When Nic James took up golf after a successful career as a squash coach and academic, he had no intention of pottering slowly around the course on a Sunday morning. "There's no way I'm going to do a sport without analysing myself," he says. "I'm going to record everything I do." Professor James wrote an Excel spreadsheet to enable him to record and monitor his performance, where 1 represented Tiger Woods and 100 a player with a handicap of 36. He quickly realized he needed to focus on his putting: "I would go after work and play in the same spot." Within two years he had a handicap of five, putting him among the top 2% of players.
James, the Professor of Sport and Exercise Science at Middlesex, believes performance analytics can revolutionize the way both professionals and amateurs approach their sport. The boom in the discipline over the past decade suggests many players and coaches agree with him. "In 2005, there were no recognized performance analysts in the UK," he says. "Now Manchester City alone have ten full-time PAs working for them." Many of the analysts working in this new field - of which Prof James is an acknowledged pioneer - are former students of his. As a consequence, graduates of the Middlesex MSc in Performance Analytics have excellent job opportunities.
PA tracks a game's movement, but also its momentum. In rugby, for instance, where players can wear GPS devices under their vests, it lets coaches analyse successful scrums and lineouts, giving them invaluable insight into the strategies that win a game. PA software can even identify when a player isn't working at their usual rate and signal an injury well before the player reluctantly limps off the pitch. In athletics, a coach can photograph a long jumper on an iPad and use an app to instantly analyse the vectors. In future, Prof James says, coaches will use Kinect-like systems to track players' every movement and present the findings in a way they can grasp: "We need to make it understandable by people who aren't necessarily very numerate."
James is chair of the International Society of Performance Analysts in Sport, which will hold its 2014 conference in Croatia. His ambition - for which he has applied for EU funding - is to set up a network of PA centres around Europe, with performance analysts moving between them and swapping expertise. He is also investigating the potential of cryotherapy, where athletes are exposed to extremely low temperatures for a couple of minutes,to improve performance.
For the past four years, Prof James has been working with the squash player and coach Goran Vučkovič, a former Slovenian No 1, who developed an overhead tracking system. Together they have published several papers analysing players' performance in squash, basketball, soccer and rugby union. But it is tennis, the sport he played as a junior, where he says PA is currently underused. "We're not going to change Andy Murray's forehand," he says. "Be we can just make that difference."