The data doesn’t lie—Greater Atlanta Christian School is showing that integrating sports science at the high school level is not only possible, but ideal.
This article first appeared in the September 2016 issue of Training & Conditioning.
By Gary Schofield Jr.
Gary Schofield Jr., LAT, ATC, CSCS*D, RSCC*D, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Ga., and serves as the NSCA’s Southeast Regional Coordinator and Vice Chair of the High School Special Interest Group. He was named the NSCA’s National High School Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Year in 2012, and his program at GACS has won the Strength of America Award for seven consecutive years, which is presented by the NSCA in conjunction with the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition. Schofield can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Like most strength and conditioning coaches do, I used to spend hours stressing the importance of sleep, hydration, and nutrition to my athletes at Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Ga. I hung hydration charts in the restrooms, talked nutrition with parents, and produced informative fliers about sleep. Nothing seemed to move the needle—some athletes listened, but most did not.
Then one day I read a quote from management consultant, educator, and author Peter Drucker that stated: “What gets measured gets managed.” It hit me like a ton of bricks. If I wanted to manage certain wellness variables with my athletes, I needed to measure them.
That revelation was roughly two years ago. Since then, we’ve been monitoring sleep, hydration, nutrition, stress, and readiness, and it’s been a difference maker for our Spartans Strength Program. We’ve seen increased performance, decreased injuries, and athletes who are more engaged in their training than ever before.
Of course, there are some challenges to incorporating sports science at the high school level, but they can be overcome with flexibility and resourcefulness. If you remain open to the unique benefits technology can bring to your program, advanced metrics can be a difference maker for you, too.
Before you incorporate sports science in your program, make sure it aligns with your overall philosophy. At GACS, it fits with our mission to engage, educate, and empower athletes to develop skills that will improve sport performance and develop a lifetime pursuit of wellness.
As strength coaches, our charge is to connect with athletes in a way that creates engagement. Yet, we’re going up against today’s high-tech world in which entertainment and information are at athletes’ fingertips. As their access to information has increased, their attention span, focus, and perseverance have decreased.
Metrics allow us to draw athletes back in by actively involving them in the training process. Plus, since smartphones, tablets, and computers are already ingrained in their daily lives, they are excited to add a technological element to their strength and conditioning work.
Once we’ve engaged athletes, we can educate them. Education is not just providing information—it’s also demonstrating what to do with that information. Athletes once did whatever they were told, but today’s generation wants to know the reasoning behind exercises and drills. This shift in thought and behavior is not negative. Rather, it’s an understandable adaptation to the technological world in which athletes now live.
In response, strength coaches must make programs “sport-relative.” I am careful to explain the rationale behind my coaching choices, and this carries over to our use of metrics. For example, I’ll say to an athlete: “You are a high-performance racecar. You need the right fuel at the right time to win the race. That’s why we talk so much about hydration, nutrition, and rest. We want you to win the race, not just lead a lap!”
If approached correctly, engaged and educated athletes will be empowered to perform. We do this by making them part of the process. Workouts are modified to meet each athlete—the athlete is not forced to fit into a workout. An engaged, educated, and empowered athlete is what we refer to as a “monstah.”
So exactly how do we incorporate advanced metrics to create these monstahs? When starting off two years ago, we decided the best area to target was recovery. Too many programs focus solely on the allocation of load and intensity during training without considering how recovery and regeneration are managed. In order to achieve engagement from athletes, recovery needs to be integrated into your program just as much as training.
Before we dive into our metrics program, I want to caution coaches to approach any new sports science endeavor by thinking about “depth before width.” It’s easy to get caught up in a new training method or technological device, but it is vital to explore any program addition fully before going ahead with it. This keeps the new element from becoming overwhelming or unmanageable.
With this concept firmly in mind, we chose hydration as our initial monitoring metric. Our athletes all have access to water on a daily basis, so it was an easy variable to track. Plus, hydration status has been linked directly to performance, injury risk, and even concussion recovery. In looking at all the variables, it had the potential to make the biggest positive impact while adding the least amount of negative stress to our athletes or coaching staff.
