LARAMIE – It’s only about half the size of a standard mid-2000s cellphone. But the small device 44 or so University of Wyoming football players strap on and wear during practice and game days has as much power, if not more, than the smartphone currently sitting in your pocket.
When Eric Donoval and Ben Iannacchione left LSU nearly two years ago for the friendly confines of Laramie, they took a key piece of what they had learned in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with them.
Donoval previously served as an assistant strength coach for the LSU football team while Iannacchione served as the associate strength and conditioning coach. While at LSU, the football program started using the Polar GPS Monitoring system. The device is, quite literally, a mapping system that tracks how fast and far a player runs and what their heart rate is. It uses the same technology commonly found in cellphones.
Five years or so ago, the technology was revolutionary. LSU was the first college football program to use the gear, Donoval, currently UW’s associate director of sports performance, said. Now, it’s hard to find a Division I football program without it.
The Polar GPS Monitoring System has revolutionized training for high-level athletes, and UW is reaping the benefits data-driven
“It allows us to quantify what the athletes do at practice. We know exactly what a 12-, 15-, 18- and 24-period practice looks like. We know exactly what a week of camp looks like from an internal and external standpoint for these athletes,” Donoval said. “That allows us to hone in our training and make sure that we give these guys the correct training.”
Essentially, the Polar GPS tracks several key metrics for players wearing the device, including heart rate, speed (in miles per hour) and acceleration, among others. The players chosen to wear the device, which is strapped on above the rib cage and below the chest, are determined by the two-deep depth chart. Each unit costs about $350, making the total cost about $17,000, Donoval said.
The information is calculated in real time and allows coaches to see not only if players are improving, but if they need rest. For instance, if a player normally logs 20 miles per hour but is at 18 on a certain day, he might need a longer rest period. The GPS gives the exact distance players run during practice using satellite tracking that is shown on a map of War Memorial Stadium. If the team practices indoors, an internal accelerometer tracks the data instead.
The programs can’t be used during games, however, though the data can be analyzed after.
“The number one reason that athletes get injured is a high spike in volume or a high spike in intensity. So as long as we can accumulate the right type of training for these athletes, we can prepare them for the rigors of camp,” Donoval said.
Different skill position groups are focused on different metrics. The skill positions, for instance, are focused on high intensity running (12 miles per hour or more) and subsequent heart rates. Linemen, on the other hand, aren’t as focused on their miles per hour as they are on their acceleration in small spaces.
Donoval and assistant coach Will Harrison download the data from each Polar system onto an iPad. From there, spreadsheets are made and head coach Craig Bohl, along with the assistant and position group coaches, are given the information. Group numbers are calculated in addition to the individual ones. From there, practices can be adjusted based on what is being seen and also provides a way of keeping tabs on individual and group improvements.
“It tracks how hard your body is working compared to when you’re fresh,” senior linebacker Logan Wilson said. “Because you have to work harder when your body’s more sore. It’s just very smart. Our strength staff does a very good job with that kind of stuff.”
When Donoval started, seven players on the team ran 20 miles per hour or faster. That number is now up to 35, he said.
“(It give us the) ability to quantify things,” Donoval said. “(It) has really allowed us to hone in our training and give these guys exactly what they need, not just to be good football players, but for wide receivers to be prepared for the rigors that they need to do, for the interior linemen to be prepared for what they need to do.”
Of course, there is such thing as too much information, which can lead to “paralysis by analysis,” Donoval said. That means only certain metrics are focused on rather than each one the system documents.
While the coaches and strength staff are in-tune to the intricacies of the data, players have a more broad sense of what the numbers mean, Donoval said. Players see it more as an opportunity for competition.
Senior defensive back Tyler hall and senior receiver John Okwoli are the only members of the 23 Mile Per Hour Club on the team. Hall achieved the feat during his pick-six against Texas State, while Okwoli’s happened in practice.
Senior receiver Raghib Ismail Jr. said he has reached speeds of up 21 miles per hour. For him, the GPS technology is a way of ensuring his body stays rested, even when his head and heart might not want him to.
“You don’t want to complain a whole lot. But if you’re tired and banged up, you probably don’t need to be practicing for 24 periods. And that’s one thing this year has changed a lot,” Ismail said. “The GPS is just a way for the coaches to track us … We’ve had a lot more shorter practices, giving us the ability to recover, especially since we’re pretty dialed in.”
Players who reach 22 miles per hour are given t-shirts and entrance to the “Faster Than Gravity” club. Some linemen can reach speeds of up to 18 miles per hour. Perhaps more impressive, however, is Wilson who, at 250 pounds, has been clocked at 22 miles per hour.
“Logan Wilson’s consistently surprising for a guy that’s as big as he is,” Harrison said. “(It’s impressive when) you see guys with his body composition that consistently hit that type of speed. Cassh (Maluia) is another guy that can fly for as big as he is.”
When the fourth quarter of games come about, the Cowboys feel they are in better position to close the deal. That’s because they are properly rested and, more importantly, properly conditioned for the ebbs and flows of a four quarter game.
Ten years ago, Donoval couldn’t have imagined the beta technology he used at LSU would become a phenomenon. Now he can’t imagine life without it.
“The number one thing is, we’re not here to tell coaches what to do. We’re here to tell coaches what they’re doing,” Donoval said. “The number one goal is to give these coaches information, give them as much information on their individual athletes as possible and allow them to make decisions. … We’re all pulling on the rope (in) the same direction.”
Michael Katz is a writer for WyoSports. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 307-755-3325. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelLKatz.