SportsCouncil SV: Q&A with Raul Pelaez – Head of Sports Technology, FC Barcelona

On Friday, SportsCouncil SV had the opportunity to attend a meetup in San Francisco where Raul Pelaez, the Head of Sports Technology for Barcelona Football Club was speaking. He was interviewed by Mounir Zok (US Olympic committee) to discuss how the FC Barcelona utilizes technology in order to enhance and assess the team’s cumulative performance. We also set down with Mr Pelaez after the meetup to ask him about FC Barcelona’s strategy towards injury prevention.

Mounir Zok: Good evening Mr. Pelaez, to begin, would you please explain how you introduce new wearables and technology to the team and goes into consideration?

RP: "Yes, to us wearable technology still feels like we are in an invasive stage. We do use wearables of some sort in all games along with GPS technologies and UWB. Before we give it to our second team to test and try out, we go over what sort of metrics can we discover from it. The tech staff monitors analysis and collaborates with training staff for viability. All too often we see many products that do all the same functions. It would be great if we could get 24-hour metrics with the players, but you cannot make your players use the devices in their off-time."

Mounir Zok: So, how do you analyze the data you can access from these technologies?

RP: "Five to six years ago we could not find a platform that collects and connects all of our data. We could not find anything, so we decided to develop our own software to generate insights. His name is COR (Coneixement, Organització Rendiment) in English. and it means KPO (Knowledge Performance Organization). Now we have 20 people working every day in our office. We collect all the data that is related to the players. For everything medical, blood analysis, we have all the core parameters, from all the games and players.

The coaches receive this info on their mobile device (tablet or smartphone) but when we started building the software. We discovered that the best way is to take the player’s phone and put an app on their phone to collect their biometric data. When the player gets up we collect the data .and we are currently using gamification techniques.

We implemented a mobile game (with gamification) for players so that they can compare their historical data and compare it with other players. For pro athletes, it is a killer motivation as they are very competitive. They want to run more than their colleagues or park the fastest, etc. Ultimately, what is important is collaborating and discussing with other sports teams in Barcelona like basketball and share findings of what works and what does not. Physical preparators from various local sports are learning from each other. We think it is very important. Overall, we have a good relationship with professional sports in our nation, which is beneficial. I understand many sports teams in the U.S. do not share such information amongst each other. In our view, it is important to share knowledge rather than keep it in a box. All Barcelona teams work together to grow. In fact, yesterday we spoke with the NBA to share and compare knowledge to understand what the NBA uses versus what we use so we can learn from each other".

Question from the audience: Are you collecting data in real time and analyzing or do you wait until the match is over before processing?

RP: "Hmm, positional data has the tactical information we are looking for. Positional data are the X, Y, Z position of the 22 players and the ball. We want to know why certain things happen in football. We are interested in the process more than the result. We want to know why we scored goals, not how many goals we scored.”

Question from the audience: It seems you have a lot of personal data on these players. When a player from Barcelona leaves or transfers out, who owns the data?

RP: "The medical data you speak of is contracted with the player. We in these cases need to consult with FIFA on data retaining, should a concern come up. "

Question from the audience: One emerging technology that seems to be growing in professional sports is the use of virtual reality. For Barcelona FC, how important do you see it utilized with players?

RP: “Yes not only do you have to train the body but VR helps to train the brain. At rest, it can be used to reacting in the mind to a match you are watching. This also helps increase knowledge through looking at these scenarios without too much taxing the heart and lungs. You can only exert so much physically. The cognitive is important for us. We need to train more players but without physical over-loading. we need to train more players but without loading..that’s where VR can help train. Through VR young players can also see how pro players play soccer to help them improve their game and knowledge to make better decision.

Lastly VR can help injured players stay fit mentally”.

Question from the audience: How do you effectively compete with other top European pro teams?

RP: “First of all, we are not the richest club in the world. Teams like Manchester United, Manchester City, or Bayern Munich have much more resources than we do. We don’t have the money they have. Let’s not forget that the FC Barca is a democratic club with 150.000 owners that vote every 6 years. Granted, we have the biggest contracts from the sponsors, but we cannot compete in terms of budgets. Therefore we have to be creative through the knowledge that we accumulate. This is also why we have to grow our own talents like Messi to compete with big clubs”.

Question from the audience: Our final question is your frequent mention of creating an “innovation hub”. Could you please elaborate on what that entails?

RP: "The long-term goal of Barcelona is to make a unified tech hub. It is like an ecosystem where startups and other innovators can help us grow. Our leadership tells us they want to be the best in medicine, performance analysis, team sports, technology, and marketing. We constantly need to know what is the new technology out there that can help us grow and improve in the future. There is one thing I want to say regarding our goals and that is I do not personally believe in KPI’s. The only KPI we care about is of course winning. We care more about biometric data and helping our players get better and avoid injury."

SportsCouncil SV: What is the FC Barcelona’s strategy towards injury prevention?

RP: “Two main ways: for all the players, we are using a general approach based on improving the capability of adaptation of the players to the stress and external tensions related to competition. Overall we consider that the best prevention strategy is to train better with the optimal workload, and that the specific prevention exercises must be introduced within the training session on the field. And let’s not forget the invisible training aspects. We believe that an individual approach for the players with specific risk must be taken in account”.

SportsCouncil SV: Have you been able to reduce the number of injuries over the years? If so, have you been able to quantify the impact of your strategy towards injury prevention?

RP: “Not for all types of injuries, because we don't know at all how their prevalence is evolving due to other reasons. Some injuries have dramatically decreased as LBP, pubalgia and sport hernia. Metatarsal stress fractures have increased 15 years ago and nowadays they are less common. Joint strains are decreasing slowly, specially the ankle ones. And the muscle injuries prevalence and severity have not changed in the last 15 years. The impact of prevention is different for every type of injury”.

SportsCouncil SV: Have you been able to build a system alerting you when a player is at risk of injury?

RP: “Yes, we are working on this area. We have our own platform data collection call COR where we are monitoring the training load of our players, both external load (GPS, video analysis … ) and internal load (session-RPE, HRV, metabolomics ..), and with this information we are focusing on modelling the training load-injury relationship and using it for injury prediction. We are trying to build this model to predict injuries in our 5 professionals sport teams: football, basketball, handball, futsal, and roller hockey, from academy to professional players”.

We would like to thank Raul Pelaez for taking the time to answer our questions.

Chris Papazian

Sports Council SV - Staff Editor

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