IN the latest of my columns talking to people at the heart of the game, I speak to Ray Boyne, the performance analyst who has been involved with some of the most successful teams in the game.
Ray has kindly spoken to me about his role, and has provided some real insight into what the big teams strive for in order to obtain success. So let’s get into it.
Kevin Cassidy: First of all Ray, tell our readers a bit about your own background and some of the teams you have worked with.
Ray Boyne: My brother Joe was managing a senior club team in Dublin in 2003 and I was giving him a hand, carrying bottles, putting out cones, etc.
I read an article about the Armagh team that had won the All-Ireland in 2002 and in the article Joe Kernan explained how part of his management team was an Irish basketball coach – Darren O’Neill. Darren’s job was to take stats of the standard plays, shooting, kick-outs, turnovers etc, and with the aid of tables, pitch maps and video footage look at areas that could be improved.
I rang the Armagh County Board and got in touch with Darren and he was brilliant. Straight away he helped me, he showed me how to record stats in game, use the tables and pitch maps. I spent the early months of 2003 on the side of a pitch in St Ann’s Park, under an umbrella, counting, drawing and writing and then reporting back to the coaches and players.
By the summer of 2003 I was doing the same thing, only it was for the Dublin minor football team who that year contested an All-Ireland final, the curtain-raiser to Armagh and Tyrone.
I remember coming out on to the pitch side from the dressing rooms on the Cusack Stand side after the minor final as Tyrone and Armagh were marching behind the Artane Band and the stadium going wild, the hair standing on my head never mind the back of my neck.
Mickey Whelan was a coach on that Dublin team and at the ‘Blue Stars’ game of Christmas 2003 he asked if I would work for him in his new role as manager of St Vincent’s and that’s where I spent 2004.
By the end of the year Dublin had a new senior management team. Dave Billings of St Vincent’s brought me down to meet the manager Paul ‘Pillar’ Caffrey. ‘Pillar’ had a great interest in the area of stats and video analysis and was very keen to utilise both in looking at areas of both player and team development.
I was with ‘Pillar’ for four years and, after ‘Pillar’, Pat Gilroy became the manager brought in a whole new coaching team, moved training up to DCU and I was lucky to be asked to stay on and worked for Pat for four years.
The big year was 2011 when Dublin won an All-Ireland after many years of trying. It was incredible, also during this time I got the great honour of working for Anthony Tohill and the Ireland International Rules team.
During Pat’s time I also worked for Jim Gavin in his role as Dublin u-21 manager so it was a natural follow on to work with Jim when he took over the seniors in 2013. At the end of 2013 I took a step back from Dublin. The plan was to take a break, even a permanent break from sport, but at the start of 2014, two calls got me back to work – Gregory McGonigle from the Dublin ladies and Cyril Kevlahan from the Dublin minors.
So 2014 turned out to be a busier year rather than a rest with the minors coming close at the All-Ireland semi-final stage, narrowly losing out to a top-class Donegal, and the ladies playing an incredible All-Ireland final against Cork.
A coffee with Jim Gavin in November had me back with the Dublin seniors in 2015, ‘16 and ‘17. Another coffee at the end of 2017, only this time with Pat Gilroy, meant that I worked for the Dublin hurlers and Pat in 2018.
I do want to mention when my dad passed in 2012 at the serious end of the championship. What both Pat and David Hickey did for me and my family at the end of dad’s life was incredible. I would go to war for Pat in the morning, so much so I now work for Pat and his brother Brian.
Pat’s career took him to America in 2019 and that, I believed, was the end of a great journey in GAA. But a call a few days after Pat announced he was stepping down from Liam Sheedy was probably one of the biggest surprises I have ever got.
Tipperary, one of the greatest traditional hurling counties of all time, are contacting me? I went to see the players train in Abbotstown and it was like what I imagine it is like watching the Brazilian team training. They could do anything with the ball, the catches, the flicks, the passing, the reading of the game. It was like watching a concert orchestra.
