Sport in its fundamentals has not really changed all that drastically over the last couple of centuries since their origins. If you look at the game closest to my heart, cricket has retained the same essence of two teams, one batting, the other bowling and trying to restrict the batting team to what they can chase. Equipment in cricket remains the same—the oldest bats might have changed in a few minor measurements as per International Cricket Council (ICC) regulations over the years, but the structure of the bat remains the same, as does the cricket ball. The number of safeguards have increased in terms of cricketing gear, but essentially, looking at a picture of cricket being played in the 1700s and today, one can’t discern major differences. I discovered this to be true of sports like badminton and table tennis as well.

Hence, change in sport has been largely incremental or evolutionary. The construct of the game remains the same; a lot of elements don’t change radically or revolutionarily.

However, one key thing that has changed in sport radically is how we approach the sport, and how we think about the game. This applies to several stakeholders in sport—players, management, coaching staff, fans, etc. One of the big enablers to this change in sport has been the application of data and the integration of technology to help interpret that data.

Popular culture has made Sabermetrics a familiar subject for sports fans across the world, aided by the success of books and movies like Moneyball. We often talk about lessons from sport for businesses, but I believe the way data has been embraced is a key learning and inspiration that sport has derived from businesses.

Why did data become important in sport? Once, success in sports was largely driven by player performance and core talent/skill. Over time, a huge competitive advantage emerged in the player’s ability to “think" the game and acquire knowledge in the same. This knowledge is the foundation for a lot of modern day “think tanks" in sports teams—the units that accompany the team for their expertise in the sport, even though they’re themselves not playing. This kind of sporting wisdom can come from two things—experience and data.

Experience can never be stated enough, be it in business or sport—it is what helps coaches/senior players and business managers take decisions by instinct in situations where it is difficult to call upon detailed data and perform complex analyses. Limited by people’s ability to remember and recall all relevant information, modes of data creation and storage, enabled by today’s technology has taken prominence. Data is everywhere in sport and is substantially voluminous. Every instant, there are innumerable aspects of information that get captured. Beyond the performance component, sport being an economic sector with private entities investing in the business of sport, also means that there is business-relevant data being captured and applied.

Winning in sport thus has evolved to beyond instinct and talent, and now integrates data-driven collective and personal leadership. There are still disruptive opportunities though, especially where data and human interface have to work together. For instance, use of data to observe patterns in behaviour coupled with expertise in people psychology is something that can be used to interpret and guide sportspersons on behaviours and attitudes—this is not something machines or data can do on their own.

I believe there is potential for sportpersons and business managers to learn from each other in data management and application. Sportspersons need to own data the way business managers do. It is integral for business owners for day-to-day operations to be on top of data that directly impacts their and competition’s performance. Young sportspersons also need to take ownership of analytics at an early stage in their careers—they need to seek help in identifying relevant data and learn to mine and apply the same, thereby working on their performance. Looking at data analytics as merely a support function, which travels with a sports team, and treating it as an input that is spoon-fed to them through experts with little ownership defeats the power of data.

Sports is a people-intensive industry and people are its sole and core resource. All analytics are tied to them and emerge from the players. Businesses might also appreciate the significance of human capital, but my understanding is that today, amongst the vast volumes of data processed in businesses, there is a small percentage focused on human dimension of performance compared with sales or production or efficiency metrics. Performance analytics in businesses are less advanced as those of sports teams and have been largely applied at individual levels. It might be interesting and effective to assess employees by documenting and applying data on group performance, leadership and other such metrics.

The American astronomer and author Clifford Stoll has said very aptly, “Data is not information, information is not knowledge, knowledge is not understanding, and understanding is not wisdom." Somewhere here, I like to believe that the gap between data and wisdom needs human experience to bridge it, and this is why I believe some of us from sport and business, albeit from a different generation, continue to retain some relevance!

Anil Kumble is a former Indian cricketer, a Padma Shri awardee and the founder of TENVIC.

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