Kathryn Yates' cool sports job: BU hockey director of analytics

Kathryn Yates analyzed the biomechanics of a field hockey shot for her senior thesis at Brown. Years later, she turned her love for math, science and sports into a job with Boston University's men's ice hockey team. Courtesy of Kathryn Yates

When Kathryn Yates was a freshman at Brown focusing on physiology and biotechnology, she never imagined working for a hockey team. Sports, though, had always been a part of Yates' life. So had mathematics and science. She envisioned a future working in research and development for a company or analyzing biometrics of various sports.

She combined her passion for sports and analytics her senior year of college, when she measured the biomechanics of a field hockey shot for her thesis. Afterward, Yates enrolled at Boston University's College of Engineering to earn her master's degree in mechanical engineering.

As a grad student, Yates worked at Agganis Arena. One day, she approached men's hockey head coach David Quinn and proposed that the team use analytics to enhance the program.

"The very initial conversation was pretty brief: This is something that a lot of people are doing, and we should definitely think about it. Let's see how it goes, see if we like it," Yates said. "They definitely gave me a lot of, sort of, it was OK, we're into it, you're the boss, you decide what we need."

Yates began working with the team, analyzing video and advanced statistics. In November, after completing her degree, she was hired as the program's first director of analytics.

"It definitely feels good," Yates said. "Especially with our coaching staff being who it is and how well-known and well-respected they are in the community, to have them come out and have them put their seal of approval for everybody to see is ... I'm very proud."

Here is Yates' story, in her words:

A day in the life

If it's earlier in the week, I'm breaking down videos, putting together a report from the weekend. Then later in the week -- Wednesday, Thursday, Friday -- is sort of a combination of looking at stuff for upcoming teams and then also getting together, playing with fun new things that I probably think are a lot more fun than Quinny does. But if there are any things that we could be adding, reading up on other people, what people at the pro level are doing, then we can kind of recreate that and see if it would be helpful for us to incorporate that.

Adding analytics to hockey

There's a lot of people, they'll be like, "Hey, we predict what standings are going to be. Can you predict who's going to win using all of that?" But then there's also sort of what I was trying to focus on, is that's it's not too helpful to go to Quinny and be like, "Hey, I have a model that says that we have an 86 percent chance of winning tomorrow." That's not helpful. It's what are the things that go into that 86 percent, so I try to focus more on distilling it from the math part into what are the actual actionable hockey steps and ways that we can evaluate our guys and evaluate our systems in a way that you can kind of look at that and see how guys are matching up to each other, matching up to other teams and what are ways that we could be improving.

Paying close attention

There's a lot of time watching video in slow motion. So after each game, I'll get the game tape and go back through that and keep track of all the -- I hate that I have to be vague, but I don't want to give away all the government secrets -- but keep track of certain things for each guy, for each team as a whole, for the other team, and then look at that and look at individual games and certain situations so you know how it progresses through the season.

Continuing the cycle

It's interesting because I feel like it's sort of a cycle, and what I'm doing is feeding off of what they're doing -- definitely more so than what they're doing feeds off of what I'm doing. I go to the games and watch in person, obviously. On my first viewing, I'll be thinking about: Are there certain things that are jumping out at me? Are we having a particular issue with one specific thing? Then that will sort of be the additional thing of the day. But then also it's keeping an eye on practice and listening to press conferences, that kind of thing, and knowing what sort of the things the team is trying to work on.

League parity

It's one of those things where, as it goes on and it gets through the year, the parity in the league has gotten so incredibly close that it's not so much about, you know, 'Oh, we're going to find this thing that's going to give us the extra 50 percent over anybody else.' It's going to be everybody's looking for that extra .1 percent that's going to bring them above someone else because we have a three-way tie for first. It can't really get that much closer.

Keeping confidence

The toughest challenge I feel has just been kind of self-confidence and where I sort of fit into the program and assuring myself that, like, I'm not just sitting here for no reason punching numbers. It is actually being helpful. So reminding myself they want to win, and I'm here because they think that I'm going to help with that. It's just keeping the same thing. Every couple of weeks, I'll, like, have a breakdown where I've just been sitting there in front of the computer writing scripts for too long, and I'm like, "None of it matters!"

Pioneering in the blood

In terms of pioneering, it's really cool, like one of those things I definitely have thought about. My mom was actually part of the first class of women to go to Notre Dame; when they first became co-ed, she was part of their first class. So I feel like it is something that sort of has always been, when I was growing up, that it doesn't matter. You can do whatever you're going to do, and it's sort of in the blood to be the trailblazer.

A shot mechanics thesis

We had girls from the field hockey team, and we put reflective tape -- if you've ever seen them do, like, a cartoon movie or a video game where they put the little dot suits. We sort of made our own little dot suits with reflective tape on their legs, their feet and arms and then on the stick and the ball and had them take penalty shots in front of the cameras and measured the rotational and translational how fast are they, how hard are they swinging the stick, how fast is the ball coming off the stick, how much are they rotating their arms or their hips -- that kind of thing.

A hockey lifer

I grew up outside of New York City in the town over from where the Rangers practice facility was, and so a lot of the Rangers, like the early '90s and the Cup team, lived in my town and went to the schools and everything. I grew up down the street from Jeff Beukeboom. He would, like, push me on the swing, and we'd play street hockey in his driveway, and that was the '94 Cup team. [Mike] Richter was there, [Brian] Leetch was there, it was kind of hard not to be a fan.

Living around hockey

I love getting to be around hockey. It's a lot of fun. This is definitely a special team. I feel like I've gotten to be around a couple. My first year here was when Jack [Eichel] was here, and now we've got [Clayton] Keller, we've got [Jake] Oettinger. We've been pretty strong the past couple of years, so it's definitely a really cool experience to get to be a part of that. And then also just the community aspect of it -- it's definitely a family. Everywhere you go, there's going to be BU people.