Entangled narratives: sport performance analysis and sport performance analytics


This post explores the stories about data we share in sport performance analysis and sport performance analytics.
It is an attempt to think aloud about the narratives we construct when we share our observations about performance in training and in competition.
The trigger for this post is Emma Uprichard and Leila Dawney‘s (2016) discussion of data diffraction.

I am distinguishing between analysis and analytics as occupations but increasingly these are becoming entangled in sport settings … particularly when performance analysts extend their learning to include data science skills.

This continuing learning is enhanced when we ask second order questions about our practice. Such questions help us clarify the why, what and how of our performance data responsibilities.


Emma and Leila consider how we respond when the data we collect, through a variety of mixed methods, diffract rather than become integrated.
Diffraction splinters and interrupts performance data … “it provides an explicit way of empirically capturing the mess and complexity” that is intrinsic to “the social entity being studied” (2016:1).
Emma and Leila share their understanding of diffraction as “a process of paying attention to the ways in which process produces ‘cuts’ that can interrupt and splinter the object of study” (2016:2).
They point out:

To be clear, in arguing for diffraction as an alternative to integration, we not wish to negate or undo the efforts colleagues have made regarding data integration. Rather, we emphasize the need for an approach that explicitly supports instances where data do not integrate or ‘cohere’ and argue that this may be due to the messy nature of the object of study. In doing so, we provoke a discussion around the orthodoxy of integration as a goal of mixed methods research (2016:3).

They add:

an implicit assumption to integration is that the empirical data will depict a particular social phenomenon. Yet there is no a priori reason that this is necessarily so. Mixed data could equally reveal multiple phenomena that are entangled together, even though they appear to singular or whole. Mixed data could instead multiply the partiality, increase the uncertainty and further entangle the subject (2016:7).

In addition to adding ‘diffraction’ to my thought horizon, Emma and Leila have pushed me to think about ‘cuts’ and ‘entanglement’.


In their discussion of the process of observation, Emma and Leila note “Different methods may produce very different cuts, but the same method may well do too” (2016:11). They add “These cuts produce different ‘matterings’; they make some aspects visible but not others and this process has social effects” (2016:11). 
They continue:

the process of doing research, of making cuts, will always be partial and will always bear the traces of the research process undertaken. Moreover, the act of making these cuts contributes to how we understand what it is we think we are researching (2016:12).

Cuts are boundary-drawing processes that, through what they reveal or conceal, come to matter (2016:13).


One of the important discussions in Emma and Leila’s paper is related to entanglement. Their argument draws upon earlier work by Karen Barad . (“Existence is not an individual affair. Individuals do not preexist their interactions; rather individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating” (2007:ix.)
Emma and Leila propose that “observers and phenomena are always entangled” (2016:12). Sensitivity to methodological cuts opens us up to what is “messy, fuzzy and multiple in the social world” (2016:14).
An openness to diffraction encourages awareness of difference and entanglement. They argue that the process of collecting, analysing and sharing performance data can make visible “its own interference and its various material effects” (2016:14).

The Stories We Share

I am hopeful that awareness of Emma and Leila’s paper will encourage us to think more about the stories we share and how we share them.
Their discussion of diffraction, cuts and entanglement is an important counter to uncritical acceptance of data capture and analysis.
Their work took me back to Donald Polkinghorne’s (1988:11) contemplation of narrative knowing and his suggestion that “Narrative is a scheme by means of which human beings give meaning to their experience of temporality and personal actions”.
If we accept that our methodological cuts offer a partial perspective on performance,  I wonder how we address uncertainty in our stories we share with coaches and players.
Donald again …

Narrative is a meaning structure that organizes events and human actions into a whole, thereby attributing significance to individual actions and events according to their effect on the whole. (1988:18)

Through experience, we learn to craft the stories we share. Gradually, we come to appreciate the difference between headlines and granular detail.
My interest in Emma and Leila’s work speaks to my fascination with personal differences in sport contexts.
During my time of sharing performance stories with coaches and athletes, I have tried to balance the spoken and written with the unspoken and unwritten.
Some of my most memorable conversations with coaches have started with a coach’s question “Is there something you are not telling me?”.
I see these as wormhole moments (bridges through time-space) … the question opens up opportunities to go wherever the coach wishes to go and where our intra-relating might take us. Prompted by absence in the story rather than presence.
This is the start in our professional learning journey that moves us from a chronicle to a story.
Making sense of our entanglement in this process and it products offers us the possibility of learning how to welcome diffraction.
I think this sense making is energy giving and invites us to have a repertoire of stories for diverse audiences.

Photo Credits

Reading (jwyg, CC BY-SA 2.0)
Emma Uprichard (Twitter)
Leila Dawney (University of Brighton)
Osheaga 2011 (Tony Felgueiras, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Augsburg (Keith Lyons, CC BY 4.0)
Jamie Coles mentions two images in his comment below. They are contained in this tweet:


  1. I think this relates to the idea that post-hoc data analysis can reveal correlation but not causation. Careful examination with this diffraction idea in mind can then help you to get a sense of potentially multiple causes hidden in a correlation. Randomised control trials could let you test a hypothesis of causation, but that is unlikely to be possible in many of the fields of interest.

    • Thank you for finding the post and leaving such a though-provoking comment, Kim. It is fascinating to reflect upon how we can have ‘certainty’ in an interconnected world. You have encouraged me to revisit some of the epistemic issues involved.

  2. Hi Keith,
    Thank you for shedding some light on the entanglement between performance analysis and sport performance analytics. It was a brilliant guidance in writing dissertation.
    I believe Lebed (2017) view is an accurate portrayal of this entanglement, and as such, views Sport performance Analytics at its broadest definition as a complex of: (1) stages and processes; (2) branches; (3) environments; (4) periods; and (5) kinds. That seeks a trans disciplinary environment to identify new knowledge that is lays between, across and beyond discipline boundaries into a common set of sport performance analytics terms, methods and concepts.
    Ive attached the following complex sport analytics picture and the trans disciplinary environment of SPA on twitter in the link below. As i couldn’t add picture to the comment box.
    Ref – Lebed (2017). https://www.routledge.com/Complex-Sport Analytics/Lebed/p/book/9781138911192

    • Thank you for finding the post and commenting, Jamie. I have added a postscript to include the images. I published your first guest post today.


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