Using Technology in College Athletics
March 7, 2016
I am not a sports scientist. Or PhD data analyst. Or an exercise physiologist. And certainly not a high performance manager, or one of the many other titles that is often associated with technology in sports. In fact, I haven’t taken a real math class since I was 17-years-old (which was trigonometry and I’m pretty sure I got a D). Why am I here posting about sports and technology then, you ask? Because I’ve used it to successfully redefine how our team views fitness, by embracing physical measurements through a more holistic approach. This has lead to two conference championships, a number one national ranking, and a handful of players drafted into Major League Soccer.
I’m the Sports Performance Coach for the Charlotte 49ers Men’s Soccer team and have spent that last few years of my career embracing an expansion of my understanding of what it means to be a “strength coach.” Today, my days involve a lot of different pieces of technology. This post is meant to share my thoughts on how to successfully integrate technology into your everyday job and then to share the specifics of exactly what I’m using with Charlotte Soccer.
At the moment, I believe there’s an arms race happening in elite sports to acquire the most advanced, high tech devices. Whether we’re talking about: wearables, linear position transducers, heart rate monitors, blood panel work, or one of the countless other technologies, the low entry costs and rampant marketing efforts of this equipment is allowing widespread access. Naturally some of this increased interest is just to get new toys and spend money because its there. But that generally never ends well. It’s important to realize, technology can be a great equalizer in the name of athlete development OR it can be a huge nuisance and time waster. So what factors determine which it will be….
Step 1 - Culture
First and foremost, does the culture of your team, which is set from the top (i.e., head coach), embrace the objectivity that technology and data can provide? Are the decision makers willing to change their training plan based upon what the data says? Is the decision maker willing to be patient with you as you figure it out and deal with the unavoidable/unexplainable issues that arise, or will he pull the plug because it’s not perfect 100% of the time? Is the practitioner (you) willing to admit that the data doesn’t have all the answers, and just because you spent HOURS working a report doesn’t mean the coach will agree or even listen to you all the time? Are the athletes willing to deal with the inconvenience of complicating their daily routines in the name of the “greater good?” More frankly, will they comply so that you have reliable information to go off of?
If you found yourself answering no to the questions above, then I would focus on finding out why you answered ‘no.’ Obviously no situation will be perfect all the time and if we sit around waiting for the perfect moments we’ll never get anything done. The bigger point is the ability to take a critical eye to the culture of your team and determine if these factors will put you in the best possible position to be successful at your job. Or, if it needs some work first, spending the time to build a culture that works within this system will be way more impactful then any piece of technology ever will. At the end of the day it’s a win-win situation for you even if that means holding off on getting a piece of equipment you are excited to get.
If you got a bunch of ‘yeses’ from the previous questions, let’s move on to the next step in figuring out if technology will be useful or useless for your work environment.
Step 2 - Structure
Everyone is finally on board and ready to collect data…hooray! Now what? It is important to work through all the logistics (daily training, travel, games, off days, etc.) to figure out who’s doing what and when. Adding in something new requires a lot of time and it isn’t always clear who will be spending the majority of time on it and when that will happen. Some questions to ask yourself at this point are: How do you plan to implement for collecting and analyzing data? Will you be teaching the athletes about what to do and not to do, or will that be a coach or manager? What is the plan for analyzing the data and giving feedback to the coaches and athletes in a timely manner? This is an absolutely critical step. If you are coming up with the gold standard algorithm for injury prevention but the coaches or athletes aren’t getting immediate feedback, they could very quickly lose interest in supporting your shared goal. Then life gets very difficult and frustrating. A lot of this work can be done ahead of time by talking through scenarios with coaches but unfortunately the time demands of our job dictates a lot of the answers. If you are training eight teams, my guess is that you aren’t sitting on hours of free time to work on pretty graphs. If you are using different products that all produce their own data points, do you have a system set up to manage all of these pieces or just a 1000 excel spreadsheets of random .csv files? Does your current working situation allow you to actually make impactful changes with the data you are collecting or are you just keeping up with the Jones’ because you know that “they” have it?
In my experience, culture and structure are the biggest determining factors in shaping how your experience will be utilizing or being supremely frustrated with data and technology.
Charlotte Soccer Technology
With Charlotte Soccer our goal is to compete for a National Championship every year. We are located in a soccer hotbed, North Carolina, and thus fighting other top programs for elite athletes and the best players. My head coach is a very analytical thinker and is data driven. He’s created an environment where finding a way to improve that extra 1% in every aspect of student-athlete life is embraced. My role has evolved to help enable that on the physical side.
