Geplaatst: 8 Mar, 2024

Artificial intelligence and Sports: Eric Castien (BrainsFirst) provides answers

Greek newspaper ‘Peloponnisos’ spoke with the Dutch research journalist-author and founder of BrainsFirst about the entry of Artificial Intelligence (AI) into football and sports in general. And also specifically about ways to predict if a teenager can play at a high level.
by Vagelis Gerogiannis

Let’s go back to 2009, to Real Madrid’s training center, where football greats such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Zinedine Zidane and Luis Figo train. For everyone there, it’s just another training session, but not for Eric Castien. The Dutch writer feels the answer to the question “What makes the difference between a really good player and a world-class player?” is revealed on the pitch.

The answer is that it’s all in the brain. A few years later, Castien, in collaboration with the neuroscientists Ilia Sligte and Andries Van de Leij, founded BrainsFirst. A company that developed Talent ID services today used by major clubs to identify talent from a very young age and to predict through a specific process whether they will be able to compete at a top level. All this happens thanks to professionals in elite level sports, neuroscience and Artificial Intelligence.

Eric Castien gave an exclusive interview to the newspaper “Peloponnisos”.It’s an interview worth reading…

– How can you predict the future of a football player from an early age? Are you able to tell if a 13-year-old can compete at a high level a few years later?

“To be able to play at a high level, one must observe a large amount of information, make decisions quickly and correctly, execute accurately and at great speed. All these skills are related to the functions of the brain, known as “brain power”. We assess this brain power with neuroscientific games, which challenge all different parts of the brain.
We tested more than 5,000 players. From Champions League level to the highest amateur level. From 16 and up we have a good estimate of a player’s cognitive bandwidth.
We can predict whether their brain power at the age of an adult will be able to meet the demands of elite football. If the brain is not fast, powerful or accurate enough, the player will need to (also) compensate a lot for it with other skills (such as technical or physical).At the highest level it is almost impossible to keep compensating for that.”

– Could a cognitively underperforming player play at a high level?

“The probability is quite low. Conversely, a player with a lot of “brain power” is very promising cognitively, but if that player does not perform well technically, mentally and physically, it is still difficult to meet the demands of elite football. We help clubs make better talent decisions to mitigate investment risk in, for example, recruiting players for their academy.”

– How can you “marry” neuroscience with football?

“Soccer is primarily a brain game or brain activity. Without the brain the muscles, bones, lungs or anything else is of no use. The so-called ‘cockpit between the ears’ determines whether one can play at a high level.Therefore insights from neuroscience are extremely helpful for club management.”

– Does the human brain decide everything?

“This is also a philosophical question. This also concerns the (sub)conscious. It is clear that brain functions play a key role in human performance, thus on the football field.”

– Can you tell us some of the 53 factors you measure?

“It’s about executive functions. For example, many attention skills such as concentration, directing attention, distracting attention, or shifting attention. Or working memory – factors such as the ability to filter out (non)relevant information’. You can see it as the ‘processors in between the ears’.

– Which major football clubs are most interested in working with BrainsFirst?

“It seems like a pattern that many of our clients, – forward-thinking clubs like Real Sociedad, Eintracht Frankfurt, PSV Eindhoven, AZ Alkmaar, Feyenoord Rotterdam or the Belgian federation -, are constantly trying to beat the richest clubs who can buy the biggest talents. To build tomorrow’s future stars, you must recognize the potential of those stars today. There we help them with objective data that predicts future performance.”

– Is it possible that in the future with the development of Artificial Intelligence, it will be predicted in which country he will be able to compete or specifically in which type of team and specific system?

“If there is a lot of data available, such as physical, event and brain data, it will become increasingly possible to predict potential performance. This is about probability. Of course this will never be 100% accurate. For example, you don’t know if or when someone will get injured.”

– How does Artificial Intelligence affect football?

“Maybe not the game itself, but how it is played, approached and managed is already influenced by applying AI In various ways. There is already an incredible amount of information available. To see data-patterns, separate them from incidents, understanding what is information and what is noise, make predictions: AI helps improve decision-making. Both in talent identification and talent development. And in pitch performance. However, there is still a long way to go in interpreting and contextualizing the data. The expert’s eye plus the data is the best combination.”

– What has Artificial Intelligence already changed in football? Will we even be able to predict what will happen in a game?

“Artificial Intelligence has already changed the way club management makes decisions, managers choose tactical strategies, clubs buy and sell players, doctors prevent injuries and so on. Football is so complicated that there will always be exceptions and surprises. The good thing about AI – if the data is consistent, valid, reliable and objective – is that it reduces opportunism and subjective decision-making.As long as human beings play the game, no 100% overall score in predictions will be achieved.”

– – Is there a chance in the future that we will see coaches using an AI assistant?

“Of course, like in chess. It will be able to receive strategic or tactical advice based on scenarios. For example: “Analyzing the opponent’s defensive game today, I advise you to replace player X with player Y in the second half to significantly increase xG (expected goals).” Or “continue to invest in academy player X because of the expected future value, rather than player Y, even when Y is performing better today”.

– How do you comment on the phenomenon that more and more programmers and data scientists are hired by the big clubs?

“It depends on what task needs to be done or what goal needs to be achieved. I recommend using data combined with the expertise of experts and people with experience. Especially in decision-making we want to reduce all kinds of human biases. Generally there should be a bridge between theory and practice. Unfortunately, there is often a “glass wall” between the data department and the football department. A data scientist without football knowledge and a football expert without data knowledge have the risk of misinterpretation/misunderstanding. Of course, lack of knowledge sometimes leads to “fresh perspectives”. I would recommend hiring at least one “football data translator”, bridging football expertise and data expertise.”

– Is sport threatened by Artificial Intelligence? Could sports become more predictable and therefore more boring in the future?

“As long as you let human beings (and not robots) play the sports, it will be fun, amazing, relatable, emotive. BrainsFirst helps to identify brilliant football minds known for their creative ways of playing. That’s what the majority of fans want to see: players with unusual solutions to problems on the pitch.”

– If you were the president of a big club, in any team sport, in which areas would you choose to make use of Artificial Intelligence?

“Everywhere there is room for improvement. Add AI to augment human intelligence, be aware of ethical behavior and fair decision-making. And be careful and make sure you keep understanding what’s going on so you kind of have control over the basics.”

Read the article on the website of ΠΕΛΟΠΟΝΝΗΣΟΣ Read More