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Quantifiable Chemistry: A Q&A with Daniel McCaffrey of SyncStrength

zhouxuan12345678 | Flickr

zhouxuan12345678 | Flickr

At last year’s Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, SyncStrength co-founders Daniel McCaffrey and Kevin Bickart gave a presentation entitled “The Science of Team Chemistry: Measuring Team Chemistry from Human Biology in Basketball and Soccer.” Our very own Andrew Lynch wrote a terrific summary, as well as an exploration of the possibilities, here. A few months ago, I spoke with McCaffrey about SyncStrength, its mission, the limitations they currently face and the possibilities they envision. Consider this a precursor to Sloan 2014, wherein SyncStrength is planning on presenting a research paper that suggests team chemistry does in fact exist and that it impacts performance in basketball.

Tell me about your backgrounds, and the origin of SyncStrength. What made you want to quantify team chemistry? 

Our team consists of coaches, researchers and scientists from Boston University and Harvard University that played sports at other DI colleges and universities.  Whether it was football or soccer, we saw the impact team chemistry had on our season’s outcomes.  Yet, our coaches and teams weren’t doing anything to specifically improve it. In addition to team chemistry, we saw how the mental side of the game wasn’t receiving the attention it deserved in terms of training.

So in 2007, while completing graduate degrees, we started iBELIEVE (www.goibelieve.com) to address this issue. We consulted with collegiate, professional and Olympic level athletes to enhance the athletic mindset and team chemistry between players, coaching staffs and organizations. Our methods and models came from our studies in psychology, medicine, neuroscience and human performance.

Coaches and teams saw a clear benefit from our services. But, even with our backgrounds as researchers and scientists, we found it very difficult to quantify our impact on mental toughness or team chemistry.  With mobile biosensors becoming more ubiquitous, it became possible for us to use biofeedback as a way to measure the impact we were having on teams.  This also enabled us to explore the potential of using biological markers of performance and human behavior to measure things that have never been measured before, such as team chemistry.  This is when we formed SyncStrength.

How applicable is the measure of Synchrony and overall team chemistry to sports that aren’t as collaborative, such as baseball, or even football to some extent?

Team chemistry and synchrony measurements aren’t as applicable in these sports in comparison to sports that have a more fluid back and forth, such as basketball, soccer, hockey, field hockey and lacrosse.  However, in more individual performance based sports such as baseball, football, golf and tennis, our analytics can still be used to evaluate how in sync a person is with their own optimal performance. This is regularly known as being “in the zone.” We’re working on helping athletes access this zone by being more in sync with their optimal zone of functioning.  So in a way, it’s helping athletes become more in sync with their best selves, as opposed to being in sync with a teammate.

For years, “immeasurable” traits such as chemistry, heart, hustle and so on have been perceived as just that: unquantifiable. Are you finally able to measure those traits, or do you think there are things we can’t measure?

I think we’re on the right path. These are difficult and complicated subjects that we’re tackling, but we believe over time that our team will get there. Our analytics are built to make sense of this complexity by providing for the inclusion of different modalities of data.  By modalities I mean biometric data such as heart rate, sport specific data such as yards, shots or corner kicks and interpersonal dynamics data such as team chemistry.  Combining these modalities helps us begin to see a 360-degree view of health and performance and begin to measure what was once immeasurable.

Analytics in sports, as with anything that attempts to question and change the norm, have been, and continue to be, met with a certain hesitancy, if not hostility. Have you encountered the same, and do you expect to as your studies progress? Is there a difference in the resistance you encounter in academia versus the realm of sports? 

Yes, we’ve encountered some healthy skepticism from the sports analytics community.  Coming from the peer review scientific journal world we’re used to this and encourage a healthy level of skepticism.  It helps us think more deeply about our research methods and ensures that our studies are conducted in a rigorous manner.  We’re prepared for the sports analytics community and will continue to be as we progress.

By that same token, there are also teams that have embraced analytics, and used them to change their approach to the game. How could a team implement your measurements? You can tell a player to stop shooting from a certain distance, or that he’s better driving left than right, but you can’t tell two players to start liking each other, right?

True. But imagine at the beginning of every season, in addition to game plans, practice plans and health plans organizations had team chemistry plans and strategies.  A plan that focuses and concentrates on enhancing team chemistry through building specific team chemistry related skills: communication, emotion regulation, stress regulation, energy management, and mental toughness to name a few examples. All of these skills can be improved upon and help teammates better understand one another and how they perform together.

In addition, by implementing our measurements teams will be able to manage lineups, formations and substitutions ensuring that the team on the field or court has the optimal level of synergy at the right moments in a game or practice.

Do you worry that you’re taking the romance, for lack of a better word, out of the game?

No. But I understand your point, once quantified, it loses some of its luster.

What’s the next step? What information do you see as vital to further quantifying chemistry?

Continue to work with teams and organizations not only on chemistry, but also on the health and performance metrics that we provide.  This will enable teams to maximize their advantage using our system to manage, analyze, visualize and understand their own health and performance data.

Additional information would be psychological measurements and social measurements.  Both of these are untapped areas in the sports analytics world. Psychological measurements may include personality and validated intelligence assessments. Social measurements would include social cues analytsis such as body language, eye contact and communication style.

The two sports you used in the study at Sloan were basketball and soccer. Were the instances of synchrony similar for each sport, or did you find that teams “came together” at different times?

This is unanswered at the moment. We’re trying to definitively answer questions like this by looking at the data more closely.

What are the biggest hindrances to the advancement of your studies?  

I’m not sure if it’s the biggest, but not gaining full access to elite level athletes during training, recovery and performance times is a hindrance. The ideal scenario would be fully integrating our analytical solutions into a sports team or league from preseason to the final whistle of the season for data collection.  I understand how important the privacy is to these organizations, the business and their players health, but without complete data sets our measures are analytical models can be limited.

How limiting is using the tools we currently have? 

Tools such as heart rate monitors and GPS units aren’t extremely limiting.  What’s limiting is the acceptance and adoption of these tools.  Here in the US the technology is still outpacing the team and league level adoption.  The US market has been slow to acknowledge the value of sports data analytics. We hope to play a part in changing this.

What advances can you see happening?

We can see more adoption by teams of devices such as polar, catapult, omegawave, and zephyr.  The hardware will continue to improve and provide new form factors for athletes to feel more comfortable wearing, therefore collecting higher resolution data.  Companies like MC10 are advancing digital health through the development of wireless sensors, hydration sensors and sports impact indicators.  In the next several years, these tools are going to be used by more than just elite level athletes.

Is Synchrony the final measure, or will that change as you (hopefully) gain access to different types of data?

We plan to continue working on our synchrony measure so that we’re able to provide players individual profile scores, teams scores and coaches an understanding of which player formations and lines have the best chemistry.  But it’s far from the final measure.  We believe we’re at the beginning of the sports analytics revolution. With access to different types of data, how and what we measure will grow and change.

Jordan White

Jordan White loves basketball, loves writing and loves writing about basketball. He marvels at every Ricky Rubio pass and cries after every Brandon Roy highlight. He grew up in Kansas, where, contrary to popular belief, there is running water, electricity, and no singing munchkins. Follow him on Twitter: @JordanSWhite