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Learning from the Pros

Lorena Martin directed sports performance analytics for the LA Lakers and other pro sports teams. Now she’s bringing her skills into the classroom, teaching the first sports performance analytics course at Marshall

August 29, 2022
Lorena Martin was a sports performance analyst for the LA Lakers
Lorena Martin in her role as director of sports performance analytics for the Los Angeles Lakers. ​​​​

With a PhD in exercise physiology from the University of Miami and three UC San Diego postdocs on her CV, Lorena Martin was on the pathway to a tenure-track position when she got an unexpected call—the Los Angeles Lakers were interested in interviewing her for a position as director of sports performance analytics. She got the job, and Magic Johnson would ultimately become her boss.

“How many people can say that? He was great, and Jeanie Buss, the owner, and a USC alumna herself, was very supportive of women in the field,” she said. “Joey Buss was a huge advocate for sports analytic endeavors. It was really a great experience and a highlight of my career.”

The NBA team had discovered her through her 2016 book, Sports Performance Measurement and Analytics. Later she would go on to become the first woman in professional baseball to hold the position Director of High Performance. 

“It was a highlight to get to work with professional athletes and put wearables on them, capture their data and have them trust me,” she said. “They’re so good at what they do, and they’re striving for excellence in their everyday performance. They really have to be above the norm physically and in their psychological mindset to perform at that high a level every day. It’s pretty impressive.”

Finding Excellence

A former pro tennis player, Martin was always interested in what set the best athletes apart. Was it their mindset? To explore that idea, she studied psychology for her first two degrees. But to delve into the physiology of great athletes, she decided to pursue a doctorate, where she discovered her affinity for data science and statistics. Her three postdoctoral fellowships covered epidemiology, biostatistics and GIS spatial analysis.

While her research is of key interest to professional sports, it was also sought out by NASA, which invited her to present as a visiting researcher in 2017 and 2019. The agency wanted to learn about machine learning models being implemented in pro sports as well as translating culture best practices in high-performance situations to inform its lengthy space travel endeavors, such as expeditions to Mars.

Two years ago, she was ready to return to academia. “After a few years working in professional sports, I began to miss the nourishing environment and rigors of research the academic environment cultivates,” she said. She also saw the gap in professional sports and realized that she could contribute in a university setting by passing her skills and knowledge down to the next generation of sports performance analysts.

Martin joined USC Marshall as an adjunct in January 2020 and became assistant professor of clinical data sciences and operations in August 2021.

While teaching undergraduates as well as graduate students, Martin has been pursuing new research into reducing disparities in the sport of tennis, and leveraging machine learning to examine how physical activity affects cardiometabolic health in Hispanic populations.

In addition, she has already developed three new courses, two of which are in sports analytics: DSO 578: Introduction to Sports Performance Analytics and DSO 579 Advanced Sports Performance Analytics—the first sports performance analytics courses at Marshall.

“I've been lucky and fortunate to have such a great dean, vice-dean, chair and chief-of-staff, honestly, who have been super supportive in developing these first-ever courses as well as other endeavors,” she said.

“I am really excited and looking forward to continue developing my career with the USC Trojan Family at Marshall.”