I had a great year in 2019 with Liam and the lads, the almost spiritual experience of a Munster final and an All-Ireland final.
Last year it was back to club football with my son’s club, St Sylvester’s, and a young, very capable modern manager in Paul Clarke. This year is continue with Paul and Sylvester’s and another incredible call, this time from Adrian O’Sullivan, the new manager of the Dublin camogie team, has me with them. It’s obvious Adrian and his coaching team are very forward thinking and ambitious, I’m looking forward to the season ahead.
I got a text from Paddy O’Donoghue, a selector with Pat, telling me I have now worked for Dublin at senior level in all four codes, which I have to say is a massive privilege for me.
KC: Many of our readers will have at least heard of analysis in terms of GAA teams, can you sum up for us what it offers teams?
RB: Performance analysis, for me, is the gathering of evidence about the individual player’s performance, the collective team’s performance and the interaction of the individual players with the team performance.
It’s building up layers of information – how fast a player can run, how long they can run for, how quickly they can sprint with the ball or without the ball, the player’s accuracy in passing with the foot and hand, the way a player uses space, the way the team uses space and so on.
It’s taking this information and presenting it in a simple and understandable way to help coaches make informed decisions about a player, a team and the team’s style of play.
KC: I’m trying to think back to me own county career and pin-point the first time we started to use analysis and data to help with performance. I think it may have been around 2005 or 2006, when did you first notice teams starting to use this as a serious tool in terms of performance?
RB: I would say Joe and the Armagh team of 2002 were early to the analysis approach of helping with team preparation. By 2005 most if not all counties were doing some form of analysis, definitely video review and some statistical analysis.
KC: For me, buy-in is massive in terms of analysis. Would you find that most teams are fully invested in that area now or would you still have some sceptics?
RB: At the elite level the buy-in is very high from players and coaches. This will never be 100 percent but most players are looking for every inch they can get to improve.
I can’t improve them, what I can do is show them footage of their play and performance and they can judge what they did well, what they need to improve on. We can also provide ‘best in class’ examples. I believe it’s not an analyst’s job to correct or coach. It’s to facilitate the players learning and also the coach’s instruction.
Giving correction without offending is an art. I remember in the very early days I’d have a section in the video review called ‘wrong options’ and the coaches would tell me what to put in that and we would bring all the players in and play the ‘wrong options.’
One of the great lads from the team, a very accomplished defender, raced up the pitch with the ball and kept going, blasted it wide, this clip ended up in the ‘wrong options’ reel. To this day, as he commentates and I would bump into him at matches the first thing he says is “remember you put me in that wrong option video?” Lesson learned.
Sceptics? Yes, there are sceptical players and guys who want to back themselves all the time, that’s okay with me. What I find can be counter-productive is a sceptical coach not aligned with the manager and the other coache, always talking up the analysis, S&C, GPS monitoring, but deep down probably pride themselves on being old school. You get signals from them when they are under pressure “if we are down by six, none of that stuff will put the ball over the bar.”
KC: You have worked with some successful teams, what would you say your work offered those sides?
RB: If you keep it simple, give an insight that is evidence based and demonstrate what works and what does not work, you can get to a place of trust with coaches, players and the team. They will take on board what you are presenting and hopefully it helps them.
One simple example. A team wants to improve its shooting, let’s say for every 10 shots the team gets five scores and ideally they would like to get eight scores. There is analysis work to look at what a good shot is for the team, what shots and from where are more successful, also who is taking the shot. But if we come back to something even more simple than that.
Waiting for game-day to measure this is a very bad course of action. Marching in at half time and saying we had 16 shots and have eight points is not very insightful or helpful. Take a step back, in a game a team gets approximately 26 shots and this tends to be spread across five players. Go to training and the players come out at the start, before the warm-up there are balls everywhere, lads throwing their leg at them, getting them in the general direction of the posts, not really knowing if they are accurate, most likely 200 shots. In drills there is shooting and more usually at the end of the session.
