Use of unique technology helped soccer program in ‘15
Peter McGahey, head coach of CMU’s soccer team, has a motto he employs from time-to-time, which refers to camaraderie felt across the university. "Chips helping Chips."
With the help of the Herbert H. & Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions, soccer has introduced 30 heart rate monitors and GPS units, which tuck into a specially made sports bra worn by each player during practices and games.
“The Chips in exercise science are helping the Chips in athletics,” McGahey said. “The people who are supporting women’s soccer are actually giving two donations in one; they’re donating to the program, but those donations are going directly to the research at exercise science.”
Tomas Barrett, a Limerick, Ireland-native and volunteer-assistant coach, was a graduate student in the College of Health Professions when McGahey was hired prior to the 2013 season. He was one of the original graduate-students to work with the technology.
“(The monitors) will give us a timeline of the (practice) session. We see what (the players) are doing physically and then what’s happening physiologically with their heart rates,” Barrett said.
Dr. Paul O’Connor, an assistant professor in the Exercises and Health Sciences Division who received his Ph.D. from Dublin City University in Ireland, became involved in purchasing the GPS units from GP Sports, an Australian-based company.
“Our big goal with this is load management. So, actually monitoring the players as individuals rather than just looking at a group setting,” O’Connor said. “The biggest goal from a performance standpoint is to keep (the players) on the pitch.”
The GPS units are rare for a lot of soccer teams at this level in general.
Barrett said they are commonplace among professional soccer clubs such as those in the Barclay’s Premier League, England’s most popular soccer league.
“We’ve been lucky to have Peter (McGahey) who’s been willing to use it,” Barrett said. “We could have it in the health sciences department and it’s just sitting there if we don’t have a coach that’s willing to be open enough to use it.”
O’Connor said each monitor can cost between $800 and $2,000, depending on the manufacturer. He is appreciative for the graduate students assisting him with the project since his involvement with the project began.
While last season’s heart rate system was successful in tracking the health of players, it is not always the best system because an individual’s heart rate is not always an indication of their physical movement during competition.
“(Heart rate monitors) can measure a good amount but it’s not the best measure because of the type of movements that you do in soccer,” Barrett said. “It’s not always going to be highlighted in what the heart rate shows.”
Barrett said the game has many starts and stops involved in it, but heart rates don’t fluctuate, despite the body experiencing physiological stress.
McGahey said injuries involving the process of stopping and planting of a player’s feet, actions which usually cause the body a fair amount of stress, have been greatly reduced since using GPS mechanics.
“In the last two-and-a-half years since we’ve more fully-integrated with (GPS units and heart rate monitors), we’ve limited our non-contact injuries,” he said.
The most serious non-contact injuries are ACL injuries. O’Connor said suffering an ACL injury will, at the very least, put an end to a player’s season.
“An ACL is probably the worst non-contact injury you can have, particularly in women’s sports. It’s very prevalent,” O’Connor said. “That’s a season gone and potentially career-threatening even. Thankfully we’ve avoided any injuries like that.”
In addition to using heart rate and GPS technology, O’Connor and the soccer team have exercised a mobile app named ‘Fit For 90’ to track health at the individual level.
Before practice each morning, players are texted a simple questionnaire regarding their diet, sleep and how they generally feel that day as they head into practice.
“It takes a little bit of time convincing players that this is in their best interest,” O’Connor said. “We’re looking to see how they’re really feeling. If they're not feeling good, we want to know that, for them to be able to take it easy in Tuesday or Wednesday to make sure they're feeling good for the next day.”
Having only lived in the United States for more than a year, O’Connor said time is the main factor in the monitors spreading to other programs.
Barrett has been a driving force behind analyzing and collecting data. He said some difficulties exist in tracking the overall success of the devices.
Finding a correlation between the use of GPS units and the team’s success on the field and in the standings is not as exact of a science as gathering the data.
“It’s hard to judge exactly how much success it’s going to bring you,” he said. “Through our GPS systems, we were able to give some feedback as to the type of exercises that needed to be done.”
Managing the physical toll the game has on the players has been an important aspect of the project this past season for McGahey and his staff.
On weekends during the season, the team will usually play two games within a 48-hour period. Some players, depending on time played, run an average of 16 miles over a typical weekend. Travel also plays a role in the physical well-being of the athletes.
CMU players benefit physically from the collaboration. With 30 units in total, there is enough for everyone on the team. Players admitted the constant use of technology was annoying to bring along with them to every practice at first, but their opinions have since changed.
“I don’t know how they would plan our practices without it anymore,” said senior goalkeeper Maddy Bunnell. “We’re super lucky to be able to have something like (the GPS units).”
As a goalkeeper, Bunnell said she enjoys how the GPS units work to aid the progression of those defending the net. She also thinks the devices will be beneficial in analyzing how hard the goalkeepers hit the ground, when comparing the natural grass playing surface at Bennett Field and the artificial turf surface used at the brand new soccer and lacrosse stadium.
With the ability to track impact with the playing surface, goalkeepers can now set up a strategy for defending the net so they can avoid making saves that cause more stress on the body.
“The cool thing about the goalkeepers is, it doesn’t just track the distance you run, it tracks impact. When we dive it tracks how hard we hit the ground,” she said.
From a player’s standpoint, the GPS units manage who needs to put in more time in practice and who should probably take it easy by not running as much and not going full force in various practice drills. This is helpful when the team plays two games in one weekend.
Cristy Freese currently holds the position of Senior Associate Athletic Director. While McGahey funded the program, Freese ultimately approved the project.
“This is something that (McGahey) has been studying for a long time. This wasn't something he did on a whim,” she said. “This is something I know Peter has been looking into for a long time, at least the amount of time he's been here at CMU.”
Freese, CMU’s all-time winningest coach is happy to see a program like this benefit, not only the players that make up the school’s soccer team, but students and professors on campus as well.
“Any technology to aid our student-athletes, whether it’s in their training, in their education — anything that we can do here at CMU, I think, is great,” Freese said. “The fact that we’ve tied it in across campus is even another big plus for us.”
Soccer is the only varsity sport at CMU to use the technology. As of now, it is not known whether or not other sports will see the need to collaborate with the DHS.
“That’s probably more coach-driven,” she said. “This, in particular is certainly important to Peter (McGahey) and important to soccer at this point. How that translates to other sports, I think, really is dependent on the sport and the coach.”
The Chippewas finished the season with a 6-10-3 record (5-5-1 MAC) in third place in the MAC West division with 16 points. They were eliminated from the MAC Tournament in the quarterfinals round with a 3-2 loss to Buffalo in the quarterfinal round.