Off Campus: Penn athletic program embraces new technology

Penn Athletic Director
Penn athletic director M. Grace Calhoun.

They were just unpacking the GPS devices from the boxes in Penn's basketball offices. For their cars? No, for practice. Every Quakers men's hoops player is going to get a tracking device for the back of his jersey. It weighs about an ounce.

"I don't know if we're allowed to wear them in games or not," said men's basketball coach Steve Donahue. "We're trying to figure that out."

Miles toiled will be added to a database that closely monitors sleep and nutrition and - here's where things really get state-of-the-art - individual traits such as load and explode and drive abilities. All Penn athletes are now tracked for all that.

It's easy to think Chip Kelly is the guru of all this stuff. In fact, your local Ivy League school believes it is ahead of the curve, even ahead of many professional teams in tracking some of this data. For less than the cost of one Ivy League tuition - in other words, the technology is not free - the data is collected, risk factors for injuries are instantly pinpointed, workouts are tailored.

"We've had less pulls and strains this preseason than we've probably had in my time here," said new Penn football coach Ray Priore, who was a Quakers assistant for 28 seasons before he got the top job. "It's amazing."

Priore said his team usually now is split up into three workout groups based on what their specific needs are, what body parts need to be worked on. Thresholds obviously are different for different positions. That's true across sports.

"I know what a typical drill exertion does, and maybe on a Tuesday before a Wednesday game, no guessing, I can be pretty specific on how hard I want to go," Donahue said.

Right now, Donahue views the data collected as a baseline.

"I think it's going to take a good year to get used to what it really does," Donahue said.

Every athlete at Penn already has gone into the weight room under Franklin Field, stood on a force plate, jumped. They do it six times. Different numbers are produced for load, explode and drive.

"How you start a movement, how you transition a movement, how you finish a movement," said Eric Laudano, who in addition to being Penn's head athletic trainer, now has the title of associate athletic director for sports performance.

Right next to the force plate, there is a computer and a screen. Individual athletes can have their data called up, with changes shown over time.

On the screen, Laudano showed a running back - "see how this is very low in the drive portion" - and indicated this player would "get his own individualized workout to increase his variable above the kind of threshold that we determine is at risk for an injury."

It makes sense that a quarterback, a pocket passer, would need a high load variable - "similar to a lacrosse player," Laudano said. "A basketball player, a guard, they're explosive, the middle part would be highest."

Rowers and cross-country runners, "their drive at the end is high, "to finish up the race."

If the number is below a risk variable, a red triangle shows up on the screen.

Obviously, all this takes some degree of buy-in from athletes.

"Here's the thing," Priore said. "Everybody wants a personal trainer. If you just go to L.A. Fitness, do you really just want to get the workout everyone else is getting."

Donahue said he was a little worried that athletes would see it as Big Brother watching them.

"That would be my concern as a student," Donahue said. "I said to them, you've got to trust me, I'm not going to penalize you for being up to 3:30."

His players have installed an App that monitors their sleep. Donahue said he "got educated" about sleep when he was head coach at Cornell.

"I got a sleep expert who told me the biological clock for a 19-year-old is telling them to go to bed at 2 o'clock," Donahue said. "That's not him staying up for no reason, that's a fact. So what I did, I don't have morning workouts. I know there's too much risk when you're on six hours and four hours of sleep - your brain doesn't operate properly on that. There's also evidence that your spinal fluid needs an hour and a half of being upright, so it's completely safe to go do those kinds of exercises."

Based on that belief, Donahue said, "Sometimes you can't get around it, but I schedule all of our workouts from 4 to 8 (p.m.). That's everything that we do in this program."

They also have a fueling station in the locker room with protein bars, yogurts, that kind of thing. Penn's athletic department has a full-time nutritionist. That's par for the course these days in college sports.

Athletes have their own individualized Apps that can give them all their own data.

"A lot of times, athletes come down and they're spent, and we're like, what is wrong?" Laudano said. "And we say, 'Oh, you haven't had enough sleep, your protein is down, you're dehydrated today.' These are all things, all we want to do is make sure athletes are safe and healthy . . ."

And, Laudano adds, "to win championships."

Priore said that when his coaches or the strength coach can tell a player they are weak in the hamstring, so they are going to do more lunges, "trust me, our kids want to know why."

The GPS is a new device for hoops but Donahue pointed out it is now a common device in soccer, for instance.

"It was hard indoors," Donahue said. "The technology's caught up."

mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

Continue Reading