With the advent of sports science, and with new and evolving high performance training techniques becoming more common, if football coaches are only now becoming enlightened, Erik Korem is quick to point out — it’s not really their fault.
“The way you become a football coach in America is you become a [graduate assistant], then you get an assistant’s job, [etc…],” says Korem, the High Performance Coach at the University of Kentucky. “There’s no fundamental teaching of science. So the idea that you would have some guy that says ‘hey coach, if you sequence things this way you have better skill acquisition, guys will be faster on gameday’– they’re like who the heck are you?”
At this point 20 or 30 years ago Korem likely would have been escorted out of the coach’s office. There was a time — up until the early years of the Super Bowl era, when iron-jawed coaching legends like Don Shula could hold his infamous four-a-day practices — that it was never a question of too much. Back when practice and athletic training were akin to forging iron — where each repetitive motion, like the pounding of a hammer, furthered the quality of the steel — toughness was the only consideration, there was no thought to the long-term residual effects or the best way to maximize things.
That history is evident nowadays more than ever as concussion research and player pensions for the game’s older generations have been at the forefront of recent labor discussions.
But if that was the iron age of athletics, then today we are firmly in the space age. Sports science-driven high performance training has spread across the world and — literally — up into space, with satellites tracking player positions and feeding data into increasingly advanced analytic systems that are helping athletes reach new levels.
In the United States — where the proliferation of sports science has been less rapid than elsewhere in the world — Erik Korem is a central figure.
“If it wasn’t for Erik Korem, [our] progress in the NFL would be a lot slower,” offered Gary McCoy, an Australian sports scientist for Catapult, one of the industry leaders in GPS training technology.
Korem, 33, graduated from Texas A&M in 2003 and quickly got into training the US national track and field team, even serving as a speed coach for Tyson Gay when he broke the US 100M record in 2008. In 2010 he arrived at Florida State University and quickly turned head coach Jimbo Fisher on to a new concept that was already quite popular in soccer and Olympic training circles — GPS training.
“At first, he was a little skeptical — I think everyone was. They were like ‘what are we doing?’ You know, ‘these guys don’t know what they’re talking about.’” said Korem. “To Jimbo Fisher’s credit, he was willing to step out on a ledge and give it a shot. And I owe him a lot.”
Four years later, Korem has moved on but Fisher reports an 88 percent reduction in soft tissue injuries and the BCS National Championship resides in Tallahassee.
Florida State — One of the First Big Dominoes
Catapult and its biggest competitor, GPSports, have hundred of clients around the world.
“Australian rules football [clubs], soccer, so a lot of teams through premiere league, we’ve had the Manchester Uniteds, the Man. Cities, and the Chelseas and the Real Madrids and the Barcelonas — the biggest teams in the world really — were all using our technology,” said Rod Lindsell, a sports scientist for GPSports. “Really from probably 2008 I guess probably the top 50 percent of the teams in the world were using these devices.”
And though there are subtle differences, both Catapult and GPSports’ tracking systems are extremely similar.
“It’s basically got a GPS sensor in there so using satellites to triangulate position and all the calculations are based on change in position in order to establish how far an athlete runs, how fast they run, how hard they accelerate, how hard they decelerate. Then we also use the accelerometer, which is the sort of inertial sensor to look now at smarter things like collisions and the intensity of collisions,” said Lindsell (GPSports).
“There’s a tri-axial accelerometer which reads movements in multiple plains, there are three three-dimensional gyroscopes on this which perceive things like pitch, yaw and tilt — all those measurements in three dimensional space,” said McCoy (Catapult). “Right now it’s a pretty small device that’s worn on a player’s pads. We’re trying to get it down to a band-aid [sized] level.”
But in the USA, acclimation has not come quickly. Until recently, GPSports and Catapult were having trouble with getting their products to sell in the United States.
Part of the issue was that the needs of American athletes didn’t necessarily mesh with their model.
Initially the GPS tracking system was meant to cover running-intensive outdoor sports, but basketball and hockey are played indoors — a troublesome issue for GPS satellites. And football is a contact sport — the collisions created a problem for the tracking system.
But indoor beacons and improvements to the sensors were able to alleviate those concerns. The bigger issue was that the US is behind the rest of the world when it comes to sports science. Both Catapult and GPSports are Australian companies; they were born out of a reaction to poor Olympic outputs in track and field in 1996 and their work has been largely backed by the Australian Institute for Sport. The resulting technology has already been adopted pretty much the world over — except for in the United States.
“There’s a lot of skepticism because in America, everybody is segmented. You’ve got the sport coaches over on one end doing their thing, the strength coaches doing their thing, the athletic trainers doing their thing,” says Korem. “And we also don’t have true sports science curriculums in the United States. So in their own sense the coaches have never been taught any of this stuff before.”
