Jake Palmer unclasps a small, silver suitcase to reveal fifteen neatly arranged yellow-rimmed black GPS tracker units, all tucked into a foam cushion like the prize jewels of a collector. Each unit – which, for the sake of visualisation, looks like a small E-tag – is roughly five centimetres each side and fits into a player’s sports bra. Across the four quarters that make up a match, the unit will record data on total distance, top speed, rates of exertion and a breakdown of how much time a player has spent running.
“We set goals at the start of the year as to the standard of numbers we were expecting from each line – mids, forwards, backs,” says Jake.
“Seven and a half kilometres is the goal for our midfielders and at the start of the season we maybe only had two or three players a game and now we can expect more like five.
“The benchmark we set for average metres a minute is 100, and we not only now have five players on the regular clocking that up, we also get four who finish in the 90s every game.”
The Redbacks are far from Robinson Crusoe in their employment of the GPS Unit Tracker System but the practice is not universal (at least not to local-level clubs – at VFL and AFL level, the program is part and parcel of game day). However, the initiative was not merely about the facilitation of match-day technology at the Academy; Jake’s data compilation has assisted Mitch Lower in understanding the strengths and weaknesses of his players.
“It tells us who’s working hard, who’s working at a critical pace,” says Mitch as he pores over his players’ numbers.
“It goes with how they’re playing as well – you’ll have players who have one low running kilometre game, one high running kilometre game and in that high running kilometre game they’ll get more of the ball and have more of an impact. So, it definitely tells us who’s performing and who’s putting in the hard yards.”
As he will do every week, Jake meets with Mitch and High-Performance Manager Vince Atkinson prior to the Redbacks’ Round 3 match against the Monash Blues. The trio watch on as Matt Newbold and Riley Box take the Redbacks through their warm ups and discusses the task ahead. Perhaps certain players are carrying soft tissue injuries that will impact their numbers. Perhaps Mitch wants a midfielder pushed into a different line. There’s no tricking the GPS data. It captures every 1 and 0 but context always impacts assessment.
At the end of the match – which RMIT loses heavily to seal relegation from VAFA Premier B to VAFA Premier C – Jake will wait until Mitch calls out “Recovery starts now!” to begin unclasping the units from the players. He also distributes self-assessment forms that the Redbacks will fill out in between shoving off their boots and peeling off their tape.
“After a game, we get the players to rate their RPEs [rate of perceived exertion] out of 10, so how tired and physically spent they feel,” says Jake. “We can then run that in parallel with their time on ground and their GPS numbers to track how fitness is developing.”
“It fits the vision of the Academy,” says Sally Tanner. “Setting up the resources of a VFL club which then enables interns and managers to develop that skillset which could be attractive to future employers because they’ve been operating at a reasonably high level.
“The second thing is to be able to set benchmarks for our players. Regardless of what level they want to reach, they’re getting feedback that is meaningful and tying in other analytics to help with their performance. We set it up from the start of pre-season so we could track over pre-season and in season how the players are going so Mitch and the Strength & Conditioning team can change their training programs around fitness and strength and conditioning using the analytics.”