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Frank Wintrich, the Director of Football Performance at UCLA, is talking to the Leaders Performance Institute about the program’s proud record of player availability.
“On any given day last season, we averaged 95% availability with our players, both at practice and on game days.”
The topic of the day is muscle fatigue and recovery, and to cover more bases, the Leaders Performance Institute has also enlisted the help of David Deets, the Director of Athletic Performance for Men’s Basketball at the University of Tulsa.
We also discuss Sparta Science, the software company with the largest database of athlete movement that provides an objective full body assessment of strength, flexibility, and proprioception along with a reliable injury risk analysis utilizing core machine learning.
“I bought my first unit seven and a half years ago,” says Deets, who is enjoying his third year with the Tulsa Golden Hurricane.
Both Deets and Wintrich, also in his third year at the Bruins, delve into the impact of force plate technology on athletic performance and why Sparta Science will have a crucial role in ensuring their student-athletes are ready for their big returns to play.
The worst-case scenario
Most schools across the United States saw their competitions shut down in March, with returns to action varying from sport to sport, school to school and even state to state.
Wintrich’s UCLA resumes Pac-12 Conference action on November 7. He feels that the players are currently in a good position, but pulls no punches in describing the pandemic as the ‘worst-case scenario’, with access to players and weight rooms severely limited during the first few months.
Sport’s universal shutdown was particularly galling for Deets’ Tulsa, who were American Athletic Conference regular season champions when the NCAA tournament was canceled in March. “Hopefully we can build on that momentum,” he says ahead of their own return to play in November. He also alludes to the difficulties of shifting to virtual learning. “We’re a private school and so we only have around 3,900 students and we’ve never done online study like a lot of other schools. Everyone had to figure that out last spring and then this fall it’s been a little bit different. Students here have hybrid schedules [a combination of in-person and online classes] and they have to navigate that as well.”
Deets explains that with the new season on the horizon, Sparta Science will be a daily feature of his work with Tulsa’s players. “We use it in a variety of ways,” he says. “We use it for risk of injury analysis, we use it for return to play, we use it for programming and monitoring fatigue.
“In the summer and pre-season, I scan our guys every three weeks with the jump scan and we’ll do the balance scan on our guys as well to establish a baseline. We monitor the balance scan throughout the rehab process when a student-athlete is injured and find it valuable in determining their return to play.”
Sparta Science enables Deets to highlight red flags and make quick pivots in the weight room. “I’m scanning our guys twice a week and if I see something on them, I’ll have them come in a do extra work if I see something pop up for a greater increased chance of injury, I’m going to do a bunch of recovery techniques instead of what we had planned for that day. I can also use their jump and height besides their scan. If someone’s jump height has gone down two inches they may not have a big fatigue score but that still tells me that we’re starting to get fatigued and we’re starting to over-train and so I can use it to help inform those decisions.
“For example, if Load goes down (eccentric rate of force) and Drive goes up (time spent applying force), we know that the individual is reliant on momentum to move instead of muscular or elastic qualities. Jump height is one thing – how they get there is quite another.
“As far as the scan itself goes, using it for like when we come in and work out together and then we have prehab exercises that we do every day; and depending on their scan what pre-exercises we’re going to do. And then, depending on their scan and if they’re a ‘load’, ‘explode’ or ‘drive’ guy and what our core lift is that day, I can change it up.”
Force plate machine learning™ technology is furthering the understanding of athlete conditioning needs. “We know from all the research and scans that if I’m a load guy I need more frontal plain work, if I’m an explode guy I need more core stability work, if I’m a drive guy I need more mobility and posterior chain work.
“Let’s take a traditional front squat, if I had a load guy, he would traditionally front squat with his heels elevated, if it was an explode guy, I might put 25lbs more on the front squat bar and he’d have to really brace and balance that bar as he goes down, or we’d do a suitcase deadlift with him; and if it’s a drive guy, we’re going to do a real foot elevated front squat or goblet squat, depending on what I want to do that day. So I can use that for my programming within the workout as well.”
There is, according to Wintrich, more player by player variation in football than most sports. “It’s really not even dependent on position group because we’ll have some linemen that can go all day, we’ll have other linemen that can’t last very long,” he says.
“I would look at your more fast-twitch guys who seem to fatigue in our practices and our trainings at a faster rate because their aerobic base is not near what some of our other guys are or our guys who are typically are slower-twitch guys are able to last longer and do better in the long practices but obviously that comes at a cost because they’re not as physically gifted when it comes to explosiveness and speed; they might be a little more gifted from a movement standpoint where they’re more flexible, their mobility is much better; but your fast-twitch guys don’t usually do as well in a two-hour practice. Those guys are usually struggling by the end.
