Vanderbilt's high-tech approach shortens practices

The Tennessean

Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason vows to never have a two-hour practice again, and Monday’s first day in full pads was no exception.

A new high-tech approach to planning, analyzing and condensing practices has the Commodores fitting more work into less time.

On Monday, the Commodores went through a tight 74-minute practice, precisely as planned, and didn’t go a second beyond. That’s quite a departure from lengthy workouts done for years in college football, especially on the first day in pads.

“The days of having three-hour practices with guys standing around just to be standing around — those are long gone,” Mason said. “Looking at the data, our guys are putting up workloads like they’re playing games in 74 minutes or in 83 minutes (the time of Saturday’s practice). It’s all about the work capacity.”

Terms like “work capacity” and “practice density” are part of the new jargon at Vanderbilt, as a result a GPS-based sports science technology called Catapult that the team first used in spring practice and now expanded during preseason camp to monitor and analyze individual players’ workloads.

In the spring, 12 players had GPS monitors in their shoulder pads, which tracked speed, acceleration, change of direction, distance, impact taken from hits and much more. The devices record more than 400 variables per second for each player, and that data goes through an algorithm that produced a workload grade for each player each practice.

In preseason camp, 30 key players are now wearing the GPS monitors, providing objective data to coaches to see which practice periods are taking the greatest toll on their players and how much work they can do and still recover fully.“We want to keep tabs on where their work levels are, so they can have ample time to rest and recover and be able to handle the workload the next day,” said first-year head strength coach James Dobson, who was hired from Nebraska in December.

“There are days where you want to really push these guys. But there are other days you want to pull back to let them recover, especially when you get to the season. We sit down with the staff and get their subjective feedback, and this gives them objective data to evaluate that practice and plan the next one.”

So far, data tells Vanderbilt’s staff that less is more in camp. The Commodores’ workload, according to the technology, actually has risen in some up-tempo condensed practices as compared to longer workouts.

As a result, Vanderbilt’s practices have routinely been under 90 minutes this camp. Players said the exertion is more intense, but the recovery is quicker.

“This is definitely more efficient,” said linebacker Darreon Herring, who wears one of the 30 GPS monitors. “This gives us an opportunity to stay healthy, but still be physical. We want to play fast but play smart, as well. And (coaches) want to make sure that we’re not going over capacity of what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Offensive tackle Andrew Jelks doesn’t know what the algorithm says about his play, but he likes the efficiency and tone of practice.

“Last year I felt like we had too much standing around,” Jelks said. “We weren’t getting enough done. But this year it’s bam, bam, bam, we’re all flying around. We are always running, playing, doing something. That’s why practices are shorter.”

What is Catapult GPS monitoring?

First used by Vanderbilt in spring practice, Catapult is a physiological/biological monitoring GPS technology that allows coaches and trainers to know who is overworked and economize practice by removing the guesswork with scientific data. It compares athletes, sessions, weeks and seasons and stops the guessing.