Connecting the Dots: Football, Numbers, and Analytics in High School Sports

Chris Orlando
May 28, 2023

Steve Jobs said at a Stanford commencement speech “You can't connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backward. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something…”  

Growing up as a multi-sport athlete with a strong background in mathematics and statistics, I have always found connections between numbers and football. Throughout my life, these connections have led me to two decades of ventures in the financial industry, sports infrastructure development in India, and changing the landscape of amateur athletics with Athlogic. As I reflect on my experiences, I realize the importance of analytics in sports, particularly at the high school level.

A Shift in Perspective

When I was in high school back in the 90’s, analytics was an unknown concept in sports.  The stats that were routinely used were elementary at best.  Coaches had to feel their way through the game and try to glean insights from what they saw on the field.  Humans are resistant to change and often fight against using the tools that would help them.  Coaches think that they have been doing things this way since the beginning of time (actually they haven’t - coaches have always evolved, just slowly).  

I was the same way.  Growing up, I knew that numbers were important, but for some reason, my football brain always used to “feel” my way through the various issues in my life.  I saw the numbers everywhere but wasn’t able to connect the dots.  When we look back at various times where we fought change, more times than not, technology has made the process easier and we are in a better position because of it.  We just need to get out of our own way.

After 20 years in the corporate world, I decided to go back to school to get my Masters.  My journey into sports analytics began in my first class at Columbia University, a Sports Accounting class, that warned us that the program would make us hate sports. The reason? Our perspective on sports would be fundamentally changed. Attending a New York Jets game shortly after, I couldn't help but notice the numbers and patterns everywhere – from advertisements to crowd flow and concession operations.  The dots finally connected.

The Power of Numbers in Sports

Throughout my Sports Management program, every course touched upon different aspects of the sports industry, with numbers playing a crucial role in each element. As a math major and a former quarterback, I knew that numbers never lie, and neither does the eye in the sky. The challenge was to use these numbers to make a meaningful impact on the game that has shaped my life.

The History and Future of Analytics in High School Football

Walter Camp, credited with shaping American football as we know it today, was the first coach to use rudimentary analytics in the late 1800s. He employed photographs and statistics to analyze performance and gain an advantage over his opponents. Despite this early adoption, coaches took over a century to embrace analytics.

The adoption of film analysis and analytics in football has typically followed a top-down approach, with the NFL leading the charge, followed by college football, and finally, high school football. Given this trend, we are now at the cusp of high school football analytics.

The Impact of Analytics on High School Football

While it is impossible to quantify the exact number of additional wins attributable to analytics, it is undeniable that incorporating analytics can provide coaches with valuable insights and opportunities for success. Coaches should consider three key factors when incorporating analytics: on-the-field performance, off-the-field performance, and the willingness to succeed.

Analytics is transforming the game of high school football. On-the-field performance can be improved by analyzing trends and tendencies.  One team that is reaping the benefits of this data-driven approach is Pulaski Academy in Arkansas. By analyzing millions of data points and developing a formula to assess the value of each possession, Coach Kevin Kelley has achieved an unconventional, data-driven strategy that favors going for it on fourth down. Pulaski Academy only punts about once every year or two (that’s not a misprint).  On top of that, they usually run an onside kick after scoring.  Coach Kelley’s goal is to score on 100% of their possessions, they came close by scoring on more than 80% of their possessions.  His analysis concluded that this approach is overwhelmingly more advantageous than punting, and this has led to Pulaski Academy winning nine state titles in 18 years.  

Kelley's formula takes into account four criteria, including field position, down & distance, average punt length, and average punt return, to determine the value of each possession. The basic formula is this: max of: ( P(conv) * exp pts ) - ( 1-P(conv) * exp pts ), or exp pts at spot after punt and return.  By analyzing millions of data points, he has been able to create a data-driven approach that has helped his team achieve unparalleled success on the field. This approach is a stark contrast to the traditional method of punting on fourth down, which was the go-to strategy for most high school football teams.  However, the success of Pulaski Academy's data-driven approach has caught the attention of other high school football coaches, who are now beginning to incorporate analytics into their programs. 

