The Catapult Optimeye S5 unit that is used by Florida State University.

Pulling Back the Curtain on FSU's GPS System

If you haven’t already had a chance to check out my GPS Feature over on FanSided.com, take a look here.

I’d actually been working on that story since back in Spring, and I asked repeatedly for an interview or a quote or even some information from Florida State’s Sports Information Directors (SID’s) throughout the Seminoles’ Spring practice schedule. I got stonewalled. So you could imagine my reaction when David Hale ran his GPS piece on Monday. Nevertheless, this is a fairly broad topic and I think I managed to do a good job of covering new ground from what appeared over on ESPN.

Truth be told, this isn’t really new technology in the sense that it’s already being used for soccer, rugby and olympic sports in Europe and Australia. It is new to football though and that’s why Erik Korem is such an integral figure. Korem brought the GPS system to Florida State and convinced Jimbo Fisher to give it a shot. Before that, American football had largely ignored the concept.

Here are some of the finer Florida State-related points from my GPS article (again, you can find it in full right here):

Here’s what Korem, who got Fisher turned on to this technology in 2010 had to say about it:

“At first, he was a little skeptical — I think everyone was. They were like ‘what are we doing?’ You know, ‘these guys don’t know what they’re talking about.’” said Korem. “To Jimbo Fisher’s credit, he was willing to step out on a ledge and give it a shot. And I owe him a lot.”

Gary McCoy, an Australian sports scientist for Catapult had this to say about Fisher:

“[Jimbo Fisher] was one of the early ones to embrace it. Here’s what Florida State did well, one they hired a really smart guy, two, they let him do his job,” said McCoy. “Erik was able to get in, look at the data and not change the culture — because Jimbo has a certain way he does things — the data is not meant to change a culture. It’s meant to empower it.”

One of the points that really can’t be left out of any discussion about GPS training and its benefits is athletic symmetry — meaning, how balanced an athlete’s motion is. There’s a lot of discussion about the fact this system can predict injuries and help players recover from injuries better, but how does it do that? Largely in part by looking at asymmetry in an athlete. How is the weight displacement when he runs? Does he bear more weight on one leg than the other? Is the impact the same on both sides?

Exercise is cumulative, meaning asymmetry builds up over time and can eventually result in injury and degradation. The story cites, as an example, an NFL center whose cumulative asymmetry had caused him to deteriorate and he could no longer move well to his left. Once the team was able to identify that, it gave clarity to a lot of their concerns. At FSU, it’s no different. Fisher’s staff is not just measuring how much their athletes run, they’re measuring how they run — making sure the players form good habits and monitoring the toll each practice and game is taking on not just their overall fitness, but also on their symmetry.

Per McCoy:

“Understanding asymmetry is the very first step in offsetting athletic soft tissue injuries. And a team like Florida State who measure both asymmetry and overall load week in and week out for their athletes are doing it better than anybody. And it’s just over time if you’re smart enough to really use the data — not so much to change their culture — but you use it as a tool to change their process.”

At the time I spoke with McCoy back in March, he said FSU was “using Charlie, our S-4 Monitoring system.” But that they intended to upgrade (and by now, they likely have) to the Catapult S5 system before the coming season.

One of the more well-discussed points from Hale’s piece on Monday was that a rocket scientist was running the program now at Florida State. Truth be told, even with all the improvements to Catapult and GPSports’ systems, you still need a very bright individual to know how to use all the information. These are screen shots from Catapult’s competitor GPSports’ analytics program, just to give you an idea of what the data comes back looking like:

A sample GPSports' Session Report.

A sample GPSports Session Report.

A sample GPSports Longitudinal Outlook.

A sample GPSports Longitudinal Outlook.

A sample GPSports accumulated training load report.

A sample GPSports Accumulated Training Load Report.

This wouldn’t make much sense to you or I (unless we’d been taught to read it) beyond just being bars and random figures, but to some of the folks on the cutting edge of sports science, it’s information brimming with possibilities. People like Erik Korem, Chris Jacobs and Troy Flanagan from the US ski and snowboard association are some of the best minds in sports, but 20 or 30 years ago they probably would have sounded like crazy men in tin-foil hats.

Today they’re reimagining the way we do things in American sports. Take for instance Korem, talking about gaining an understanding of what it is a player is even expected to do in terms of physical exertion on a football field:

“That sounds really simple because you watch the game and you see what they’re doing, but what does a receiver actually do?” asks Korem. “For instance, at UK in the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, it’s drastically different than what a receiver does in more of a pro-style offense, more like what Jimbo Fisher runs — because I have the data on both, it’s just a totally different feel. But even broader than that, what we thought American football players did for a long period of time as far as like just movement dynamics, and the energy systems involved, the training in practices never really matched those true demands. So, the tracking systems give us an idea.”

For the longest time football coaches just did things because that’s the way they personally thought it was the best. And challenging that line of thinking has not been easy. But as we’ve seen more of a push towards safety; and as science has brought us a better understanding of the human body and how people can better train — it’s caused us to shine more of a light on what was once considered standard football procedure and ask, ‘why?’

The resulting information is changing the game. The Seattle Seahawks used GPSports’ system last year. It probably helped. FSU has been using Catapult’s system for four years. Having been there for the last three years covering the team personally, I can definitely say — it’s helped.

Mike Bianchi wrote something similar in the Orlando Sentinel earlier this week, but for a fast-talking, son of a coal miner from West Virginia — Jimbo Fisher is pretty progressive.

But it also takes someone to bring him the ideas and push for more advancement too, that guy was Erik Korem. And as much as he did for Florida State, when he left for Kentucky before last season it was a big loss. Kentucky has taken FSU’s initiative a step further. They have the first true High Performance Training model in American sports, complete with buy-in from the university exercise science department and massive resources to boot. Kentucky may have gone 2-10 last year but they pulled in a top 20 recruiting class and they’re investing as much (if not more) in player development as anyone in the SEC.

It will be interesting to watch over the next few years to see if being on cutting edge helps the Wildcats raise their national profile. For their part, the NFL is already interested, Korem spent his off-season touring NFL facilities as a consultant. It seems more and more teams are looking to the skies for help training.

Meanwhile, FSU is way ahead of the game.

 

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