“Also, in football,” he continues, “you’re really looking at different sports being played simultaneously. The way an offensive lineman plays the game is really different from the way a defensive lineman plays the game or if you go up a level to a quarterback or a linebacker – it’s not even the same sport. There’s so many things happening on a football field.”
Bigger, faster, stronger
Sparta Science has proven to be an invaluable tool at UCLA. “In real time, we’re able to make good decisions about what we’re going to do with our guys from a training standpoint,” says Wintrich. “Our workouts are completely different from what they’ve been in the past because the players will train based off their deficiencies identified by a machine learning software; we’ve got whole workouts planned for those guys and minimize their deficiencies while limiting risk of injury.” Sparta Science collegiate customers consistently experience a 21% decrease in musculoskeletal injuries and a 48% decrease in orthopedic surgical cases, resulting in a 45% decrease in medical claims. All of which creates an improved student-athlete experience and greater availability to participate in their sport.
Wintrich also credits UCLA’s efforts to educate student-athletes around their conditioning and available modalities. “That’s where ‘there’s no ability like availability’ comes from. ‘Yeah, we want you to be bigger, faster, stronger, we want you to be leaner, but none of that makes a difference on Saturday if you’re standing next to me because you’re hurt and you can’t go in the game.’ What we try to get in our players’ heads is that we’re going to build a system where they’re going to get bigger, faster, stronger but, at the same time, we’re going to keep them stay healthy; and that’s what we’ve been using to drive what we’re doing down here: player health and player availability.”
“A lot of time they haven’t even lifted,” says Deets of the recruits at Tulsa. “You’d be surprised how many haven’t even worked out, period, but when we talk about recruiting and we speak with a parent, family member or guardian. We tell them: ‘this is how we’re using this technology, we’re individualizing everything for your son.’ I always tell them it’s not about just today: when you leave here your goal is to to play professionally; we’re not going to bring you in here and tear you down. We’re using this technology to help us so that you’re the best you can be on game day; and, when you leave here, your body is prepared for the next level of competition.
“We’re not bringing you here for four years, working the dog out of you, and kick you out the door four years later. I want you to have a successful year; micro trauma happens over time, we’re trying to decrease physical stress so that you can play, whether that be the NBA or overseas; to allow you to have a career once you leave here and to stay healthy.
“You’ll know what you need to work on because you’ve got the scans; you know you need more mobility work or you need more single leg work. ‘If I go to an organization that doesn’t have Sparta Science, I know that if they just have a general program, I know that I need to be doing single leg back squats because I know it’s going to help my scan and I know it’s going to help me stay healthier.’”
There is also the appeal of personalization. “I think it really helps with kids trusting you whenever you’re individualizing your programs for them and the forces they put through the ground. You’re not just going a program where everyone’s doing the same thing.”
As for coaches, Wintrich says: “It’s telling them ‘we’ve seen a change in the force plate data that coincides with changes we’re seeing with the GPS and we’re concerned’. Then we start to have that conversation. ‘OK, we might have to make some adjustments to the training load here because it’s definitely not where we want it to be.’”
Deets explains that he is a resource for his athletes and coaches alike. “I never take credit for their work – I’m simply the navigator,” he says. “They all have to put in the work in the time. Sparta Science is my GPS and I’m the pilot for our guys. They’re the ones that have to buy into the sleeping, the eating, the hydrating; they have to buy into how they’re taking care of their bodies away from here.” In a way GPS is the external load monitor, while Sparta Science puts a lens on how the student-athletes are actually responding to that load.
According to Wintrich, the same also goes for performance practitioners. “That’s what we’ve lost in the field: a clear understanding of why we’ve got a lot of these gadgets and technology,” he says. “Why do you want that tech and how does it fit into the overall big picture of what you’re doing with your athletes and how they’re training and developing? I think a lot of times we get caught up in doing things the way we’ve always done them or doing things because they’re novel, not necessarily doing things because we understand them and they have purpose.
“My advice is to be really well educated and understand why you’re doing what you’re doing so that you can maximize your time and the student-athletes’ time. If you’re collecting data because you just want to collect data, that’s wrong because you’re wasting their time and energy. If you’re using it in a way that’s going to help keep them healthy and safe and perform their best, then I’d say you’re doing it with the right intentions.”
As Wintrich says, the best ability is availability.
Download the latest Performance Special Report, The New Now: Navigating High Performance During an Ongoing Pandemic – featuring a selection of insights collected from practitioners around the globe as we all continue through these unprecedented times.