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  • Jo Clubb

Optimising the Precision Practicality Tradeoff

Previously, we discussed the ‘Value Burden Matrix’ as a simple framework for weighing up the worth of a data collection process with the obligation it places on both athletes and staff. Within that post, we also considered that neither the burden or value associated with a particular process is fixed. In fact, each are dependent on how the specific process is carried out. Here, I will dive deeper into this, by exploring the decisions a practitioner has to make in selecting and optimising a data collection method for the applied environment. Specifically, we will examine the ‘Precision Practicality Tradeoff’.


Compromising on Precision or Practicality?

In an ideal world, we would conduct all of our physical assessments in controlled, laboratory settings. In reality, this is not practical for many reasons. Taking a whole team of professional athletes to a laboratory to conduct physical assessments is not cost-effective, time-effective, and may be unnecessary given the progress with technology in recent times. Both the value and the burden could not be justified in the applied setting.


Historically, we had to compromise on precision when using more practical approaches. Early notational analysis used to capture time-motion data in situ was not as accurate as current technology enables. Body composition measured via skinfolds or air displacement (bod pods) are not as precise as the gold-standard dual-energy X-ray absorptiometry (DEXA) method.


As such, we observe the requirement to meet both practicality and precision needs. However, these factors often have an inverse relationship. Therefore, there exists a tradeoff between precision and practicality. Determining where along this spectrum best suits both the data precision requirements and the practical challenges of the real-world setting should be given intentional consideration by practitioners.


Dealing with the Tradeoff in the Applied Setting

When investing in technology, practitioners must consider where within the Precision Practicality Tradeoff will be the most suitable compromise for their environment. For example, force plate technology is precise, but a jump mat is more practical if the desire is to collect data on the road. Factors that can influence this decision include the purpose of the technology, budget available, as well as plans for implementation, including when, where, and how often.


Just as the value and burden of a particularly technology is not fixed, neither is the precision or practicality. These depend on how the practitioner collects the data in the applied setting. Although we seek to maximise both of these dimensions, there may be compromise required given the Precision Practicality tradeoff.


To illustrate with an example, let’s first consider collecting Rating of Perceived Exertion (RPE). We have previously discussed how such subjective data, despite being dismissed as "iffy data" by others, can be a sensitive and useful data collection method. Research has postulated that so-called ‘best practice’ for RPE includes avoiding collection in groups due to the effect of peer pressure (Minett et al., 2021) and waiting until 30 minutes after the session (although research now seems to suggest this time function is not actually critical; Foster et al., (2021)).


Female writing RPE scores on a clipboard in a sport setting
How do you collect RPE in the applied setting to optimise the Precision Practicality Tradeoff?

In reality, we are tasked with collecting RPE from anywhere from a squad of 15 in basketball up to a roster of 120 in collegiate American football. The difficulty in singling out athletes in some of these environments challenges the precision requirement of avoiding group collection.


Practitioners also need to decide if they want to include extra work after practice or just the coach-led training session? If limiting to the coach-led session, you may have no choice but to collect within a certain timeframe and in a group setting. What’s more, after a training session these athletes have additional responsibilities of extra coaching, media/PR and community demands, strength and conditioning, recovery, and/or medical needs, all in addition to the basic, post-exercise hygiene needs! In this instance we may have to consider both the Value Burden Matrix and the Precision Practicality Tradeoff.


Another common example from the applied setting is using custom pouches in shirts/jerseys to hold Global Positioning System (GPS) devices, rather than manufacturer-supplied garments. Although research has demonstrated such vests can have a notable influence on accelerometry data (McLean et al., 2018), this may be necessary to achieve player buy-in, especially when such an approach is the culturally accepted norm. Again, we may have to compromise on precision to gain practicality. However, we can also consider the possible effects caused by this tradeoff when interpreting accelerometry-derived metrics and by conducting an internal study such as that by McLean and colleagues in order to quantify the effect of the pouches.


Identifying Technology with Improved Tradeoffs

Evolving technology means that the Precision Practicality Tradeoff is not necessarily linear. The traditional tradeoff for objective movement capture progressed from laboratory-based motion capture (more precise, least practical), to wearables, then mobile phones, and finally observation (least precise, most practical). However, camera technology within mobile phones has evolved rapidly and arguably bucked this trend. Apps are now available that maintain their practicality without compromising as much on precision.


Practitioners therefore have the opportunity to search for technology that challenges the Precision Practicality Tradeoff by exhibiting less of an inverse relationship. The first thing I look for with sports technology is transparency regarding their precision, such as how Output Sports share validity and reliability data on their website. As Professor Brian Caulfield discussed in Nature; “not all sensors are created equal”. We must seek to understand the innate precision and practicality of a particular technology, but also how that will change based on implementation within the constraints of our particular environment.


Final Thoughts

Optimising the Precision Practicality Tradeoff embodies the role of the Applied Sports Scientist. Comprehending both the precision and practicality of a particular data collection process, and then navigating its implementation in a manner that optimises this balance. This responsibility is about more than just the research. It involves a shrewd understanding of the applied environment – most notably, of the culture at that time - as well as respect for the value and burden being placed on both athletes and staff.


Technology has evolved our ability to collect data in both a more precise and practical manner. There is no doubt this evolution will continue. But with no one-size-fits-all solution, the Precision Practicality Tradeoff will always be a consideration for practitioners.



Are you optimising the Precision Practicality tradeoff in your environment? Global Performance Insights helps teams get the most out of their technology. Get in touch to discuss how we could help you.