Show Me the Data, Coach

Athletes are relying on more than just a coach’s opinion to improve performance—a scenario also playing out in the corporate world.

It’s one of the most memorable quotes from two-time Super Bowl–winning football coach Bill Parcells: “If the players don’t trust the coach, it is a problem. And vice versa.” This aphorism has applied both on and off the field—until now. Because now the coach is increasingly not human.

Athletes across sports are relying more on data and less on the knowledge of coaches to improve their games. Kawhi Leonard, star of this past season’s NBA champion Toronto Raptors, credits data on “load management” for his success this year; he played in only 60 of the regular season’s 82 games so that he would be healthy and fresh for the postseason. Meanwhile, AI can help baseball players figure out their chances of stealing second base based on which pitcher is on the mound, how far the runner's lead is, and who's catching.  

Jed Hughes, vice chairman and global sector leader of Korn Ferry’s Sports practice, says data and artificial intelligence (AI) are being used more than ever “to augment the decision-making process and maximize the probability for successful outcomes.” Indeed, some players won’t respond to subjective coaching now that more objective information is available to them.

The use of data analytics in sports is not new. Moneyball, the seminal book about how data was being used to create winning teams in baseball, was published in 2003. However, in the early days data was primarily used as a way for front-office personnel to evaluate player performance.

Now it is changing the dynamic between coaches and players. The increased use of data and AI, combined with a focus on holistic wellness across sports, means coaches must be adaptable so that teams and staff can accurately manage players.

The same scenario is taking place between leaders and talent in corporate offices across the world, with sophisticated analytics replacing subjective feedback when it comes to hiring, performance reviews, promotions, and more. IBM, for instance, began building an AI-powered performance-management system using algorithms almost five years ago. Other firms are using data-driven insights to match job seekers to open positions, and even advise managers on when someone is likely to quit.

With devices that track output, workload, sleep, and even mental health, players are taking more control over their performance. They are relying on coaches less to improve hard skills and more to be strategic, agile leaders.

That’s why Hughes says coaches won’t ever be fully replaced. Athletes still need “specific interpersonal components having to do with adaptability, judgment, and motivation” that coaches provide, he says. Increasingly, though—to paraphrase Rod Tidwell (the Arizona Cardinals wide receiver played by Cuba Gooding Jr. in the movie Jerry Maguire)—athletes are asking coaches to show them the data as well.