Following sport: the results are in

Following on from my last blog that asked the (rhetorical) question Following sport: what’s the point?” I was keen to understand more about how watching sport on TV could generate a physiological response.

To understand extremes, I needed a sporting event where I had a vested emotional interest and time to measure some basic indicators of change on my body. What better set of events to select than the Quarter and Semi Final matches of the Rugby World Cup, both involving the All Blacks, kicking off around 9am on a Saturday morning.

Prior to kick off, I planned control times for baseline measures (pre and post-match + halftime) along with points for peak measures (haka + points scored for either side) to identify variations and thus identify physiological intensity. Then, at each point, I simply recorded blood pressure stats (systolic, diastolic, pulse) at using an in-home monitor.

The results were…well…intriguing.

Systolic blood pressure (the top measure of the force of blood against artery walls when pumped around the body) has a healthy target of 120. Mine decided to peak at 172 for the Semi Final, which is borderline ‘call 999 for assistance’ territory. Furthermore, at one stage my pulse peaked at 90bpm compared to my normal resting HR of 45–55 – all this while just sitting on a sofa watching a sporting match taking place on the other side of the world.

Perhaps what is most interesting for me is the shape and relationship between the systolic and diastolic measures. In the Quarter Final they seem reasonably well correlated (r=0.52), but in the Semi Final there is a weak negative correlation (r=-0.25). These r scores are also relatively consistent when correlated with pulse measures as well. Therefore, if you were to look at each set of data in isolation you might draw some vastly different conclusions. And this, ladies and gentlemen, is why context matters no matter what data you collect.

Looking at these charts independently, it could appear that we’ve measured two different people. The patterns are regular and relatively controlled when measuring response in the Quarter Final, and erratic in the Semi Final. Even within each of the matches there could be a range of stories being told. The Quarter Final could tell a story of an Irish fan realising at 17-0 that today was not going to be their day. Or, it could be an All Blacks fan who was nervous leading up to the match and then at 17-0 settled into the game (which is the reality). Compare this to the Semi Final which has very little structure or pattern at all – perhaps there were ebbs and flows of the game that made it close, although in reality it was a lot of one-way traffic. You couldn’t really tell whether the person being measured was an All Blacks or England fan.

Therefore, I decided to add in a lovely dollop of ‘hope’ as an additional measure to try and help make sense of the data.

By adding the dotted line of hope, you can certainly draw a stronger conclusion about the Quarter Final (admittedly the Semi Final match still doesn’t make much sense!) and what the context may be for the person watching the event. Although hope itself isn’t quantifiable in the way systolic, diastolic and pulse measures are, when combined with these other measures it does provide a much clearer picture of what’s going on.

I came into this little experiment with a broad question: “Does watching sport have a physiological impact on the body?” And the answer from this sample of 1 is a resounding yes. However, I also am now even more aware of how circumstance can completely change the way the body chooses to respond to something.

More broadly, this ties into my long-held personal view that data itself is not an insight. I urge you to challenge anyone who says or believes otherwise, as data without context is more susceptible to bias and likely to drive poor business decision making. I can’t stress this enough – context matters – and in an industry that is becoming more and more fragmented by tech companies that don’t understand this, the more long-term damage it does to our industry.

Meanwhile, I’m switching the TV off to do some mindfulness and get these readings down.