I started counting all theses and reporting them, pre-training shooting 38 percent accurate, shooting in drills 47 percent accurate, post training shooting 27 percent accurate – and the desire is to get to 80 percent in a game?
Once the guys started to see this and knew it was being measured the accuracy in training shot up and as a follow on, the accuracy in the game came right up. Can I explain why? I’m not sure, I only know the numbers improved when the accuracy in training was measured.
KC: When you take a team on can you give us a rundown of how and what you do for that team in order to improve them?
RB: I prefer to say I work for a team, primarily for a manager, the coaches and the players. I am probably different to many performance analysts. Most analysts are from a sports science background and are very competent in all areas of coaching and performance. Denise Martin has really helped me with the formal and academic side of performance analysis over the years and it’s safe to say I would not be doing this without Denise’s help.
So my approach will be different, I never second guess a manager or coach, I see myself as being there to work on understanding what the manager wants to achieve and then go away and come up with a way to measure it. People ask me to define a tackle or define a good shot, my answer is a tackle is what the manager I am working for says it is. This was very clear in Pat Gilroy teams because a tackle contains a very wide range of actions. I don’t improve teams, I help facilitate them to improve themselves.
KC: What part of your role do you feel you can have the biggest impact on a team?
RB: It’s difficult to know what it takes to win a provincial title or an All-Ireland if you have never experienced it. But if you have been a fly on the wall for a lot of titles, and by nature you are a sponge, you begin to recognise the areas that if focused on can make the biggest positive impact. Cutting away the noise and being hyper-efficient. Get the most out of training sessions, get the best out of a walk through and in-house games. Mostly it is not about doing anything different, it is about doing it better, better than you did last year, better than you did last week.
KC: On any particular match day what would your routine be?
RB: A big match day would go something like this if working towards a 3.30pm. You bring the analysis team together for 9.30am – camera man for the day, video analyst, team analyst, opposition analyst. You’d have a coffee and a walk through on how and what needs to be done for the day.
You’d check all the equipment is there first of all and is charged ready to go – camera, laptop, four iPads (two analysts, sideline and dressing room) and communications (radios). Then it’s a stop in at the team hotel to get any final instructions.
You get to the ground before 12 noon to set up the camera. Most grounds have an analysis box or defined area and you organise a live TV feed to the laptop for coding, Then you’d drop the iPad and radios to coaches in the dressing room and give everything a final run through. You’d check that links are all up and then take about one hour to run through scenarios before the game starts.
The analysis team maintain contact with the sideline throughout the game. One central point is taking information from the analyst watching the opposition only, the team analyst and summarise the outputs and deliver that summary. Don’t fix what is not broken; it can be a quiet day if you lead from the start to the end.
KC: After a game how long would you spend analysing for the team or does that depend on what management are looking for?
RB: A summary report, taking two hours, goes to management that evening. By midday on Monday, clips and individual player data is delivered.
KC: Do you think team-based feedback or individual feedback, as in one-to-one with the player, works best?
RB: If giving general feedback, this is in an open team forum. For individual feedback, you provide information for the manager or coach to share with the player in a one-to-one.
KC: You worked with both football and hurling teams, are they similar in terms of preparation or do they differ much?
RB: They are very, very similar. The plays are very similar, mostly starting with a kick-out or puck-out and that is an offensive play, if you are in possession, hopefully ending with a score. The one difference is the speed of the plays which, on average, are much quicker in hurling.
KC: What gives you the most enjoyment on match days?
RB: A good performance. If what the coaches and players worked on is executed well there is a great sense of satisfaction.
There is a little bit of competition on match-ups between coaches and analysts. Analysts will work pre-game on the ‘opposition brief’, this will be done well in advance of teams being named so it’s always good if we get the opposition team correct and where they want the players to play.
The individual go-to habits of opposition players that you would have noted for your own guys, if they do what you said they will do then that is satisfying.