October 31, 2017
UT coaches and scientists are using a performance tracking system with the Men’s and Women’s Soccer teams to improve player wellness and performance.
Alyssa Wallace and Blake Kennedy, both graduate students working towards a master’s in exercise and nutrition science, review data received from a recent women’s soccer practice.
As the athletes on UT’s Women’s Soccer team gather on the Pepin Stadium field for practice, they lace up their cleats, stretch out stiff muscles and talk with each other about classes and college life. As they get ready, they each make their way to a black box filled with rows of cellphone-sized performance trackers they unplug and attach to a sports bra-like harness.
Those trackers are acquired from Catapult, which makes wearable GPS technology that provides athlete performance analytics. The technology is worn by many professional teams and Division I athletes, but it’s relatively new for Division II soccer.
“Catapult is one of the first systems in the business; they have a long track record of product development,” said J.C. Andersen, chair and associate professor of health sciences and human performance. “We were looking at implementing the system from the context of player wellness — what’s their training like, are there things that could put an athlete at risk of illness or injury — and then using the data to impact athlete performance.”
With this source of objective data, coaches, athletic trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and sport scientists can work together to make decisions to personalize the training for each athlete.
“The cool thing for us is that it puts a lot of different disciplines on the same page, whereas before there may have been a disconnect between the strength coach, the athletic trainer and the scientist and head coach,” said Jacob Rauch ’17, M.S. ’18. “We now have one piece of equipment that gives us objective numbers that everyone can understand, and ultimately the athlete receives the most benefit.”
The buy-in from everyone involved has been crucial, Rauch said, and it wasn’t a difficult sell to the athletes.
“They know that all of the top soccer teams in the world are using this piece of equipment, so they are fortunate to have it,” Rauch said. “The athletes themselves are excited, because they see their favorite players wearing these units, and they now know they are receiving the same care as the best soccer players in the world.”
During practice or games, the data streams in across a computer screen, giving the researchers insight on things like how fast and far each player is running, how much time they are playing in certain areas of the field, player acceleration and the heart rate of each athlete. It’s a rich and vast stream ¬of information.
The difficult part is sifting through the numbers to determine what is useful and which combinations of data will tell a story about how the athletes are being trained and how to better their performance. It’s a little like looking at a crime scene, taking in all of the clues and then analyzing what they mean.
“There’s so many different things we could look at and compare. That’s where we’re at now — having to dive into the information,” said Blake Kennedy M.S. ’18, of Gladstone, Australia. “The biggest sports teams look at player load, distance and high speed. But there are a hundred other variables you could look at that could be cutting edge in reducing injury chances.”
For UT Men’s Soccer Head Coach Adrian Bush, the data will help how he trains his athletes in the NCAA’s shortest season of any sport.
“As we store this data, we can go back and see what worked for us in recovery, which is so critical in the NCAA college season,” Bush said. “This year our first regular season game was Sept. 1, our final regular season game is Oct. 28. So in a season that is not even two months long, being able to accurately monitor performance and safety is a huge part of our growth as coaches from a sports performance standpoint.”
Eduardo De Souza, assistant professor of health sciences and human performance, said Catapult’s ability to provide individual training loads, or stress on the athlete during performance, is a game changer.
“That’s a cool thing about Catapault. If you think about some players from the same position, they’re going to do a drill on the field, they’re going to receive the same amount of exercise, because they belong to the same position, but the way that each is going to respond and accumulate load is going to be completely different,” De Souza said. “Catapault allows us to see that. You can visualize the load and see for a given load, how each athlete responds, which athletes we have to push harder or give more rest, those kinds of things, because they are tracking live.”
In addition to promoting athlete wellness and providing hands-on research for undergraduate and graduate students, Andersen said a benefit is in equipping students with marketable job skills.
“Another significant emphasis that we saw, that the graduate students brought to us, was that a lot of the jobs they were looking at and they wanted to apply for were asking for experience with player tracking systems,” Andersen said.
“Sport science is the one aspect of our industry that at the professional level is just exploding. A lot of universities don’t have this piece of equipment, and those students graduating aren’t able to get certain jobs, because they don’t have that experience,” Rauch said. “We are able to have graduate students who are able to get a sport scientist role right after they graduate, which we’re very happy about.”
For Kennedy, learning how to use Catapult and analyze the data has allowed him to double his learning experience by taking his strength and conditioning principles and applying the tracking system data to how he trains athletes. It’s given him a career direction to work with elite athletes using these systems.
“I’ve spent a lot of time researching different aspects of the tracking system, and it’s actually really inspired an interest in me,” Kennedy said. “I know a lot of higher level sports teams are going this route, because they can track everything. If you can read this and get something useful out of it and convey it to your team, you could have a much more successful season.”
While the tracking systems are being used by the men’s and women’s soccer teams now, De Souza said they plan to incorporate other sports as soon as next semester. They also plan to track the soccer teams in the off-season, so they get a full picture of their entire year.
“This is definitely just the beginning of this entire sport science initiative,” Rauch said. “From the research side, we like to say we’re not just reading from the textbooks, but we’re going to be adding to them as well.”
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