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IOWA CITY — Football, if nothing else, is a grand experiment in kinesiology. About a year ago, Iowa football strength and condition coach Chris Doyle took the deep dive into technology, specifically the use of GPS and accelerometers.
Now, Doyle can tell if, for example, tight end Ray Hamilton is pushing off harder with his left foot than his right. With one click of the mouse, he can see if cornerback Desmond King's 'density of effort' — or work rate — has changed and if that's a harbinger of a muscle injury. In another click, Doyle can see offensive tackle Brandon Scherff's 'athletic capacity.' Or how hard he pushes himself one practice to the next.
Through a GPS (global positioning system) chip embedded in a vest placed the middle of a players' spine, Doyle can download the info and click and see if a player is hurting, working hard or if he's ready to return to full-contact practice after an injury.
'This stuff is amazing, fascinating,' said Doyle, who begins his 16th year with head coach Kirk Ferentz. 'Anything that allows us to be more accurate in the way we measure and train our athletes I think is a benefit. Some of the other stuff — the recovery monitor stuff — also is next-level kind of training that really allows us some insight into how our guys are recovering and can be beneficial.'
So, GPS what?
A lot of college football teams and, basically, sports in general have lifted the lid on accelerometer tech. Iowa started using GPSports last July. The company, based in Canberra, Australia, jumped into the 'sophisticated performance monitoring device' market in 2000. They produce devices that incorporate advanced GPS tracking with heart rate and accelerometer monitoring.
If you visit their website (gpsports.com), you'll notice a lot of its clients are professional rugby teams in Australia. If you click a few more layers, you find a link for 'American Football.' There you'll see GPSports lists the University of Iowa alongside this little outfit called the Seattle Seahawks as 'elite' clients. Yes, that's just a few, but it won't be for long.
'A lot of schools have been receptive,' said Damian Hawes, international sales rep for GPSports. 'We've recently started with the University of Michigan, so I'm sensing an arms race.'
With a distinctly Aussie accent, Hawes talked of how the GPSport units, which go into pockets of vests worn by players, 'streamline' the training process (GPSsports claims it takes 10 minutes to process the data and create a report for 20 players).
'The units can detect if an athlete is using his left 2 percent more than his right side,' said Hawes, who added that he expects 10,000 units to be in action in the next year. 'It can flag a deficiency in a hamstring muscle. It can put up 'at risk' flags for injury, detecting pre-injury, if you will. It's an object measure for 'yes or no' decisions on a player's participation.'
Injury detection is a huge benefit, Doyle said. A 'flag' will allow the Iowa training staff to cushion the severity of a muscle strain by lowering the workload. Same goes for an injured player who's in rehab mode.
'We can go back and look at his previous numbers and we also can duplicate what that athlete will need to do, because I can compare the numbers of a receiver who's training off to the side to a receiver who's in the practice and say we know that this guy is capable of re-entering practice,' Doyle said.
The units also measure 'metabolic load,' which, basically, is how hard a player works, a sort of gas gauge. If the power output changes from one practice to the next, it shows up on Doyle's computer. Doyle can extrapolate those numbers to the team. The translation here is game simulation. The GPS unit can measure frequency and speed of collisions.
'It allows us to better plan practice and better impact practices,' Doyle said. 'Are we actually simulating games the way we think we are, or are we not? Same thing with our training. We trained in July, in some aspects, because we had game data. What we thought was a game in the past, we now know what it looks like from a volume and intensity perspective, accelerations and decelerations.'
You're probably thinking head coach Kirk Ferentz is skeptical. He played linebacker for UConn in the mid-1970s, before ankle taping was invented. He jokes about the practice of taking salt tablets, which was a thing players did back then for whatever odd reason.
There is a huge difference between skepticism and being open to new insights that this technology provides.
'You do an awful lot of things on instinct and experience,' Ferentz said. 'This gives you some science, so it supplements what you're doing. A lot of times it does a good job of verifying what you suspect.'
Iowa has used the GPSports units for an entire calendar year now. Doyle calls the system 'extremely accurate.' The strength and conditioning staff have compiled databases on players. Doyle did say that the sifting of information is a 'work in progress' and that it can be overwhelming.
It hasn't gotten to the point where Doyle is pulling the laptop out on the sideline and seeing if center Austin Blythe is tired and needs to come out. Game-time decisions fall into the 'instinct and experience' category.
'Knowledge is good and sometimes you can get too much of it,' Ferentz said. 'Chris does a good job of filtering it for me, figuring out what the important stuff is. I don't see a downside in it at all, unless you get webbed up in it and it starts paralyzing you.'
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