The success of Pulaski Academy is a prime example of how analyzing trends and tendencies can help identify weaknesses in a team's performance and make adjustments to improve their chances of winning. Through the use of data and analytics, coaches can gain valuable insights into their team's strengths and weaknesses, enabling them to create more effective game plans and make better decisions on the field.

Figure 1.  “Going for it” at midfield

Figure 1 shows that it is 4th Down with the ball on the 50 yard line.  There is a 50% chance of converting fourth down.  The average punt is 40 yards with the average return in 10 yards.  The expected points off of the conversion is flat, 0.0, but the expected opponent points if you punt is -1.8.  Therefore, expected points favor the offense - coach is going for it.

Figure 2.  “Going for it” in negative territory

Figure 2 shows that they are backed up on their own 35, but there is a 70% chance on converting 4th down.  The average punt and the average return almost cancel each other out.  You have positive expected points versus negative expected points if you punt, so coach is going for it.

Figure 3.  “Going for it” in positive territory

Figure 3 shows that we are getting close to the red zone.  This one is almost a no-brainer, but there is virtually no downside to going for it on 4th down.  Coach is going for it.

Off-the-field performance benefits from using data to monitor player health and well-being.  The use of wearable technology is transforming the way high school football teams monitor the physical condition of their athletes, and one school that is leading the charge is St. Xavier High School in Cincinnati, Ohio. By using devices that track various metrics, such as movement, acceleration, and heart rate, coaches can better understand their athletes' physical condition and identify when they need rest or when they can push themselves.

The devices that St. Xavier High School uses can help coaches identify when an athlete is at risk of overtraining or when they need to take a break to prevent injury. By monitoring contact load and total load, coaches can determine when to push their players or allow them adequate rest for proper recovery. For example, the devices can help quarterbacks track the number of throws and their throw load during practice, while linemen can monitor their contact load and total load. This data can also help coaches design more effective training programs that are tailored to the unique demands of each athlete's position.

In addition to improving player safety, wearable technology is also helping high school football teams optimize their performance. By monitoring the physical condition of their athletes, coaches can ensure that they are training at the right intensity to improve their performance. By tracking key metrics such as movement and acceleration, coaches can also identify areas where their athletes need to improve and create more effective training programs.

The use of wearable technology is becoming increasingly common in high school football, and it is clear that this approach has the potential to revolutionize the sport. By providing coaches with real-time data on the physical condition of their athletes, wearable technology can help prevent injuries and optimize performance. As this technology becomes more widely available, we can expect to see more high school football teams embrace this data-driven approach to training and performance optimization.

There is safety in numbers.  Xavier was able to reduce their player’s injuries by 87%.  The Toronto Raptors were one of the most injured teams in the NBA.  Within two years of using Catapult’s wearable technologies, the training staff was able to monitor their athletes and became the league’s least injured team.  Gaining greater insights into your athletes gives you the ability to push them when they are most apt to give more.  

A Path Forward

The connection between numbers and football has never been more relevant than in today's world of sports analytics. High school football coaches can significantly benefit from incorporating analytics into their programs, both on and off the field. By embracing this data-driven approach, coaches can improve their decision-making, optimize performance, and create more opportunities for success on the gridiron.

The willingness to succeed is an important factor for coaches to consider when incorporating analytics into their high school football programs. Being open to analytics and embracing change can significantly impact a team's success. 

High school football coaches who embrace analytics have access to valuable insights and opportunities for success. Analytics can provide coaches with a wealth of information, including data on trends and tendencies, player performance, and overall team health. By analyzing this information, coaches can make better decisions that can ultimately lead to more victories on the field.

Adopting analytics in high school football is not a replacement for good coaching, but rather a complement that can provide valuable insights and opportunities for success. Coaches who are willing to embrace this data-driven approach can improve their decision-making, optimize performance, and create more opportunities for success on the gridiron.

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