Our first step was establishing a daily hydration goal for each athlete based on consuming 0.5 ounces of water for every pound of bodyweight. In-season athletes, those training two or more hours a day, or heavy sweaters added 18 to 24 ounces to that goal.
Then, by dividing their total ounces by 16, we told athletes how many water bottles to drink each day. (Sixteen ounces is the volume of a standard water bottle.) We had athletes record their daily water bottle consumption on a chart and kept track of how many bottles they fell short of their established goal (if any).
During the first month, we found out just how under-hydrated our athletes were—the average daily water consumption was only 3.25 bottles (52 ounces)! However, by the third month, that number had skyrocketed to 7.75 bottles (124 ounces), which met or exceeded most athletes’ hydration goals. Not only that, but parents and coaches confirmed athletes were drinking water more often, and they started feeling better. What was it that engaged them in this process? We measured their water intake and, therefore, it mattered to them.
Since this first attempt at monitoring was successful, we added a little more depth to our system with a wellness questionnaire. Borrowing from one shared at the 2015 NSCA Coaches Conference by Brandon Marcello, PhD, CSCS, PES, CES, former Stanford University Director of Sports Performance, we decided to focus on three areas of recovery and regeneration that athletes could control: hydration, sleep, and nutrition. We picked these metrics to increase athletes’ engagement in the process and empower them to make needed changes to their lifestyle.
For hydration, we continued to monitor how many bottles of water athletes drank a day. With sleep, they recorded how many hours of sleep they had each night and rated its quality (poor, normal, good).
To target nutrition, we started measuring how many meals each athlete consumed daily. The goal was five, and a meal was defined as consumption of greater than 500 calories in one sitting—anything less was considered a snack. We also charted whether athletes skipped breakfast, had a small breakfast (shake or bar), or had a “full” breakfast, which meant it had to total at least 500 calories and consist of 55 percent carbohydrate, 25 percent protein, and 20 percent fats. Finally, we had them check off if they drank a recovery shake following their daily training session.
Athletes initially completed the questionnaire when they arrived for their daily strength and conditioning session. After a few months, however, we found it was easier to utilize an online form on Google Docs that the athletes could fill out during homeroom or at home.
The information gathered from the questionnaire generated good points of conversation. We were able to observe trends and adjust our approach with athletes based on any issues we identified. Yet, one issue with the questionnaire was that it only showed us athletes’ behaviors in hindsight—we couldn’t use the data in real time to determine their “readiness” or modify training sessions accordingly.
To solve this problem, we partnered with Kinduct Technologies to design a website-based software platform where we could collect, organize, share, and analyze data in one centralized location. Accessible from a laptop, tablet, or smartphone, Kinduct’s system allows us to better understand our data, make more informed decisions, and take decisive action.
Every morning, either on their way to school or during homeroom, our athletes log on to Kinduct with their smartphone or school computer and answer a simple questionnaire that collects data on quantity of sleep, quality of sleep, bottles of water drank, number of meals eaten, whether breakfast was eaten, academic stress, personal stress, training difficulty, sport difficulty, recovery breathing, whether a recovery shake was consumed, and resting heart rate. This process takes less than two minutes to complete.
We decided to add questions on stress and readiness metrics when we transitioned to the Kinduct platform because we finally had a system that made data management as easy as data collection. Kinduct opened the door for measuring metrics that were outside the athletes’ control (like how hard a practice was).
Once athletes are done with the questionnaire, their responses are uploaded to Kinduct immediately. The system uses their feedback and any predetermined training goals to produce an overall readiness score from zero to 100.
What do we do with this information? Use it to make more informed training decisions. Based on an athlete’s score, the time of year, how the coaching staff views their effort and execution in practices and games, and how they are responding to training, we determine what modifications need to be made daily. For instance, a low score may result in exercise regression or switching the athlete to a recovery-based workout.
