How sports scientists are trying to change college football

The smell of bacon wafts through the most unorthodox office in Schembechler Hall on a spring morning in Ann Arbor. Separated from the rest of the staffers, Fergus Connolly can stand in his doorway in the corner of Michigan’s football facility and keep an eye on the team’s buffet-style training table.

The L-shape desk tucked inside is decorated with stacks of journal articles and other reading material. Two wardrobe-sized, metal bookshelves sit on the other side of the room, crammed full of an eclectic collection that ranges in subject from ancient Chinese medicine to general systems theory to one on the psychological effects of training a soldier to kill. On top of the shelves are heart rate variability monitors and GPS tracking devices and tools for recording sleep habits. He has at his disposal elsewhere in the building a number of other fancy gadgets and data-gathering tools.

The real estate and the resources are well and good, but Connolly didn’t request any of them when he followed Jim Harbaugh from the San Francisco 49ers to work for him as Michigan’s director of football performance. (In fact, the only thing he asked for specifically when taking the job was an overstuffed, backside-swallowing black recliner that formerly sat in the boss’ office. Harbaugh obliged.) That’s because what Connolly learned while picking up a master’s degree in advanced manufacturing and a doctorate in computer science before entering the sports world is that the finest technology in the world is only as effective as the person driving it.

“There are no answers in the data,” he says in a distinctively Irish brogue that might be more out of place than anything else inside the room. “They help you ask better questions.”

College athletic departments have spent the better part of a decade shelling out big money to add the most state-of-the-art technology they can find in search of a competitive edge on the field and in recruiting. In the rush to keep up with the Joneses, sports scientists say that many schools neglected to invest in the personnel and the time it takes to understand how to make the most of all those fancy, new gadgets.

Connolly is part of a small wave of sports scientists who have come from overseas in hopes of explaining the philosophy that gave birth to the boom of tech in sports before schools get frustrated with their gadgets and throw them away. They’re here to invade a sporting culture that has become smitten with collecting data and teach coaches how to use them as one piece of a bigger puzzle. And they’re worried that they’re running out of time.

“Because there hasn’t been overwhelming success, some of the coaches are growing skeptical of the sports scientist,” says Greg Haff, president of the National Strength & Conditioning Association. “I think we’re at a crossroads.”

The road here can be traced back to the other side of the world a little more than 40 years ago. After an embarrassing medal shutout at the 1976 Olympic Games, Australia decided to invest money in creating better athletes. The Australian Institute of Sports opened in the early ’80s with the idea that to make the most of a population smaller than the state of California, they would have to maximize the potential of all their athletes and keep them healthy. Sports science was a component from the beginning.

The Aussies studied the shortcomings of their athletes and developed tools such as GPS trackers to search for ways to fix those issues. By the time the country hosted its own Olympics in 2000, the Australians finished fourth among all countries with 58 medals — ahead of dozens of nations with larger gene pools. Other small, wealthy countries took notice. Similar Institutes of Sport started to pop up around the world and further developed the study of sport performance.

By the time colleges and pro teams in the U.S. started to explore the field, the fitness technology industry was booming. The companies selling their devices had well-oiled marketing arms to convince clients that their particular product was the elixir that would lead them to success. In places where those magic potions haven’t produced results, organizations are growing skeptical of data-minded outsiders and returning their faith solely to the instincts coaches develop from years of experience.

Connolly and company say the elixir approach is the opposite of the model under which those tools were originally developed. Instead of identifying a weakness and building something to try to assess ways to make it better, many schools and pro teams are buying tools they think will provide answers before they even know the question.

“If the only thing you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail,” Connolly said. “The key is being able to identify the issue and coming up with a solution. Like a skilled craftsman, you have to go back to your toolbox and you pick the right tool to fix it.”

In this case, the toolbox is filled not just with GPS trackers, sleep pods and motion capture systems but also with people — nutritionists, athletic trainers, strength and conditioning experts, sports psychologists and the actual coaches. The structure of the nation-run sports institutes placed all those specialists under the same roof to try to create a holistic approach to helping athletes physical and mentally.

Less than a year ago, Penn State hired Dave Hamilton — an Englishman who started his career in the sports institutes of Scotland and England — to try to bring that approach to all 31 teams on their campus. Football coach James Franklin, who won a Big Ten title last winter, sees Hamilton as a valuable resource and sounding board to help keep his players as healthy and strong as possible. He said what he appreciates most about Hamilton is that he isn’t selling his services as that fix-all elixir.

