Sports Science

Deploying Sports Science In Your Football Program

As football coaches, we have witnessed the advent of innovative technology, but are more likely  to work at a school with tight budgets than to work at one with money to afford expensive technology. The good news is sport science does not require a lot of money and it is getting more affordable.

What is sport science? Sports science is the application of the scientific method to sport. To brush up on the scientific method, just ask one of your players to open his science text. It will list a series of steps, state a hypothesis, design an experiment, collect data (this is where technology comes in), analyze the data, and communicate the results. Indeed, the scientific method can be applied to a variety of topics in sports, such as the type of strength training used, recruiting strategies, the schemes run, and ticket sales.

Why would a coach want to use sports science? Because it can answer questions that help win more games. If winning is the primary goal, then work backwards from there and consider the most important questions that you can measure and you would like to answer to give your team a greater advantage. Can Tom play outside linebacker better than Bill? Do I want my players to turn their shoulders or keep them square when they pull? Given the talent on our team, should we adopt a gap or zone blocking scheme? Will a different strength training program work better?

In a way, most coaches I know already act like scientists. Essentially, they test a hypothesis every time they try a new technique, test a player in a different position, run a new scheme, etc.  The effort is less formal, but testing such hypotheses with the scientific method can increase the quality of the problem-solving process.

That’s where technology enters the equation to allow us to make more educated decisions, better preparing our teams physically, mentally, skill and scheme wise. This preparation may give you and your team an edge over a superior opponent. Using software such as spreadsheet, database or data visualization software is an effective way to collect, analyze and answer questions about your scheme.

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Technology exists that can have your players’ learning styles analyzed, their personality strengths measured, their knowledge of the game plan tested, and plays practiced through virtual reality on their phone. Technology can also be used to analyze the physical and mental skills needed to execute the responsibilities at each position, and how well each player performs each of those skills in practices and games. This knowledge will allow us to use our time wisely. Mental skills or well-being can also be assessed using a digital survey.

Sample questions could include:

  • How would you rate your fatigue level today?
  • How would you rate your stress level today?
  • How much are you enjoying training? (i.e. practice and weights)
  • How much muscle soreness do you have?
  • How many hours of sleep did you get last night?
  • How do you think you performed today?
  • How much academic stress are you under currently?

Any scale you’d like can be applied to these questions and answers. Questions such as the last two could be answered by the position coach and academic coordinator to see if there is agreement. The most important goal in administering these questions is follow up. If there is no follow up, players are not going to want to answer them.  For example, if the athlete has a high stress level, someone should have a conversation with the player. If they are extra sore or injured, some form of treatment should be provided.

With recent technology, it’s possible to collect even more information on physical skills, such as how far the player runs during practice, how fast is he moving, how many impacts sustained and how hard are the impacts? Repeat some of these measure throughout the season and/or at the end of the season to find out if these measures are changing, and if they do, why?

One of the most talked about measures is load. In mechanics, load means the force exerted on the surface or body. This not the same load reported by a GPS unit. A better term would be stress, not mechanical stress, but simple pressure or tension exerted on a material object.

The most common formula for player load, uses the acceleration data and is the square root of the sum of the change in acceleration in the x, y and z direction divided by 100. This is a unitless measure, so you can only compare your load to other measures of load.

Total distance or total high-speed distance might be equally or a more reliable of a measure.  Practice time is also a good measure. If you wanted to get more accurate, rank each period of practice for each position in terms of difficulty as easy (1), medium (2), or hard (3) and add up the total for the practice. You could also have the player rate each period themselves to see if you agree or not.

The athletic community uses “load” because they are looking for the sweet spot in preparing their team. They want to optimally train their team without over- or under-training them. Coaches remember coming out of two-a-days with camp legs and needed a week or so to get their legs back. While practice “load” is a good start, coaches should also consider other stressors on their players such as school, social, family, and weight training as well as recovery factors like diet and sleep which will affect performance.

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If you decide you want to collect data with new technology, be prepared to factor in a reasonable amount of time to troubleshoot problems, hand out and collect sensors, charge the units, and analyze the data. If you are attempting to live-track, it is nearly impossible to do that and coach at the same time. You might be able to find a student manager or trainer who you can teach to do the live monitoring. It is cumbersome enough that I am aware of at least one NCAA Division I football program that purchased units and is not using them.

Technology is a tool that we use to help collect data to answer a question, not the answer to a question. We need the reason why we are collecting the data. Ideally, we should be attempting to answer a question using the scientific method. I’ve read how some people feel sports science has been a letdown and hasn’t had a noticeable effect on sports. In these examples, it typically was because a team was measured, and the staff was not analyzing and utilizing the data to solve problems. If you measure wood, but never cut it, you are not going to build a very good house.

No one can promise using sports science is going to guarantee that you will win more games. If all things are equal, then using sports science will give you a better chance to win games.

This article was written by Jerome Learman, current coach and physical education teacher,  Osan American High School, Osan Air Force Base, South Korea

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