How USC Athletics will use CATAPULT to track their athletes

It’s the middle of one of USC’s fall practices, and a one-on-one drill is bringing out the best competition out of a pair of stars. Wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster and cornerback Adoree’ Jackson are going at it, exerting themselves completely during this duel. After three or four turns, the wideout ends up edging out the cornerback slightly, but both end up seemingly spent from this high-energy match of route sprints and coverage.

The mid-90s degree heat that is bearing down on the players, fully clad in gear and pads, isn’t helping — making them sweat profusely and testing their endurance. Smith-Schuster has arguably been running the most out of anyone, but an onlooker would not be able to prove that by the eye test alone.

Before the next day’s session, however — and going forward with fall camp — the coaches will be able to know how fast the wide receiver was running throughout the practice, and how many yards he ran — both entirely and at specific speeds.

How will they tell? How can they know his exact distance and speed?

It’s all thanks to small device that is installed seamlessly on his back, underneath his pads and jersey. A Catapult GPS tracking device fromCatapult Sports, to be exact, that records everything from speed and distance, to acceleration, deceleration, even explosiveness and power.

It appears technology’s all-encompassing influence has reached the grounds of Howard Jones Field this year, and it will be aiding the Trojans in their quest for success this season.

What is Catapult?

Catapult is an Australian-based GPS tracking system that utilizes wearable sensors to record athletes during their practice and play. Subsequently, the system informs both the team and the athlete as to how they are performing and to what extent.

What makes Catapult even more unique and aptly suited for football programs around the country is their ability to take raw data and convert it into an easily consumable form. With the recent rise of analytics in sports, plenty of skeptics are quick to reject it and posit that it takes the fun or human side out of the game. Yet in reality, analytics has become misrepresented as some intrinsically complicated and unnecessary way to view sports, when at its core, it is simply more information.

“It’s not the hardware that does this — it’s information being used by great practitioners that’s the difference.”

That’s how Catapult’s Director of Sports Science and Performance Gary McCoy puts it:

“The wearable tech is just a pathway to information provision.”Though Catapult at its core is indeed analytics, the difference is that it has been able to do what a lot of analytical advancements in sports are struggling to accomplish: Contextualize.

“Think fatigue management,” explained McCoy. “We’ve devised a workload number — called Player Load — that coaches use to determine an athlete’s fatigue and biomechanical stress.”

McCoy says those two categories — fatigue and stress — are determined by measuring the aforementioned factors like acceleration, velocity, the ability to change direction, etc. In turn, they aid in player development at the most basic levels of on-the-field movement.

“We take a player like JuJu Smith, how many yards does he run?” posed strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis. “Then we can look at those yards and say, ‘How many of those yards is he going over 60mph?’”

It’s not all exclusive to distances and speeds. Catapult also tracks collisions.

“Any time a running back gets hit or the linebackers or [linemen] hit, that little GPS thing registers a shock, what we call a collision,” Lewis explained. “We look at more the high intensity collisions … that’s gonna help us especially with the big guys, see how many of those are they really taking and what’s the impact.”

USC is not the first team to adopt this; Florida St., Nebraska, Oregon and Alabama all use it, as do plenty of NFL teams. So far, the numbers speak for themselves.

“Florida State University has experienced an 88% reduction in soft tissue injury. Baylor, Oregon, Texas A&M and Minnesota all have downward trending injuries,” McCoy testified. “NFL teams have shown similar reductions. The Rams have had zero soft-tissue injuries so far in OTAs and pre-season. That is remarkable.”

Coming off sanction-depleted squads that had a hard time closing out games, USC is hoping the health trend extends to them as well.

According to Lewis, USC is specifically hoping that this new tracking system improves the team’s overall health. That begins with prevention.

“Soft-tissue injuries happen when guys are tired and dehydrated,” he said. “[Catapult] prevents things before they happen.”

How do these tracking devices do that exactly?

Lewis explains: “When the guys get injured — through the data we have — we can also help the guys get back. If a guy did [the drill] last year and he was hurt, then we do the same drill with him again this year, and I can see the readings and say you know what, ‘He’s just as good as he was last year’ or ‘He’s lagging a bit and we need to get back in the weight room, back in the training room’ and then figure out how to get him back to reading those same numbers.”

Catapult might not literally prevent injuries, but it comes as close to doing so as it can. Fleeting appear to be the days where a player and coach are unsure if he can “give it a go” or return to full-speed practices. Like Lewis says, the data readings will become the basis by which such decisions are made.

Take Alabama for example. Nick Saban & Co. have been utilizing the Catapult system, and Saban himself lauded its benefits when speaking of a specific player’s injury.

“It allows us to know whether a guy’s got the same explosive movements that he had before for how long, we can evaluate whether he cuts with the same explosive movements off that leg.”

Likewise, Florida State’s Jimbo Fisher swears by the system and praises it for its ability to bring clarity to the football field.

