Design Thinking, a Sport Innovation Methodology
26 Jul 2021

Sport is, by nature, a social activity. We cannot think of it without fans engaging in it, and athletes being a part of a community. Thus, Design Thinking is an innovation methodology based on the interaction with the user and it is also the most appropriate tool for its development, progress, and adaptation to a period of constant technological change.

Its use in the business world is becoming more and more common. While in the sports world, where competitiveness is increasingly apparent in more areas, the search for a new approach that breaks regular routines is not only a way to move forward but also to survive. In comparison to other business development strategies, Design Thinking tears the mould of linear thinking. It is a bid for multidisciplinary teamwork, so it is an inherently complex method mainly based on a quality that is difficult to measure or evaluate: empathy. According to Tim Brown, “without understanding what others see, feel and experience, design is a pointless task.”

Greg Joachim, from the University of Technology in Sydney, built on the foundations of this type of innovation for sports organisations in Design thinking and sport for development: enhancing organizational innovation. According to his research study, the premise of the methodology of Design Thinking is the resolution of the so-called perverse problems. As Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber defined them in the 1970s, these kinds of problems “lack of clarity both in their objectives and their solutions.” The problems of sports organizations usually arise with these variations. They often occur due to lack of funding, shortage of human resources or time, or all at the same time.

One of their most important facets is to try to define what can and cannot be controlled. Nothing can be done if, in basketball, the opponent scores all its triple shots and if, in football, a decisive play ends up with the ball hitting the bar. However, in sports organisations, key decisions can be made in many more areas, from the experience provided to the fan, personalising it according to their profile, to small details that can facilitate the athletes’ preparation or prevent injuries.  

Thereafter, Joachim distinguishes five phases: (1) in-depth understanding of the user, (2) diversity of perspectives, (3) feedback on the user’s experience, (4) anticipation and advanced thinking, and (5) undertake the initiative and practice. When it comes to this methodology, some authors suggest that it is about (1) empathy, gathering problems and users’ experiences, (2) selecting and deciding where value can be placed, (3) doing brainstorming sessions to propose solutions from all perspectives, (4) formulating hypothesis to come up with ideas and think how to put them into action, (5) implementing and trying them out. In his professional experience, Joachim worked with the Sydney Sixers, one of the most important cricket clubs in Australia. He surveyed all the employees and concluded that they did not have any opportunity to reflect on what they were doing. Therefore, Joachim created the Lightning Decision Jam practice, a brainstorming meeting to find solutions to a specific topic and to be able to select, by voting, the proposals that can be developed and can increase value.

However, in the history of sport, it is not difficult to find signs of what today is understood as Design Thinking. In the course Innovation in Sports delivered by Barça Innovation Hub, together with BIHub director Albert Mundet, Ivanka Visnjic, professor at ESADE, and Steve Gera, BIHub US ambassador and Gains Group CEO, we can find that in the module Understanding the problem space, situations in the history of contemporary sport are analysed in which drastic changes have been introduced through Design Thinking. For example, one of the cases that is analysed is that of the development of the Adidas football cleat designed by Adolf Dassler. The new design used replaceable metal studs that allowed athletes to have more traction and grip. When the German team competed for the 1954 World Cup Final, the game was played under heavy rain, so players wore the new football cleats designed by Dassler and defeated the Hungarian team, one of the best teams in the world that at the group stage won by 8-3 against the German team.

In order to achieve success, Dassler did not work alone in a laboratory. Quite the opposite. The main focus of this design was to demonstrate empathy with players and users that, after all, were the ones who needed them the most. Therefore, he attended to all the training sessions, and he stayed even if the weather was appalling. Besides facing the same situations than the players, he talked to the team and took down some notes. The key was his analysis of how they moved in the field, when they changed position, and Dassler’s multidisciplinary profile as a shoe manufacturer, as he had also worked for mountaineers. That is how he came up with the idea of these replaceable studs. Another similar example is Nike in basketball some years later, when Tinker Hatfield could recognize the players’ needs and resolve their specific problems.

At FC Barcelona, a similar situation was created when training sessions were to be optimised. When managing the physical readiness, the objective was to obtain a more accurate measurement of the athletes’ load in order to plan the next exercises. To measure the external load, a GPS was implemented, but in sports played in gymnasium halls, such as basketball and handball, it did not work quite well. In 2014, Joan Ramón Tarrago, responsible for the Performance area, contacted technology companies that could find solutions the club could not. The companies sent different tracking devices and systems, and four of them were tested for handball, roller hockey, basketball, and futsal teams. The best one was the Real Track System, a start-up from Almería, and its product Wimu, a high-precision, easy-to-use, outdoor-indoor hybrid technology.

Thereafter, the company’s technicians travelled to Barcelona and began developing Wimu on the field, attending training sessions and meeting with the coaching staff and the 25 physical trainers of the club on a weekly basis. In addition, they continuously interacted with the athletes. The following year, FC Barcelona was one of the first clubs in the world to start collecting data on a regular basis and discover how important it was. In a second phase, a data visualization tool was developed to provide information in real time. During the 2017-18 season, the first football team adopted this technology in its training sessions successfully. Due to the continuous feedback of the users, athletes and coaching staff, the final result was positive. Besides, FC Barcelona did not discourage its innovations. They shared them with the League to continue the same process, to receive feedback from the rest of the teams according to their perspective and to keep developing the system.

These would be two favourable situations where collaboration with the user leads to successful innovation. However, there are opposite examples in the history of sports of innovations being introduced without considering the athletes. One of them is the implementation of a new ball, in the summer of 2006, in NBA’s games. It was the first change of ball in more than 35 years. Spalding designed a microfibre spherical ball, a new generation material that was expected to provide a better bounce, which would also improve the game.

Junior leagues were the first ones to use the new ball. Spalding got the opinions of these players, but the problem resided in the lack-of-confidence atmosphere during the interviews. Young athletes were reluctant to speak badly about the new ball in case it ruined their image in a future NBA franchise signing. Considering this study, the ball was introduced in the NBA without the players being able to test it beforehand. The result was negative. The ball bounced differently, and it was slippery when it was wet. Besides, the friction surface caused players hand injuries. In just three months, it was necessary to use the previous ball again. It was a failure, and the main reason was that players were not taken into consideration.

These examples demonstrate the necessity of including users into the development of an innovation, both in observational research, such as that of Adolf Dassler in the 1950s, attending every training session of the German team in all weather conditions, and in interviews and interactions, such as the tracking devices that were developed by FC Barcelona. The incorporation of the user’s experience should be carried out in a progressive way. Firstly, from a well-defined and small group and then, selecting a larger sample if the innovation works. Moreover, if a problem is effectively understood and a solution is found, the innovation may also solve other problems that had not even been considered before. According to Ivanka Visnjic “Innovation should always be based on the user’s problems. In the case of FC Barcelona, when the tracking systems were developed, everything started from a problem with the physical trainers who did not have enough data to track the athletes’ performance.”

Therefore, Design Thinking requires analytical thinking to adopt all perspectives in order to be able to address all aspects of a problem. In sport, in order to identify the athletes’ and fans’ requirements, the only valuable tool is empathy. Hence, solutions will only arise when there is true intention of helping people or providing them with better options.

BiHub Team


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