In our second year of using sports science at GACS, we have added width by expanding our scope in some areas and branching out into new ones. Here’s a look at the progress we’ve made in year two:
Sleep: Not only have we continued to monitor both the quantity and quality of athletes’ sleep, but we’ve also created a sleep process for them to follow. It consists of creating a sleep ritual, making their bedroom cold and dark, using white noise, turning off their cell phone, sticking to a schedule, and meditating before bed for 10 to 15 minutes.
We advocate for naps, too. Athletes are advised to drink a small amount of caffeine when they get home from school and then sleep for 20 to 30 minutes. The caffeine will take effect when they wake up and keep them from feeling groggy.
Nutrition: We have expanded our tracking by having our more advanced athletes record their total calories consumed daily. They then compare this number to their overall calorie and protein calorie consumption goals in the MyFitnessPal app. In addition, all of our athletes participate in a nutrition education program driven by the NutraCarina platform, which was created by Mike Bewley, MA, CSCS, SSN, USAW-I, Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning at Georgia Tech.
Stress (academic): According to research done by Bryan Mann, PhD, CSCS, Assistant Director of Strength and Conditioning at the University of Missouri, high academic stress weeks like midterms and finals have nearly twice the injury risk as low academic stress weeks. We monitor all stress levels closely during these high-risk periods using the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) scale. Athletes rank their level of stress from one to five, with five being the highest. When athletes are under a lot of stress, we’ll reduce volume in the weightroom and decrease our use of technical exercises, if possible.
Stress (personal): Home life, family, parents, friends, teachers, classes, and many other outside influences can derail an athlete’s training cycle by increasing positive or negative stress loads. Therefore, we attempt to collect data on personal stress through a modified RPE scale. We don’t ask specific questions about what’s causing increased personal stress. Rather, we use the RPE results as an opportunity to connect with the athlete and see what we can do to provide relief.
Readiness: New to the overall scoring system is the concept of readiness built around resting heart rate. Utilizing the Polar Team 2 System, we have begun collecting athletes’ resting heart rates, max heart rates, and time spent in different heart rate zones during training. For recovery and regeneration, we have also been recording athletes’ resting heart rates upon waking, as well as their one-minute heart rate recovery following a maximal bout of training. This information gives us a general idea of how well their nervous system has recovered from the previous day’s and week’s stress.
Two other new elements to our work with readiness are heart rate variability (HRV) and reactive strength index. Our goal is to see whether monitoring these two traits is applicable to training.
HRV is the change in the rhythm of the heart as the result of training. Generally speaking, more variability between a heartbeat is indicative of a cardiovascular system that is ready to perform, while less variability indicates a greater degree of fatigue and potential incomplete recovery. We’ve been experimenting with Firstbeat and Bioforce HRV to track this metric.
To determine a reactive strength index, we have athletes drop from a height onto a contact mat or force platform and perform a max-effort vertical jump. The result is an indicator of how well they have recovered from previous explosive training.
Strength response: We utilize TeamBuildr strength and conditioning software to manage our daily workloads. Each athlete’s training volume is monitored daily, and workout completion, total training load, and overall volume are charted to note any low levels of performance.
Although we’ve had a great deal of success incorporating technology and advanced metrics at GACS, it must be clearly stated that data analysis alone does not determine our programming. Science without art is not coaching. There are many factors that go into making modifications to a training program, and we use all available tools to maximize athlete development.
Despite our good fortune using advanced metrics at GACS, the use of technology can pose many challenges to the high school strength and conditioning coach. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is the cost of software, products, and equipment. While expense can be a limiting factor, we can’t stick our heads in the sand due to the cost of technology. If we do, we’ll already be behind the learning curve when the price drops in a few years.
You’d be amazed at what you can do for little to no cost. Look at the chart we used to track how many bottles of water our players drank each day. All we needed to make it was a piece of poster board and a marker. Plus, the MyFitnessPal app and many like it are free to download and use immediately.
