From Gore High to analysing Silver Ferns success
Most people have heard the redemption song which played after the Silver Ferns’ Netball World Cup win earlier this year, but what isn’t as well known is the role that a former Gore High School student played in it.
Hayden Croft is the head of programmes for the Institute of Sport and Exercise Health at Otago Polytechnic and was the performance analyst for the Ferns as they went from underdogs to champions in Liverpool.
Even netball’s most ardent fans may not be aware of just what a vital role analysis plays in helping elite athletes to reach their full potential and Croft has been at the heart of that movement since 2012.
“I finished up at Gore High School in 1998 and basically went to uni and did PhysEd, because I didn’t know what else to do. I wasn’t a great student at high school, I managed to just get through and my teachers would have said that I just spent too much time either thinking about, or playing, sport.”
Croft got involved in studying the bio-mechanics and the simulation of certain rugby techniques; firstly placekicking and then a five-year part-time masters research looking at lineout throwing.
It was during a time when malfunctioning lineouts were being blamed for a couple of test losses and Croft attracted the attention of All Black coach Graham Henry.
His work with the All Blacks also introduced him to Alistair Rogers, who was the team analyst at the time.
Croft saw that performance analysis could be an exciting course of study at Otago Polytechnic, later developing a partnership with the Southern Steel through a connection with then-coach Janine Southby in 2012.
“We decided it was time to launch a graduate diploma in analysis and give small groups of students the chance to do some extra study and do a placement with the Steel. That was the birth of our qualification here. We’ve got a whole lot of students now who have gone off and are working at a national level.”
Southby’s promotion to the Silver Ferns saw Croft, who has also worked with Otago rugby and World Rugby, working with new Steel coach Noeline Taurua.
When Taurua took over from Southby at the Ferns, she was quick to bring him into the national set up.
“We went about trying to reinvent the way netball does analysis, with the Silver Ferns especially,” he said.
Croft breaks performance analysis down into two approaches. One involves collecting a huge amount of data and crunching it down to inform selections and strategies – the sort of thing you might remember from the Brad Pitt movie Moneyball.
“Then there’s the other approach, which is where we sit a little bit more in New Zealand, especially in rugby, where we use video as a learning tool,” Croft says.
“That really resonates with me as a lecturer, it’s all about learning. We still do a lot of data stuff, we measure how successful our completions have been, how many centre passes did we score off, how many turnovers did we score off, shooting percentages, stuff like that. We cut our structures on video, get a good angle and use those videos to help the players learn.”
Using data and video, Croft will provide information to coaching staff in order to support their coaching, helping the players to understand their roles at different times of the game, as individuals and part of the team.
“Within that there’s a whole bunch of skills, you have a big tool box as an analyst around using video cameras, computers, capture devices – we took a 7m mast to the World Cup with us and had a GoPro on the end for filming overhead footage. There’s a real skill in getting the footage so that players can see what they need to see clearly,” Croft says.
“There’s also the psych stuff – understanding learning, what will motivate or de-motivate an athlete, through to the hardcore analytics and trying to find patterns and trends about your opponent.”
For the World Cup campaign, the Silver Ferns stripped things back as much as possible. With eight games in 10 days, the focus was very much on the players understanding their own roles, and less on the opposition.
“My role as an analyst is to make sure that I’m not pushing too much information into the environment, that we are in tune with the coaches and management and what they are trying to achieve,” Croft says.
“There’s times when (great) stuff happens, but I try not to associate that too much with myself. The players are the ones who do it on the court. You can give them information, but they are the ones who turn it into an action. Seeing them run a structure and create a turnover, that stuff is pretty cool. It’s not necessarily your idea, but you’ve been part of the process and you’ve seen the learning evolve.”
Croft is contracted to the Silver Ferns until the end of this year’s Constellation Cup.
“The Silver Ferns in this last World Cup campaign, I can easily say they were the best group of athletes I’ve worked with in terms of engaging with the analysis appropriately – not just doing heaps of it, but doing it when they needed it. That was because there was real clarity from the coaches and management.”