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Turner Walston | North Carolina athletics | August 13, 2014

'Smart, Fast and Physical' gets smarter

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- High above Navy Fields, assistant strength and conditioning coach Simon Haake sits behind a laptop, overlooking practice. As he watches, a live stream of data feeds to his screen. On the field, 10 Tar Heel football players wear Catapult GPS units during practice that allow coaches to monitor various aspects of performance like distance, velocity, acceleration and work rate.

With head strength coach Lou Hernandez right behind him, Haake watches the data roll in, occasionally looking down at the field or consulting a practice plan to cross-reference the numbers he’s getting with what the players are actually doing. Eventually, the data gathered by the Catapult units could help formulate new, more efficient practice plans.

Though the Catapult system is relatively new to Tar Heel football, it’s no stranger to the Chapel Hill campus. Anson Dorrance’s women’s soccer program has used the system as well. Olympic sports strength coach Greg Gatz brought it up to Hernandez. “We were hesitant in the beginning, because we thought we just want things related to football,” Hernandez says, laughing. “We eventually started to do more research, and we started finding out, ‘Oh, wait a minute, this seems to be the cutting edge in technology when it comes to monitoring your athletes’ work output.’”

While it’s great to have the numbers in hand, it’s up to the coaching staff to be able to interpret the data and change the way the team practices for maximum efficiency. If a player is not maintaining performance levels throughout the week, components of practice perhaps need to be altered. After all, the idea is to peak on game day. And while the program is still very much in an experimental phase, the Tar Heel coaching staff is seeing its potential. “I definitely can see the value in it, to be able to know what kind of loads you’re putting on your team on a daily basis, how much recovery they need,” Fedora says. “We know what our numbers are, but what do those numbers really mean? How does it translate? So as we gather that data and we start figuring out being able to track guys and watch when they’re getting their maximum velocity and all these different things, and how much of that is happening in practice, then we can alter our practices accordingly so that we peak on Saturday and not on Thursday or not on Tuesday. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

For now, there is a lot more monitoring than intervening. 10 Tar Heel players, a good representation across different positions, are the ‘guinea pigs.’ They wear a small compression shirt (“I don’t feel it at all. It’s pretty light and it’s kind of like a sports bra,” Romar Morris says) with a back pocket that houses a small GPS unit between the shoulder blades. Haake has historical data from training camp and summer conditioning that he can refer to while watching the information come in. “We’re still watching how practices are run and what the numbers mean in terms of what’s happening on the field,” Haake says. “Because this is our first real full year working with this technology, we’re trying to see what we see as coaches on the field, and match it with what the numbers are showing on the chart. It’s still keeping our coaches’ eye on the field, but now applying the science and the numbers to that.”

Hernandez is adamant that the Catapult system won’t do the coaching itself; this is about gathering information and putting it into practice effectively. “You can’t ever forget you have the ability to be a coach when it comes to how you monitor your guys, how you progress your guys how you give your guys breaks or intervals, what your goal is for the day...,” he says. “This just helps us monitor how effective or ineffective we might have been on that day. So was it a particular amount of yardage? Was it a particular amount of work effort, or intensity, or explosions or speed...things such as that is what they are at the beginning of starting to get used to understanding the readouts on this system.”

Injury prevention and recovery can also be enhanced with the use of the Catapult GPS system. If a player is not going full speed, or if he’s not cutting or starting and stopping as effectively as normal, the computer may know it before the player does. “They’ll show you if you're cutting to one side harder than the other, or if your’e favoring one side,” Morris says. “When I had my knee injury, they were showing my progression to see if I was cutting on each knee the same.”

From his perch above practice, Haake can see if a player is reaching or exceeding a limit coming back from an injury. It’s one thing for a player to say that his knee is at ’80 percent.’ It’s quite another to be able to nail that down to a science, literally. “Then you can have a conversation with a that athlete, to be like, ‘OK we need to adjust what you’re doing to get back to where you were before your injury or to avoid an injury in the first place’ if they’re overusing one direction.”

Some of the athletes have been surprised at the numbers they have recorded. Romar Morris hit 23 miles per hour on the last of 20 100-yard sprints this summer. Landon Turner said it was neat to see that he gets basically four minutes of rest for every minute of work. “That’s pretty consistent with how football is as a game,” Turner says. “It’s short bursts, and then burst and relax, burst and relax. We’re a little different and it’s tougher in practice because it’s not a game in a game situation. I doubt that would be the ratio because we’re just moving constantly [in a game] but that’s been pretty cool.”

Tar Heel offensive line coach Chris Kapilovic says he’s starting to use the GPS information in practice. Turner, for example, ran between 17 and 20 miles per hour in bursts over the summer. In the first week of training camp, he was peaking at 11 and 12. Much of that, Kapilovic says, is just the nature of practice. “So, we talk about, ‘Hey, this drill or this set, let’s try to get to your max speed a couple times,' ” he says.

Kapilovic wants his charges to be well-conditioned for running the no-huddle offense, so on days that extra conditioning is not scheduled, he makes sure they get their running in. “This technology really helps to tell us when we need to pull back on somebody or a group and when we need to give a little more,” he says. “That’s big.”

Though this technology is in its infancy, and new to Carolina football, Fedora will look for any advantage to help his team play more efficiently and practice more effectively. ‘Smart, Fast and Physical’ has been the mantra of the Larry Fedora era of Carolina football. This season, it’s getting a lot smarter.