’ is the one I am part of. We have a research line in Game Analysis that is interested in quantifying players’ and teams’ behaviour in the various environments of play. With the rise of modern technology, in particular, positional tracking systems as the Inmotio Hybrid, the development of sophisticated data analysis algorithms is set to become a fundamental building block of successful performance in sports games.

While I am interested in understanding the collective tactical behaviour of teams through the dynamics of players’ positioning, one of my colleagues is developing his PhD thesis on a model that will predict performance measures, such as passes, player velocity, ball information.  This information will support in developing automated tracking of some technical and tactical metrics, as he is training the model to predict different situations during matches.

With the rise of modern technology, in particular, positional tracking systems as the Inmotio Hybrid, the development of sophisticated data analysis algorithms is set to become a fundamental building block of successful performance in sports games.

These are hot topics that not only answers research questions, but also provide deep and justified feedback for coaches, which is important to us, too. Also, the capacity of systems in measuring positional data and events are essential to team sports performance analysis. Therefore, the Department of Sports Technology is also involved as they combine the competences of engineering, measurement and analysis of sports-related data.”

How do tracking systems help in improving research and practice?

Exel: “I have experience dealing with video-based systems, GPS-based and inertial measurement units. Each one of them has its advantages and disadvantages, no surprise. This is my first time, though, working with a radar-based system as the Inmotio’s LPM-solution. Inmotio’s LPM-solution has an important advantage which is the automated and neat relative positions of players. Additionally, the Hybrid tracking allows for the automatic tracking of the ball during matches, which is really exciting because I never had the opportunity to work with such a unique feature before.

Other systems would require the data analyst to do some tricks to estimate the ball positioning and displacement, or a time-consuming manual identification of it. If I have the notational information and players positioning data synchronized (player’s location when executing a pass, for example), it is possible to roughly estimate the ball displacement from one player to another during the match, which is cool, but might not be enough to answer some questions. The ball tracking solution from the Inmotio Hybrid might give us more precise and maybe faster information on the ball positioning throughout the game; therefore, allowing to explore some ball kinematics and relate this to collective variables as speed of the players and the ball, for example. We are looking forward to cooperate with Inmotio to the development of new features in this direction.”

What are joint projects with Sankt Pölten and what are these projects about?

Exel: “Our research team has, for some time now, joined with the Football Academy of St. Pölten to quantify and integrate different dimensions of analysis in youth association football, so we have been working on how the psychological, physiological, technical and tactical aspects in training and performance environments are connected, and how it continuously adapts over time. We have current studies being planned for the next months. One is related to testing the accuracy of ball and player position and therewith also helping in the development of Inmotio Hybrid system. The other study will experiment on understanding how the manipulation of variables in tasks design (space, time, number of players, rules, etc.) during training reflects on players’ perceptual systems, decision making skills, conditioning and interactive behaviour with teammates and opponents.”

© https://www.skn-stpoelten.at/

What is your specific research topic about?

Exel: “My research has a common ground topic which would be the effects of action, perception and cognition in sports performance. To give a bit more context around this subject related to football association, I am particularly interested in investigating how players process their actions, perceive the surroundings and interact to find the best solutions to make decisions when playing in a match or when performing a training task. So, if I account teams as systems (which relies on the behaviour of the smaller elements that are components of the whole system), when the behaviour of one element changes, the whole system shifts accordingly. Therefore, the end result of how the system behaves depends on the self-organisation of the elements, or respond to every change in every element.

Getting back to football association, this topic will possibly help revealing if is there any mechanism that decides how a football match develops over time, considering the elements part of the match: players, opponents, ball, etc. Still, it may also be demonstrated if there is a determined hidden pace and organization among the teammates that is imposed during specific situations or over time, or still when considering different contexts of the sport as the pressure from the supporters when playing at home and against a strong opponent, or the match score, for example.”

What are the steps in your research?

Exel: “First, I collect match and training data under protocols designed to better answer the research questions. For example, if I am interested in understanding how team coordination in attacking training task behave under a specific task constraint, as unbalanced number of players compared to the defending team, or under reduced playing area, I would apply small-sided games sets accordingly and monitor the athletes with a tracking system. I would then process and analyse the data recorded, applying specific models to obtain the required parameters, such as players’ coordination values, displacement, velocity, etc. Longitudinal designs are also interesting as these findings could be taken beyond the acute responses, so we might have an idea about how these elicited behaviours are retained or change across time or in the long-run of the training process.”

Why are these steps important for improving football practice?

Exel: “In practice, coaches and trainers are always seeking for the best strategies that allow players to improve performance in the competitive environment. The partnerships between coaches, trainers and sports scientists can be truly beneficial, because there is a synergy between what (in the field practice for example) is desired and would worth to be observed and the expertise to quantify and analyse those observations. To help them better organize their training drills and sessions, applied research might give a good support on the development and testing of new strategies to improve team weaknesses. I believe that the advancements in tracking technology, as Inmotio has been seeking and providing, are closely linked to the advancements reached in sports sciences, coaching, teaching process and ultimately, the performance in competition.”

“I believe that the advancements in tracking technology, as Inmotio has been seeking and providing, are closely linked to the advancements reached in sports sciences, coaching, teaching process and ultimately, the performance in competition.

What, in your opinion, are the challenges to optimize the practical use of tracking technology?

Exel: “Nowadays, the challenge is not only on collecting data and calculating parameters, but it is also on finetuning performance analysis to give enough but proper feedback to coaches and trainers, so information can be transferable either to match or to training environments. In training environments, the optimization of tracking technology can increase the quality of follow-ups. The detailed assessment of kinematic and its derived parameters (positions, velocities, accelerations, team coordination, etc.) allows for the monitoring of players’ adaptation over the preparation they have been gone through during training, by quantifying the multifactorial demands of the physiological, technical and tactical workload prescriptions. 

There is also room for increasing efficiency in online feedback during matches and help during competition. Tracking technologies capable of online data capturing and processing favours also the immediate application of the models for collective behaviour analysis, so it is possible to provide live feedback on critical issues related to tactical game plan, for example.”