Op-Ed: Inside the Data of British Rowing's 'World Class Start'

19 Mar 2020

By: Sport Industry Group

Over the past 35 years, Great Britain has consistently been one of the leading rowing nations in the world, especially when it comes to performances at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, World Rowing Championships, and European Rowing Championships, but what are some of the secrets of its success? Steve Gunn, World Class Start Manager, British Rowing, takes a look.

Britain's dominance in rowing is best summarised by the statistic that the GB Rowing Team has won at least one gold medal at every edition of the Olympics since 1984, underlining its high levels of consistency in one of the Games’ toughest endurance sports. 

This success can be partly attributed to British Rowing’s pathway programme, which has been heavily influenced by statistical analysis ever since Britain’s national governing body of rowing started employing sports scientists. A key part of this development is the World Class Start programme, also known as Start, a scheme which strives to identify and develop the next generation of world-class rowers.

Created in 2001 by British Rowing’s then performance director, Sir David Tanner, the Start programme does not solely act as a development programme for those with previous rowing experience. In fact, there is no requirement to have ever taken part in sport before, as the Start programme develops those with exceptional natural strength and endurance, which fit the British Rowing criteria. 

Working behind-the-scenes to further develop the scheme is SAS, which has been the Official Analytics Partner of British Rowing since 2014. The leader in advanced analytics software and services is helping to enhance the Start programme, as part of British Rowing’s new data-driven project called Athlete Longitudinal Profiling, which aims to develop young athletes into Olympic, World and European-level rowers.

SAS uses its software architecture to help the British Rowing coaches understand the data, which the team collects, creating invaluable insights, which can help inform decisions about the training and development of the nation’s young rowers.

The results have been positive, with the Start programme developing 50 per cent of the GB Rowing Team’s medallists at the London 2012 Games, while there was at least one graduate from the programme in every medal-winning crew at Rio 2016. The initiative’s success is apparent over the past few months, as four GB rowers who won medals at the World Under-23 Rowing Championships were graduates or current members of the Start programme.

The Start programme has also produced the likes of double Olympic gold medallists, Helen Glover MBE and Heather Stanning OBE, as well as current GB Rowing Team athlete, Moe Sbihi MBE, who was part of the gold medal-winning coxless four team at Rio 2016. With more than 300 athletes currently taking part in the long-term pathway initiative, the future looks bright for British Rowing.

Athletes involved in the programme have warmed to British Rowing’s ambition to become a more data-driven and insight-led organisation. Speaking on the influence that the Start programme and SAS have had on his career, Sbihi said: “Somewhere on one of the coaches’ laptops is all my data. Over the last four or five years that SAS has been involved, my data is no longer just on laptops, it’s now on a specialist database.”

Having analysed the data that British Rowing collects, the insights which SAS produce are then used by British Rowing’s coaches to help up-and-coming rowers undergo a similar training schedule to that of Sbihi, who has amassed seven World Rowing Championships and two Olympic medals. 

“It’s now very easy to extract what we need to find from my own scores that date back 15 years. Every ergo I do, every weight I lift, every stroke I take, every race I do is a piece of crucial data”, added Sbihi.

“Per athlete, there are hundreds and thousands of data points, so the ability to extract data and use it quickly and effectively is key.”

An initial indication of a potential top-level rower is a significant height within a specific age range, with British Rowing inviting any prospective male athlete over 6’2” tall and between the ages 14-20, and any female athlete over 5’10” tall and between the ages 14-22, to put themselves forward for the Start programme. 

Shortlisted athletes are then asked to take part in a series of talent identification tests to decide whether they are well-suited to a top-level career in rowing. After measuring the potential rower’s height and weight, British Rowing coaches measure arm span to determine how effective their strokes can be, before testing their arm and leg strength, as well as their endurance on a Schwinn bike. 

The data collected from these talent identification tests are then compared to the profiles of World and Olympic champions, such as Sbihi, Glover and Stanning when they were at a similar age, which helps to objectively determine whether the prospective novice athletes have the physiological make-up to potentially become part of the next generation of elite rowing athletes. 

The effectiveness of these tests – and the system in its entirety – was clear to see when former Olympic long jump champion, Greg Rutherford MBE took part in the World Class Start entry tests to determine whether he could have pursued a career in rowing.

After stunning British Rowing coaches with his leg strength, Rutherford, who retired from athletics in the summer of 2018, was impressed with how data can be collected and interpreted, and called on other sports to use data analytics in their coaching and development schemes.

“The approach British Rowing is taking is fantastic and I think it will open up a sport that predominantly people would assume is not for everybody, and I think that’s a wonderful thing”, said Rutherford.

“I think SAS’ data analytics could be used across all sports. As we modernise and actually get into the 21st century – because some sports are really stuck in the past – we’ll find that stat-driven training and development is something that could be really useful.”