While standing on the sidelines of the Arizona Cardinals NFL Practice, it hit me.
For twenty-five years I’ve practiced the art of sports science, and seven of those years were with Major League Baseball organizations where I was a strength and conditioning coach for various teams. I became frustrated that scientific decisions, such as requiring pitchers to run distance for conditioning, were falling on deaf ears. The sport of baseball requires more than just the simple conditioning model that many trainers blindly follow.
I was finally given the voice I had been looking for when I transitioned to Senior Applied Sports Scientist at Catapult Sports in 2013. Catapult’s technology – wearable Inertial Movement Sensors – could shatter the subjective argument around athlete performance and lead trainers and players to making smarter decisions with movement data.
When spearheading the US development for Catapult Science, I had the opportunity to work with 17 NBA teams, 8 MLS teams, 2 NHL teams, 40 NCAA teams and 21 NFL teams. Catapult data enabled the beginning of understanding athlete stress.
While on the sidelines with the Arizona Cardinals, a thought hit me. For athlete evolution to happen, external load measurements alone do not solve the whole problem. These measurements provide only a part of the picture. Athlete evolution isn’t only about the ability to manage an athlete’s physical load, it’s also about viewing and managing an athlete’s internal “Stress Response.” How is the athlete responding to this designed stress?
Take this real-life example: two wide receivers on the first day of an intense preseason camp in which 92 scripted plays were run. Both players achieved almost identical “player load” scores. At the completion of practice, one player was ready to get after it in the weight room and the other was curled up in the fetal position in front of his locker, fully fatigued.
The question from the Strength and Conditioning staff was simple: How do I enact this Player Load Score now? What do I do next with my athlete to get adaptation for the NFL Season? I then explained that it’s all about “Stress Response” – not the measurement of a “practice load.” As a coach, how do you know who is ready for work and who is in need of rest?
Sports scientists are always searching for the answers to athlete evolution. For Stress Response, I knew HRV was a sound scientific platform whereby I could understand neurological fatigue, but never had I possessed the right tools to attain this data. By managing fatigue, sports scientists and coaches of varying titles can act as “stress regulators” to dramatically enhance athlete adaptation and reduce the risk of injury.
Data supports the fact that healthy teams win championships, which brought me to my new favorite clubhouse slogan: ‘The best ability is availability.’
We live on the cusp of a massive revolution in elite sports. Data is driving tactical team decisions. We see this daily in MLB defensive player shifts, different cornerback-wide receiver matchups, and multiple adjustments on the NBA court. We see data permeate the fabric of every decision in the NFL, and now we’re seeing data creep into the athlete development and medical departments of US elite teams.
Data is redesigning the emotional context of sport. The coach is now fueled by massive sets of data in an attempt to predict the next play, the next series, and the next week. We’re now in a world where intelligence is replacing emotional decisions, and this intelligence empowers the evolution of athlete performance.
The biggest area sports scientists are attempting to understand is athlete recovery. This is where WHOOP data is essential to the elite athlete. With Sleep-Lab accuracy, WHOOP is just starting to uncover the correlations between sleep and performance, recovery and injury prevention, and even recovery and athlete adaptation. WHOOP technology is the gateway to athlete diagnostic data that has never been seen before. However, WHOOP technology and data is not the hero in athlete evolution.
The coach who accurately prescribes practice, conditioning, recovery, and rest based on this data, will be the architect of athlete evolution.