Thursday, April 26, 2018

HARNESSING HEALTH

Florida State was a juggernaut last season, manhandling outmatched foes week in, week out en route to one of the most dominant seasons in the history of college football. The Seminoles went undefeated and won a national championship with relative ease, playing in just one contest that was decided by single digits.

At the core of their success, literally, is a harness that weighs all of an ounce and sits snugly beneath FSU players' shoulder pads during practice.

In it is a GPS tracking device, and it has been the primary ingredient to FSU's recent run of injury-free seasons.

FSU started using the device on players several years ago to measure an athlete's performance, manage fatigue and monitor health. The results have been extraordinary, according to FSU coach Jimbo Fisher. He credits the technology for vastly cutting down on injuries, stating that preventable soft-tissue injuries such as strained ligaments and pulled muscles are down by 88 percent the past two years.

"I live by that thing," Fisher said. "There are going to be major surgeries sometimes because you're going to get a knee or an ankle that's broke, or a leg. You can't help that. But a lot of the wear and tear on the body, we're able to take a lot of the guess work out of now."

Often overlooked in the narrative of the 2013 season is just how vulnerable the Seminoles actually were.

The supporting cast around quarterback and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston was impeccably talented, with future NFL players all over the field. But depth was an issue, especially with the wide receivers and across the offensive line.

In that sense, FSU was susceptible. The Seminoles, however, were not fragile.

FSU was fortunate to go through the season largely unscathed, with its key players and positions avoiding serious injuries. Some of that is luck, but use of the Catapult technology should not be overlooked.

The GPS trackers were developed by an Australian company called Catapult Sports in the 1990s. The device is placed around players and measures a thousand movements, which are broken down into applicable figures based on position and sent to a monitor on the sideline in real time.

Fisher receives metric reports on players daily. The way a player moves, how fast he runs, how quickly he decelerates; these figures are analyzed so that Fisher and his staff can determine if a practice is too rigorous.

Last season, FSU had just one starter suffer a season-ending injury.

"We have the best gene pool of athletes in the world in America. When a guy gets hurt or something, we throw them out and get another one," Fisher said. "There are countries out there that compete in all these ... Olympic sports. They don't have that gene pool. How are they doing that?

"They're training. They're getting the most out of their athletes."

Fisher first heard of the technology several years ago. Former FSU speed and nutrition specialist Erik Korem and former strength and conditioning coach Joe Danos went on a mission to explore different types of methods to improve player health.

Soccer teams in Europe and Austrian-rules football teams were using Catapult for years, but the technology had not really made its way to America. After getting rave reviews about Catapult from Danos and Korem, Fisher decided to change that.

"There was no one in America that wanted to do it," Fisher said. "We didn't want to be the ones afterwards, we wanted to be the ones that tried it out."

FSU purchased 30 GPS units from Catapult in 2012 for $80,000 over three years. FSU, UCF and USF are among about a dozen college football teams that use Catapult, which also has 15 clients in the NFL.

FSU is not just successfully using the technology; it's mastering it.

"In a four-year term, they've put together one of the best prescription models of impact data across all sports," said catapult sports scientist Gary McCoy. "I'll walk into NFL clubs and they'll ask who's doing it better than anybody. I say 'Florida State University.' "

McCoy is careful not to reveal FSU's "secret sauce" because each team uses the technology differently.

FSU, according to a spokesperson, is considering increasing its number of trackers to 85 so that every scholarship player will be monitored.

As the Seminoles set out to repeat as national champions in 2014, Fisher is hopeful that the commitment to the GPS system continues to play a large role in keeping his players healthy.

That and a little bit of luck.

"I think it has been very critical to our development since it keeps guys on the field," Fisher said. "Like I say, keep knocking on wood."

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