GPS chips in shoulder pads enable players to track aspects of workout

Wisconsin State Journal

In what has become a daily ritual, members of the University of Wisconsin football team can be spotted looking at a bunch of numbers on a sheet of paper posted in the locker room.

One column in particular creates the most buzz: individual mph data from the most recent game or practice.

“It’s a chance to talk trash to somebody,” senior outside linebacker Joe Schobert said, “if you ran faster than them.”

Added junior cornerback Sojourn Shelton: “We kind of look at it as a competition.”

To Badgers strength and conditioning coach Ross Kolodziej, it’s so much more than that.

Welcome to the digital age of sports, where a player’s peak velocity is just one piece of information the UW coaching staff has at its disposal in an attempt to reduce injuries and maximize practices and training programs.

On any given day, more than two dozen UW players are equipped with a small device that collects more than 1,000 data points per second. The product is developed by Catapult Sports, an Australian-based company that touts it as “the intersection of sport science and analytics.”

Florida State began using the Catapult system in 2011 as a way to gain an edge, but now the Seminoles have plenty of company. The product has become popular in several sports at the college and professional level, with UW joining the club this summer after coach Paul Chryst and his staff liked what they saw while using it last season at Pittsburgh.

Nebraska (2-3, 0-1 Big Ten), which will host the Badgers (3-2, 0-1) on Saturday, also uses the Catapult system.

The sheet the UW players see in the locker room is what Kolodziej calls the “101 version.” In his office Wednesday night, Kolodziej sat at his desk and, with a few clicks on the keyboard, was ready to begin a session of deep-dive analytics off a practice that ended less than an hour earlier.

Once he had the data he needed, Kolodziej planned to visit the UW football offices and deliver a report to Chryst.

“At the end of the day, all you really are is the messenger,” Kolodziej said. “You’re just delivering the news. Before all this hard data, you were just the pulse of the team. You’d give (the coaching staff) your gut feel on what the players are self-reporting and what you’re observing.

“Now, you’re taking your observations, your gut feel, and then you’re merging it with actual data to get the clearest picture on where your team is at.”

The device itself is about the size of a pager and is held in place under the players’ shoulder pads by what is essentially a sports bra.

Inside is a sensor that tracks a variety of metrics, including acceleration, deceleration, distance and speed, with the help of a Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS).

A 3-D accelerometer measures stops and starts, a 3-D magnetometer monitors direction and a 3-D gyroscope measures how much a body twists and turns.

Former UW athlete Bradie Ewing, now a member of the strength staff, gathers all the devices and uploads the information onto a computer. A report that includes charts and graphs can be ready for Kolodziej to analyze in as little as 15 minutes.

Most of the time, the data confirms what Kolodziej can see with his own eyes. For example, NFL scouts have raved about how Schobert, who leads the nation in sacks (nine) and tackles for loss (13), plays with little wasted motion. UW defensive coordinator Dave Aranda said the Catapult data shows that Schobert is consistently at or near the top of the charts in terms of movement efficiency rates in practice.

What would have interested the players the most from Wednesday’s practice is senior cornerback Darius Hillary registered the fastest speed (20 mph) and sophomore wide receiver George Rushing covered a total of 5,665 yards — the equivalent of 3.2 miles — over the entire workout.

But the more useful category for Kolodziej and the coaching staff is PlayerLoad, which measures how hard an athlete is working. It takes into account impact with other players, movement in every direction, how often a player is accelerating and decelerating and how much high-intensity running is being done.

“It’s a good voice for the players,” Aranda said. “The players have a voice with the Catapult in terms of this practice was hard, this practice was rough on the players.

“It’s broken down by periods, so you know what period has the most load on a player. Can we adjust this period to make it easier for them? Do we need to cut the reps?”

That’s what happened earlier this season to UW junior outside linebacker Vince Biegel, who felt fatigued after back-to-back heavy practices and brought it up to the staff. The next day, Biegel’s workload was decreased.

“I think it’s really a good thing for the long run,” Biegel said, “because coaches can see, ‘Hey, this guy’s getting a lot of PlayerLoad, let’s start tapering back.’ ”

Of course, there’s a flip side that Biegel acknowledges.

“Guys can’t B.S. the coach anymore,” he said with a wry grin. “You can’t be like, ‘Coach, I’m feeling it,’ and you look at the Catapult numbers and there’s nothing.”

Whether the treasure trove of data can help the Badgers minimize injuries remains to be seen, but that was certainly the case at Florida State.

According to an article in Men’s Fitness Magazine, the Seminoles training staff noted an 88 percent decrease in soft-tissue injuries over the course of the 2012 and 2013 seasons, the latter of which ended with Florida State going 14-0 and winning the national title.

Kolodziej said the data can help UW build an offseason program to match the loads that players experience in practices and games. It can also help the coaching staff determine whether a player is ready to return from injury based on how his Catapult numbers during the rehab process compare to pre-injury data.

UW currently has 28 devices on loan from Catapult as part of a trial phase. The athletic department would like to purchase devices for use in other sports besides football but will need to open up the bidding to other sports science companies because of the cost involved.

Technology comes with a price: According to a story in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the University of Minnesota rented 45 devices last season for $79,000. That same story noted that Florida State purchased 30 units for $80,000 in 2012.

Biegel, for one, thinks it’s money well spent.

“I’m all about trying new things,” Biegel said. “If it can help my game in any way possible, I’m all for it.”