Mo Sbihi: How data helped me win Olympic Gold

Mo Sbihi is different to most athletes. You’d think an Olympic gold medal would set you apart from the crowd. But Mo Sbihi, Great Britain’s most powerful rower and a leading member of the coxless four which won a fifth consecutive Olympic title in Rio, is different even to most Olympic champions. He’s a practicing Muslim, a man who dedicates his life to the dual pursuit of competitive sport and religion, and he’s a fierce believer in the marginal benefits of data to separate the gold from the silver.

Sbihi began his Olympic journey on the prolific GB Start program, quickly rising through the ranks to join the British senior team in 2010. “My selection onto the GB start was based on data,” explains the 28-year-old. “It was a guy from Australia who came across and set up his system here. There was a lot of emphasis on being consistently strong across the board – they weren’t looking for people with a huge weakness in a certain area.”

Sbihi’s physical specifications are impressive; sports scientists refer to him as a ‘data freak’ and he’s the current British record holder over 2000m on the ergo. When Sbihi’s first coach retired, she gave him all the data she’d accumulated on him – an entire memory stick worth.

“The organisation and understanding of data is crucial,” he says. “There’s no point collecting something that means nothing to performance. It’s also important to understand how data is evolving and what is relevant to an extra bit of speed on the water. It’s marginal points like that where SAS have come in and helped us.”

Sbihi was speaking at SAS’s media event at Caversham, which saw a number of athletes and representatives from SAS speak about the collection, analysis and employment of data within competitive sport. SAS have supported GB Rowing in their pursuit of Olympic success as the team’s official analytics partner and have collaborated with the team on performance, nutrition, recovery and training.

Sbihi is naturally a rower of great significance to the team. His stature, leadership qualities and experience make him a valuable asset, but it is his eye for detail that marks him out. “I’ve always been interested in the use of data and how my results stack up against my team-mates,” he says. “One thing I’ve noticed quite a lot is a change in the way we race. Historically, the way you race was go off very hard and settle at a lower intensity. Now, the data suggests that it’s not about a huge speed difference between the opening 500m and the second 500m – we’ve tried to minimise that drop-off. Look at the Kiwi pair for example – that’s exactly what they do and they’re unbeaten over two Olympiads.”

It’s an ethos and an understanding that Sbihi wholeheartedly buys into – he believes in the practical application of data, collected on the ergoes, in the gym and on the water, to improve performance. He also realises the benefits of having such a wealth of expertise around him when trying to combine fasting for Ramadan and two sessions a day of training.

“I do my fasting in the winter and will still obviously train with the guys, be that or two or three sessions a day,” explains Sbihi. “The data is actually a huge help. I’ve got a PB, I’ve matched the other guys and my lactate levels are still the same on no food or drink through the day, so it’s reassuring to see data that supports my choice to combine the two.”

For the Olympic gold medallist, it’s certainly comforting to know that he can still match his-teammates on minimal fuel – Ramadan is 29 to 30 days a year and Sbihi realises that, without the support of a team around him, the challenge would be greater.

As the last remnants of a golden summer become a distant dream, Sbihi’s attention turns to Tokyo and the alluring promise of double Olympic glory. Florida will host the 2017 World Rowing Championships and the 28 year old wants to continue his run of three world titles; as Olympic champion, he’s no longer a hunter but the hunted.

Mo Sbihi was speaking on behalf of SAS – the leader in analytics software and services. SAS is the Official Analytics Partner of British Rowing and the GB Rowing Team at www.sas.com

Tom Morgan

Previous editor of Row360, publisher of Junior Rowing News, freelance writer for the Daily Telegraph, the Huffington Post, Vital Football and others. Student at the University of Southampton.

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