Another challenge with implementing sports science at the high school level is the “technological gap” between many coaches and today’s athletes. It would be easy for us to shy away from technology and claim it is not needed because we are unfamiliar with it. However, that is an excuse. It is our job to educate, and we must continually learn and grow as professionals. Technology is simply a tool that will allow us to do so at a more productive rate.
However, there is also a “technology trap” that we can easily fall into. When it comes to advanced metrics, evaluating the data we collect at GACS could suck up my entire day if I let it. Having a system to collect and manage the metrics has freed me to use the data to directly impact athletes’ training without taking too much time.
The point to take away from including technology in high school strength programs is its ability to better connect the coach and athlete. While I was speaking in Ireland this past year, I could observe the lunch selection of a GACS offensive lineman using MyFitnessPal. I saw he was going to order an unhealthy option, so I immediately texted him to choose a better selection. His parents e-mailed me the next day explaining how their son could not “believe that his coach would care what we ate at lunch while he was in another country!” I could not have impacted him in this way without the aid of technology.
As sports science, technology, and advanced metrics continue to grow throughout strength and conditioning, it is vital that the high school professional attempts to understand and apply these methods. Technology will never replace the art of coaching. But a coach who ignores the opportunity of technology limits their ability to impact the development of the young athletes we are blessed to serve.
We wouldn’t have been able to incorporate advanced metrics at Greater Atlanta Christian School in Norcross, Ga., without having an effective strength and conditioning program in place first. To build ours, I relied on a set of five core principles and three key ideas.
• Do no harm: This refers to selecting drills to lower injury potential, as well as choosing modalities that provide the biggest reward with the least risk to the athlete.
• Move well: Gray Cook, MSPT, OCS, CSCS, RKC, the creator of Functional Movement Systems, states, “Do not load dysfunction.” If we load a dysfunctional movement, we put the athlete at risk of injury and break our very first principle. Furthermore, if an athlete is inefficient in a movement, they will have to utilize other musculature and supportive tissues to complete it, reducing their ability to perform and placing them at risk of injury.
• Move strong: It is important that high school athletes are proficient in bodyweight movements before external resistance is applied, so we look first to develop relative body strength. We determine strength to bodyweight goals for indicator exercises and allocate training based upon these relative strength scores.
• Move fast: Once we have developed appropriate relative body strength, we pursue rate of force development. In movement-based training, we also want our athletes to master force production (reactive concentric), force absorption (eccentric loading), and force redirection (isometric control). An athlete with the ability to produce, absorb, and redirect force at a faster rate than the competition is difficult to beat.
• Thrive: This is the most important principle of all. Coaches and athletes are involved in sport because it is fun! We must look for every opportunity to maximize the enjoyment of sport—it has to be about more than wins and scholarships.
• Unified (but not uniform) program: Offseason, preseason, and in-season athletes all need a specific training emphasis that a uniform program cannot provide. Instead, a unified program progresses athletes through the same general system but allocates training methods depending on their individual needs.
• Proper dosage: We must consider exactly what dose of training is important for each athlete. At GACS, we follow a Block System of training to meet each individual’s ability level. Athletes that are undersized for their position and sport are placed in Block 1, where the emphasis is on hypertrophy. Players with a relative strength deficit of greater than 15 percent of their target goals in our indicator exercises are placed in Block 2, where the emphasis is shifted to hypertrophy and strength development. Block 3 is reserved for athletes that have a 10 to 15 percent deficit in relative body strength, and a balanced program of hypertrophy, strength, and power methods is utilized. Finally, the advanced athlete with a relative strength deficit of less than 10 percent is placed in Block 4, which includes velocity-based training and triphasic methods.
• Produce results: Any strength and conditioning coach can have a clear mission and solid training principles. However, if we do not produce results where it matters, we have not done our job. The question to ask after every sport season is: Were my athletes physically capable of competing? If the answer is no, we must go back to the drawing board and determine what needs to be adjusted in the program.