Nobody has — at least not in the US.
And a sport like American football — which barely exists elsewhere around the world — is nearly in a vacuum. Football coaches are among the most empowered coaches in any sport, anywhere. They run the gamut from benevolent autocrat to ruthless dictator in terms of how they exert that power, but make no mistake: they are in complete control.
And each one thinks he knows best about how to prepare his team.
“The big challenge — particularly on the NFL level, is getting head coaches to embrace some of this information. We’ve probably had more success with owners of teams that want to look after their assets than we’ve had with head coaches,” said Lindsell. “And that’s the big difference. The big difference in the UK and the big difference in Australian sports — where this is having an impact — is it gets through to the top levels and the head coach and line coach and positional coaches can look at [the information].”
When Korem convinced Fisher to give the GPS technology a go back in 2010, it was a major break for both companies — even though it was Catapult who got the account.
It paid off too. Since taking over for Bobby Bowden, Fisher has lost just 10 games and the Seminoles have improved their record every year. They have also reduced their injuries every season too. And then there’s that national championship trophy currently sitting in the lobby of the Moore Athletic Center in Tallahassee.
“[Jimbo Fisher] was one of the early ones to embrace it. Here’s what Florida State did well, one they hired a really smart guy, two, they let him do his job,” said McCoy. “Erik was able to get in, look at the data and not change the culture — because Jimbo has a certain way he does things — the data is not meant to change a culture. It’s meant to empower it.”
Now Florida State is the poster-child for why the GPS tracking model works. But as other teams — both collegiate and pro — look to dissect what’s gone right at Florida State, the results go much deeper than simply reducing soft tissue injury or running faster.
A Multi-Varied Approach
The sexy part of the tracking system is the numbers it gives back with relation to speed. Speed is sexy. It will always steal the headlines. That’s why you can name at least two or three Olympic sprinters but would be left stammering if asked to name a pole-vaulter.
But hidden within the minutiae of the data that is returned each day are countless other possibilities.
Coaches can learn to better utilize their practice time, player output can be tracked on every level, guesswork is no longer a part of rehabilitation.
“Coaches can use this from a tactical perspective as well,” added McCoy.
But it all boils down to knowing how to use the data.
“You can use that information and use it poorly, you can use it and be a game-changer,” says Korem, who compares it to film breakdown. Two coaches — one good, one mediocre — can get the same package of film in preparation for the next week’s game and come away with two completely different loads of information.
Hiring the right guy is integral. At Florida State, when Korem followed Mark Stoops to a better role at Kentucky, Fisher and company tabbed a former rocket scientist, Chris Jacobs, to continue Korem’s work.
Both Catapult and GPSports have also made efforts to streamline their own software and better educate their customers of its potential and how to unlock it.
“It opens the box to greater questions, it’s fascinating and it’s going to change a lot of things here in the United States,” says Korem.
For instance, one of the biggest discoveries has been a new-found emphasis on athletic symmetry.
“At a high performing level one of the big things we tend to look at that’s often been over-looked is the asymmetry of an athlete,” said McCoy. “Exercise is cumulative. Asymmetry accumulates over time.”
So both systems are now picking up that data. Every time an athlete’s foot strikes the ground on his stride, the sensor in his pads is picking up readings. How much pressure is he putting on each foot? How is the weight distributed across both feet? What is the overall output per stride?
From that you can gauge an athlete’s symmetry, which in turn helps improve performance and even predicts injuries. In older players, it can also explain a decline.
“I don’t even want to mention the name of the team, but we saw an NFL center last year, we were looking at he only had [good] movement to his right side — his only high-intensity movements could be to his right and only 22 percent of them were to his left,” said McCoy. “Here’s a player who has to go both ways.
“When we were able to discern that, it answered a bunch of questions for them. So from that asymmetrical side, understanding asymmetry is the very first step in offsetting athletic soft tissue injuries. And a team like Florida State who measure both asymmetry and overall load week in and week out for their athletes are doing it better than anybody. And it’s just over time if you’re smart enough to really use the data — not so much to change their culture — but you use it as a tool to change their process.”
McCoy also admits the technology can be more useful to younger players than older ones. It can be integral in establishing good practice habits, and by helping to mitigate injuries and improving rehabilitation, it could also extend careers.
While Fisher undoubtedly uses that information to his advantage on the recruiting trail, McCoy has started passing it along to his clients too.
“One of the things when I was designing infrastructure for a major league baseball team I said, ‘look, you want your best [training consultant] in the major leagues, we all know that’s where the numbers make the most sense,” said McCoy, “But you put your second best guy at the lowest levels.”
