How IBM’s computers are blocking injuries on the rugby pitch

Rugby is a rough sport but it requires very little protective gear. That’s why one in four players can expect to be injured during a season.

So IBM is helping teams such as the Leicester Tigers in the United Kingdom to use predictive analytics to understand and reduce the injury rate for rugby players. As more and more money is at stake in pro sports, the science of analysis is proving its worth. It’s a lot like how general manager Billy Beane introduced the Oakland A’s to analytics in Moneyball, and now these concepts are spreading to many different industries.

Losing a player for an extended period can hurt a team on the field and reduce ticket sales. The Leicester Tigers have held the English championship title nine times and have won the European Heineken Cup twice. They use the analytics to grow and retain talent, measure performance, optimize tactics, and detect risk. To do that, they use Big Blue’s software to figure out the risk of injury to players and create personalized training programs for players at risk.

Unlike spreadsheet-based statistical solutions, IBM’s predictive analytics software is designed to enable Leicester Tigers to broaden and deepen the analysis of both objective and subjective raw data, such as fatigue levels and game intensity levels, for all 45 players in the squad.

The software can predict both injuries for individuals and when a player is likely to cross a threshold. If a player’s fatigue level is high and the intensity of the training is as well, the player is more likely to get hurt. Altering the training just in time is important.

“Our team has always been proud of challenging at the top of national and European rugby competitions, but it gets more competitive every year and our focus must be on helping our players stay injury free for longer,” said Andrew Shelton, head of sports science for the Tigers. “There is a tremendous value to be gained by retaining experienced players within the squad and we are confident that, by adopting IBM predictive analytics, our team will be able to leverage data about the physical condition of players for the first time and considerably enhance our performance.”

The analytics also pore through psychological player data. Away games cause higher stress levels than home games, and social or environmental stress can hurt a player’s performance.

“Sport is no longer just a game, it’s becoming more and more a scientific undertaking which is driven by data and numbers,” said Jeremy Shaw, IBM’s business analytics lead for media and entertainment. “Gone are the days of relying on raw talent and gut instinct to succeed. We are delighted that Leicester Tigers has chosen IBM analytics to not only help protect the health of its players but also improve the team’s performance and stay ahead of the competition.”

IBM’s analytics business has 9,000 consultants and 400 researchers.