“How we train with [the GPS] year-round allowed us to take a lot of the guess work out of how tired the team is, where your pulls, your tears are … It’s on my desk the first thing we walk in every day … I live by that thing.”
Above all, whether it means limiting injuries or maximizing performance, the effects look to be incredibly productive and are aimed, ultimately, at winning.

“In sports science there are two laws,” McCoy wrote in an email. “One, isPlayer Availability, and the other, is Player Optimization. Law one is the most important — it’s been studied and validated.”

“Teams that have everyone available — [they] win championships.” — Gary McCoy, Catapult’s Director of Sports Science & Performance

Of course, the natural question then becomes how this data will translate over to in-game usage — though in that field, the Trojans are a bit behind the game.

“All data points are great for a game,” admitted McCoy, “However, the team will need to collect enough data to create a baseline in games — which will take time.”

That time will surely come, but for now, the Trojans are simultaneously building that baseline up while utilizing Catapult to its full, current potential.

“This is about working harder and smarter, gathering as much information as possible on our players to really prevent soft-tissue injuries,” Lewis reiterated. “It can help position coaches, myself, and Coach Sark getting a better feel for his team.”

Sarkisian says it helps him do his job of balancing out player workloads by showing him how intensely he conducts practices, and that he finds it particularly “useful.”

Linebackers coach Peter Sirmon agrees wholeheartedly:

“It’s unbelievable. It’s a great advance in how we practice, what we expect out of players as position coaches.”

The coaches may be seeing all of that data, but for the players, at least right now, they’re only getting to be the ones that wear the devices strapped on to their backs.

“I haven’t seen any results,” said linebacker and Catapult-user Scott Felix. “[Coaches] monitor us, we don’t get to see the results.”

“I’m not too conscious of it,” said two-way star Adoree’ Jackson, who admitted the coaches had told him before Saturday’s practice that he had been running a lot.

Given that Jackson plans to play on defense, offense and special teams, keeping track of his energy will be essential.

“Coach wanted to limit my reps because he said I was going like 6 miles a day in practice,” he chuckled. “I mean, I don’t really know what that means, but he told me to take some plays off. So, I guess, I’m working too hard.”

Lewis says most of the skill guys and “some of the big guys” are the ones getting to use the 60 devices USC invested in, but that in the future, they hope to bring introduce the technology to other sports like soccer, basketball and volleyball.

It’s not like the Trojans have stumbled upon some untapped secret in the sports world, but they are clearly cognizant of the possibilities and advantages Catapult’s innovative system inherently brings. In their typical, ever-competitive fashion, however, they’re not planning to be second place during this technical revolution either.

“A lot of the teams are using it,” Lewis pointed out. “And we’re trying to be one of the best.”

Here is the rest of the Q&A with Catapult’s Director of Sports Science and Performance Gary McCoy, where he addresses Catapult’s hierarchy data system, concussions and pricing:1. Who was the individual or group from USC that reached out to you, or Catapult Sports, and when did this occur?

Dr. John Meyer in athletic medicine was the person with the foresight in this instance. He attended a number of workshops and sought global validation for the technology and people behind it. He’s now the one leading the charge on defining insights through data that can reduce injury and improve performance.

2. USC’s strength coach said they will solely be collecting data during games, not particularly using it. Are Catapult devices able to provide in-game information and be used during games? If so, in what ways?

Multiple data points are valid in games. Think of the catapult information as a fuel gauge during the race. What players are fatigued? Who is running better to the left? Are receivers on wet turf able to accelerate out of the slot? How many impacts has the lineman taken? All data points are great for a game. However to Ivan’s [Lewis] point, the team will need to collect enough data to create a baseline in games which will take time.

3. What is Catapult devices’ role — if any — in being able to detect or help out in detecting concussions/concussion-like symptoms? If so, what is it’s success rate in doing so?

We are actively involved with all our clients to devise strategies and review anomalies in data that may present as markers of movement deficiency.

4. The word analytics is not used much in your site but that’s technically what this is, right? More information. Was that a conscious decision to market it as something not directly associated with such a divisive term as analytics?

Our chairman, Adir Shiffman- taught me how to look at this in a hierarchy.

— Raw Data- our wearable tech provides the most accurate indication of motion and forces

— Data Visualization- our software allows teams to see the data amass in real-time- or collectively post game or practice

— Analytics- this is where trained practitioners use our software to uncover athlete insights — where diagnosis of performance occurs,

— Finally, the holy grail of data is Predictive Analytics. In time — with amassed athlete practice, game, gym, recovery, nutrition, sleep, hydration and intellectual/emotional information — teams can accurately “predict” the opportunity for injury and act accordingly.

5. In general, what might one of these devices cost?
Devices start at about $4500 USD per monitor, as it’s a scientific device — not a consumer product. Only the elite athletes take advantage of this intense level of scrutiny.