“Sports science provides a piece of information,” Franklin said. “As you take those pieces and combine it with the experience you’ve gained over so many years, that’s one more slice of the pie that you can use as a tool. The people that try to sell it like that lose coaches and lose the people that understand and respect the game.”

Hamilton said his biggest focus since taking the job at Penn State last September has been to try to get all of the different groups that can be valuable resources to the athletes on the same page.

“The whole idea is that people currently work in silos and we’re not maximizing their skill sets or the practice that supports a program,” he said. “It takes technology and collaboration, but collaboration is the most important piece.”

For example, let’s say a football team has a habit of giving away leads in the fourth quarter. The strength coach sees a group that is not in good enough shape. The nutritionist sees an inefficient system for replenishing fluids at halftime. The sports psychologist sees a mental block in high-pressure situations. Hammer. Nail.

But perhaps a heart rate-variability monitor shows the boys are in fine shape and more conditioning during the week would actually be hurting their ability to recover to full strength by game day. Instead, the GPS tracker shows that in games in which they blow a late lead, the players are traveling much farther than usual in the second and third quarters. The game film confirms that they are getting caught out of position in those spots and that’s what is making them expend too much energy.

The problem is tactical, not physical, but it would’ve been nearly impossible to identify without some help from technology and someone who knew how to interpret it.

Collaborating, of course, requires that all parties are speaking the same language. That might be the biggest obstacle remaining in the path of the sports science industry’s fully taking hold in college athletic departments.

There are some Americans who are well-versed experts in the holistic model born overseas, but the majority of sports scientists are still trained in countries where football isn’t a game played with an oblong pigskin and the culture of college-based sports doesn’t exist.

When Oregon athletic director Rob Mullens was looking to hire someone to oversee the Ducks’ new and fully tricked-out performance center last spring, his friends in the industry told him he better prepare for an international search. Mullens eventually landed on Scottish-born Andrew Murray, who was working in Qatar at the time. Murray said learning to speak football has been his biggest adjustment to life in the States so far.

“I learned some Arabic to manage when I was working in Qatar. I think I learned that quicker than I learned football,” Murray said. “But now I watch a game and it means something. By no means is it native yet. I’ve probably got pidgin football at the moment. I’m on my way.”

Notre Dame was one of the first colleges to adopt the Institute of Sports philosophy when it hired Duncan French in January 2016. Mike Harrity, who oversees the sports science initiative at Notre Dame, said he was looking first and foremost for someone with a coaching mentality so that he could communicate effectively. French recently left South Bend for a similar position with the UFC, and Harrity is using similar criteria to find a replacement.

American-born experts like Haff, the head of National Strength & Conditioning Association, say that opening lines of communication needs to be a two-way street. Haff moved to Australia several years ago to try to figure out what they were doing to produce so many effective sports scientists. He said the biggest difference he’s discovered is that those who want to be coaches Down Under take classes on sports science to learn the basic vernacular and value of using data to help their athletes.

The structure of sport abroad has a different hierarchy than college sports, in which the head coach has control over every facet of his or her players’ development. Haff said if head coaches don’t buy into the idea that sports science can be helpful, it doesn’t stand a chance to survive.

Coaches who don’t have a scientific background can easily forget that there is no cure-all solution to the problems they face. Each individual athlete comes with his or her own set of variables. Learning styles, sources of stress, injury history and personality types all factor into the best ways to troubleshoot the performance of an individual and the team.

And that leads up back to Fergus Connolly’s office and his lone request upon arriving at Michigan: the massive black recliner stationed opposite his desk. The chair — which Harbaugh sat in while watching film before Connolly managed to snag it — is not for him, but for any player or coach who comes to visit.

The folly in relying on technology alone, he says, is that it makes most people think that problems can be solved in isolation, like you could by switching a line of code on a computer. Human beings are far more complex machines. Only after taking some time to see the broader picture can Connolly and others in the field start to pull from the vast array of tools and knowledge at their disposal to search for an answer.

“The idea was that if they have a comfortable chair to sit in, the athletes that come in to talk will stay for an extra 10 or 20 minutes and maybe I’ll learn a bit more about them,” Connolly said. “That’s the most important tool I’ve got.”

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