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Decision makers are faced with fundamental questions about investing in sports science such as: What types of data will help us the most? Is the cost worth the potential rewards? Will our staff be able to properly implement and utilise the technology?
Niagara University in Niagara Falls, NY, began looking into how gathering information about their athletes could help them compete as a small university in a major conference. With only around 4,200 students, the Western New York school has appeared in NCAA tournaments 14 times in seven different sports since 2000, with four coming from hockey.
Hockey Coach Dave Burkholder has led his club to all of its NCAA appearances and was named 2013 Atlantic Hockey Association Coach of the Year. In 2014, the veteran coach sought to reduce the number of injuries on his team and went in search of answers from newly-hired strength and conditioning coach Matthew Wietlispach.
“In my interview (Burkholder) said, ‘we are the most injured team in the country,’” Wietlispach said.
A former CoachMePlus employee, Wietlispach formulated a plan for Niagara’s hockey team without breaking the bank. He approached several other coaches including baseball, volleyball, softball and lacrosse, about combining forces to pay for CoachMePlus’s system out of pocket in order to improve the health of all of their teams.
Hockey is one of the university’s most successful and well-supported sports. Not every sport at every school is given the benefit of large coaching staffs, individual strength and conditioning coaches and the latest technology. CoachMePlus says this is one of the benefits of its system: It saves head coaches significant time and allows strength and conditioning coaches to offer assistance without having to meet with each team and coach every day.
Each of the squads began using questionnaires and doing daily weigh-ins and grip-strength testing. Wietlispach and Burkholder have a daily meeting to go over the team’s data. They make decisions together on practice schedules and which players may need rest.
“When we first started, I gave him examples of people not playing well because they were fatigued,” Wietlispach said. “We were playing well on Friday and Saturday, but not well on Sunday. Coach’s philosophy had been that he would skate the team harder. I gave him examples with numbers and he bought in right away.”
Wietlispach said having athletes fill out questionnaires, which they can do on a tablet or their cell phone, has helped players become more aware of things like their sleep patterns and soreness. The questionnaires often consist of Fatigue/Energy, Sleep Quality, Sleep Duration, Genera Muscle Soreness and Stress/Mood Level.
Whether a team is investing in technology on a budget or has endless dollars to spend, they can benefit from educating players on the value of sports performance data.
“If they enter them wrong, then Dave (Burkholder) won’t have the right information and he is going to end up making practices harder on them,” Wietlispach said. “Plus if we do it right, we won’t have as many injuries. I explain the purpose, what we’re looking for, that it is here to help them not to criticise their grip strength or things like that. It’s to help them maintain weight, it’s to help them hydrate, to help them improve performance.”
Not every team at Niagara University is using the same measurements as the hockey team. Baseball and softball wanted their focus to be more on lifting schedules and performance, so they use the CoachMePlus app to track summer and winter lifting. Wietlispach is also using the system to track elbow and shoulder fatigue of pitchers. The volleyball team studies their vertical jumps on a daily basis along with hydration because they had struggled with players becoming dehydrated.
While the teams’ data tracking has helped them make decisions about their players’ health, it offers a set of challenges for Wietlispach, who is a one-man band. Using the CoachMePlus system, however, allows him to view all the data in one place.
“I don’t have the time to type numbers into an Excel sheet,” he said. “If we were trying to track questionnaire or grip strength using that or paper, there’s no possible way I’d be able to do it. I work from 6am to 6pm, then have some sort of planning to do at home so I wouldn’t have time to plug the numbers into Excel and be able to tell the coaches what I see. Instead the teams can do it themselves.”
“I work from 6am to 6pm, then have some sort of planning to do at home so I wouldn’t have time to plug the numbers into Excel and be able to tell the coaches what I see. Instead the teams can do it themselves.”
One of the goals of an NCAA strength and conditioning coach is to help young athletes improve over the 3-5 years they are in attendance. Niagara tracks progress of players from the time they debut as a freshman until they finish their college careers. They study everything from how much a player can lift to their 60-yard dash time. Most of the teams test three times per year.
“Niagara is a great example of a university maximizing the resources they have,” Co-Founder of CoachMePlus Kevin Dawidowicz said. “They have made so much progress in a short time, going from using mostly guess work to being able to pinpoint key factors in their athlete performance – things that could ultimately be the difference between a player getting hurt or avoiding an injury or between winning and losing.”