When the USA wheelchair rugby team takes the floor today in Rio for its first game in the 2016 Paralympic Games, it will do so as a favorite to medal, as it has in every IWRF world championships and Paralympics dating back to 1995. The team is a juggernaut. And it became one, in part, thanks to advanced video analysis.
Wheelchair rugby (also known as quad rugby, and popularized by the 2005 documentary Murderball) is a grueling mix of violent on-court collisions and finesse plays, framed by a structure borrowed from, among others, ice hockey and rugby. It’s also a sport that demands attention to strategy, and that benefits from advanced analytics. The type that wasn’t available until relatively recently.
“We quickly recognized that video analysis is important in all sports, but even more so in adaptive sports,” says coach James Gumbert, who took over the program in 2005. “And we just hadn’t been able to scratch the surface of it.
Two years later, in 2007, Gumbert enlisted the help of Dartfish, a company that provides in-depth video analysis software.
Tale of the Tape
Dartfish is well know among team trainers, and its use isn’t limited to wheelchair rugby. In fact, the company boasts that 462 medals at last month’s Rio Olympics were awarded to “athletes and teams using Dartfish.” That’s nearly half of all medals. Usain Bolt is among its high-profile devotees.
In fact, if you watched the Olympics on NBC, you likely saw some Dartfish technology without even realizing it. Its StroMotion feature showed divers at every stage from the platform to the pool in one shot, while its SimulCam can overlay two athletes executing the same discipline–like a gymnastics vault at once.
In the early days, Gumbert says, the use of Dartfish was limited to a few simple tasks. That’s largely because while the software is adaptable across many sports, wheelchair rugby was an entirely new area of expertise.
“There wasn’t anybody else at that moment using it the way that we were doing it,” says Gumbert. In fact, Gumbert and Dartfish had to collaborate to find ways to use existing Dartfish analysis that could be applied to the unique needs of wheelchair rugby. Gumbert’s first wheelchair rugby use was to conduct a “push-stroke analysis,” a way to measure the strength with which an athlete pushes his chair, as well as the angle of the push.
That’s an invaluable training tool. It both helps evaluate established wheelchair rugby athletes and give aspiring stars something to compare themselves against. “We could get so much more from an athlete by teaching them really good stroke analysis, which basically would translate to a quicker athlete on the court.”
The only problem? Dartfish didn’t have a built-in push-stroke analysis package, as it might for an equivalent golf or gymnastics process. Eventually, Gumbert figured out that he could get the effect that he wanted by placing a tracker that might otherwise be used to follow, say, a basketball player’s position on a court, on an athlete’s glove. All of a sudden, he could compare the pushing movements across his entire team, setting a standard for a quality push and helping people live up to it.
“The tools were there, just the application of it had never been done,” says Gumbert.”
Nuke the Stats
Year by year, Team USA added more Dartfish capabilities to its toolkit. Today, it’s used for everything from scouting opponent weaknesses to breaking down game film for players to helping make adjustments on the fly. By tracking athlete’s movements through a game, and being able to break down plays with teleprompter-like lines and sketches, Gumbert and his fellow coaches have a host of tools available to them that didn’t exist when he started.
“Now we use it as a statistical package,” says Gumbert. “Instead of just guessing at it, it gives you hard numbers. That was huge for us. In the past, our sport being in its infancy, there’s a lot of flying by the seat of your pants. The statistical side of this really has helped us be able to say what we expect, which is a lot different than what we hope or might think will happen.”
None of which is different from any other major sport that uses Dartfish or comparable software; it’s just that wheelchair rugby is a relatively new beneficiary of its powers. A decade ago, Gumbert and his players would have to rely more on instinct or general impressions; now, they can rely on fact.
“After watching film, we can say every time we play Brazil, they go to the right side of the court 80 percent of the time, and only when they go to the left side is when they’re forced into turnovers,” says Gumbert. “That shifts how we set up our offenses and our defenses.”
Is the opposing team better against the zone than man-to-man? Do they struggle with transition defense? Dartfish exposes those things. And Team USA takes full advantage.
They’re not the only ones. Gumbert’s noticed more and more teams filming games and “tagging” their footage with Dartfish or similar software. Still, he’s hopeful his team can stay ahead of the pack, thanks to continued innovation. Birmingham, Alabama’s Lakeshore Foundation, which serves as a training center for Paralympic athletes, has installed a set of cameras above the court to give an aerial view of practices, making it much easier to track athletes and draw up plays. Think of how commentators draw up plays on Monday Night Football; it’s a view from above, not from the sidelines.
To a novice viewer, wheelchair rugby can look as chaotic as it is ruthless. It belies just how much method there is to murderball–and how much sophistication there is behind the analytics that fuel it.