Our team has been using VX Sport as our GPS device for two years. The GPS gives me information on the external loads of training and games like high intensity distance covered, number of sprints performed, maximum speed, etc. This information is great because now we have objective information on what our low intensity session looks like versus a hard session for example. I can use this data to immediately give our players objective feedback on the top physical performers from each practice so they know where they stand in relation to their teammates. This is an area where someone can really go into some in-depth analysis’ but I certainly wouldn’t be able to do it justice in this short blog. My go to resources are:
Pairing up with our GPS units, VX Sport supplies Suunto heart rate monitors. Our players wear these in every training session but not games (because they can fall off and the last thing we want someone to worry about in a game is the HR strap). These are crucial because they tell us how the external load has affected the players. Athletes with ages ranging from 17 to 23-years-old are at very different stages in their development. So we know they ran X distance, but physiologically what did that cost the player and how is he adapting to our training? Looking at the heart rate responses during and then immediately following a certain drill can tell you a lot about what happened internally and how that fit with what you were expecting to happen. Looking at the same drill after repeated exposures is an easy way to see team fitness trends. My go to resources are:
While I believe the objective data previously mentioned is vital to have in monitoring athletes, equally as important are the subjective wellness questionnaires. These give the athletes an opportunity to actively participate in their training plans as well as an outlet to tell us what is happening in their bodies. Not to mention, Session RPE (sRPE) has been proven to be both a reliable and valid means of periodizing training. Oh yeah…its FREE too! Right now we use a Google form where our athletes fill our their daily training diaries but are switching to Fit for 90. My go to resources are:
We use Omegawave Coach with the athletes that played meaningful minutes (generally 30+) in our most recent game during the fall season. We’ll test 24 or 48 hours after the game depending on our schedule. OW Coach works great for us because it is based off my iPad mini so it’s very easy to access anytime and anywhere. This information gives our staff an idea of the current physiological state of our athletes so that I can structure our recovery sessions by stimulating the sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems. Either one of my “famous” Reggae Recoveries (chill, breathing based, deep stretching, very mindful of our environment, etc.) or a more upbeat fun session of soccer tennis, a pool workout, or a FIFA tournament, etc. We’ll also use the player readiness scores to help determine which borderline players will join the recovery group or the extra training group. My go to resources are:
Velocity Based Training
As part of our weight training program I use four Tendo units with our goalkeepers, central defenders, and center forwards. They are the most powerful athletes we have, and as such their core lifts are based off of the readouts from the Tendos. We use both peak velocity and average velocity depending on if its a weightlifting exercise or a strength exercise. In my personal training I use a PUSH band to track my workouts. But I don’t foresee them being practical for my team of 28 players. My go to resources are:
This year we started getting a bit deeper into sleep education with our athletes. I explored getting Fatigue Science (and in a perfect world we’d use them) but it’s way out of our soccer budget. So instead we are using SleepBot. A free app that records motion, sound, sleep disturbances, sleep debt, and has flexible wake up. I was shocked how honest our boys were with it and that the vast majority continued to use it after our team trial. My go to resource is:
If you are looking to incorporate some pieces of technology into your environment my few pieces of advice would be the following:
1. Start easy, simple and slow. Add in one new tool and do that really well before adding in other components.
2. Under promise and over deliver! In the process of convincing coaches or athletes to buy in its easy to over sell. Avoid this temptation because you’ll be setting yourself up for failure later on if you’re wrong about something.
3. Put in the extra work up front so when you present information to coaches or athletes you can be confident that what you’re saying is what is actually happening.
4. Figure out what your bias’ are and use statistics to help protect you from yourself.
5. Last and certainly not least, don’t get caught up with the colorful icing if there’s not a supremely delicious cake to put it on. By this I mean, without having a foundation of perfecting the basics it’s hard to get meaningful and long lasting changes from supplementary add-ons like new technology.
The topic of technology in college athletics is pretty broad and there are lots of different directions to go based off of your own interests and accessibility. My focus is more around low level athlete monitoring but you could just as easily be weight room based and involve more tools for profiling and screening like dual force plates, Spark Motion, or Coaches Eye. As I mentioned at the beginning, I am no expert, far from it. I’m still learning and trying to grow my knowledge base so that I can better serve my athletes. I’d love your help in the journey. If you want to have a dialogue or disagree with anything I’ve said or have some insights you’d care to share with me please email me at email@example.com or connect with me on twitter @Sir_Sean.
Thank you to Alex Parr and Insider Training for giving me to the opportunity to share my experiences with you all and thank you guys for taking the time to read my blog!