The technology’s impact with regard to recovering from injuries is no less impressive.
“It’s a multi-varied approach for return to play and the tracking system plays one part,” says Korem. “You know an athlete has to perform X-amount of work and they’re coming back from rehab, you can create scenarios for rehabilitation where you can simulate the work that’s on the field and see if they can handle it. You can look at acceleration and deceleration and how they’re changing direction on their left and right legs. Are they hitting the appropriate speeds that they’re supposed to be hitting? I think instead of the old day of just going ‘ok we’re going to go out there and just bull-run through these drills’ you can kind of make it more exact.”
By using the sensors every day and continuing to accrue information, the trainers establish baselines and can see how a player is faring. Someone who is skilled at reading the numbers can even potentially tell whether a player was mailing it in at practice or if he just needs a day off. More importantly, an injured player’s word and a coach’s eye are no longer the determining factor in whether someone can return to the field — the numbers are.
“When you’re able to discern those load displacements at the micro level those become powerful tools,” said McCoy. “One of the best examples we have was a prominent NBA player last year who had a knee injury that everybody thought was going to be almost ready to return to play. [But] after the Catapult assessments he still had a 60 percent deficit left-versus-right so we were able to hold him back and subsequently help prevent a longer-term injury situation.”
If that sounds like anyone specific, McCoy is quick to laugh and redirects the conversation to a moment he had at an NFL facility recently, “I had a prominent NFL coach come out and put me in a headlock and say, ‘you know if any of this information ever gets out — we’re fucked.’”
The New Age at Kentucky
When Korem left Florida State following the 2012 season, it was to follow former FSU defensive coordinator Mark Stoops to Kentucky. Stoops was intent on starting a football-based revolution in Lexington and Korem hopes that will be the launching pad for his own movement — he already has unparalleled support from the university.
“The reason I came with Coach Stoops is number one I believe in him and I believe in what we’re doing here,” says Korem. “Number two, he was willing to make me the first high performance manager in American football.
“What we’re doing here at Kentucky that’s different than pretty much any football program in America right now is we actually have a true high performance model where all of these pieces are working together where we literally sit down as a staff and we script everything to have a certain output, we’re measuring externally from the Catapult [system] and everything internally sports science-wise. We actually have buy-in and assistance from our university exercise science department, so what we’re doing here, for me is a very exciting opportunity to come to UK because it’s the first time in American football that it’s being done.”
Stoops’ first year at Kentucky was a humbling 2-10 campaign, but the signs are already there that things are working. Injuries are down, player development is a major point of emphasis and the Wildcats quietly pulled in a top 20 recruiting class this past year.
Lexington may still be a basketball town, but its football program is about to start garnering some attention. The NFL has already sought Korem for consultation.
“This offseason I was fortunate to spend quite a bit of time at NFL buildings, helping, because they’re very interested,” says Korem. “There’s an itch and they just don’t know how to scratch it right now. But you’re going to see a massive change in the next 10 to 15 years.”
And Korem is at the center of it.
Upon arriving at Kentucky last offseason, the first thing Korem set to work doing was determining what was even going to be required of the players. It’s difficult to plan a practice or train a team without even knowing what’s needed first in terms of output — what is it that the players actually need to do?
“That sounds really simple because you watch the game and you see what they’re doing, but what does a receiver actually do?” asks Korem. “For instance, at UK in the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, it’s drastically different than what a receiver does in more of a pro-style offense, more like what Jimbo Fisher runs — because I have the data on both, it’s just a totally different feel. But even broader than that, what we thought American football players did for a long period of time as far as like just movement dynamics, and the energy systems involved, the training in practices never really matched those true demands. So, the tracking systems give us an idea.”
From there it became easier to make everything done at practice more purposeful. High output work could be moved earlier in the week, drills could be ordered differently to improve acclimation, players could work harder and still be fresher come Saturday, instead of, as Korem says: “Coaches script practice and all they’re worried about is getting better at plays and technique and fundamentals and have no concept of what just happened.”
And football teams all across the country are noticing the difference. Florida State used Catapult’s technology to help propel them to a national championship. The Seattle Seahawks used GPSports system and won a Super Bowl.
If Kentucky gains traction in the SEC, Korem’s movement could become a revolution.
“My goal, number one is to help Coach Stoops win, but then personally I want to change the way that people do things in the United States and it’s very humbling because we have a staff here that’s willing to work together to do that,” says Korem. “And if UK wins I think it’s going to help a lot of people, not just the university.”
Patrik Nohe is a columnist for FanSided and the editor at FanSided’s ChopChat (FSU), follow him on Twitter…