When Coach Keith Ferrara got his first university strength and conditioning job, he literally had to build his program—and facility—out of a storage closet. Read on to discover the six essential steps he took to successfully build a collegiate sports performance program from scratch.
By Matt Hauck
The first two blogs in this series focused on establishing data reliability (Data in Sports Performance: Why Your Measurements Matter) and a foundation for practical data analysis in sports science (Foundations of Applied Sports Science: A Starting Point in Sports Performance). In this third installment, I highlight applications of these methods as they were integrated into the offseason programs for a group of NFL draft hopefuls and NFL veterans.
I had the distinct pleasure of working with an old colleague of mine, Erik Jernstrom, who is now the Director of Sports Performance and Fitness with EForce Sports. In addition to Erik directing strength-and-conditioning efforts, we also worked directly with a staff of physical therapists and nutritionists, headed up by Ryan Baugus, DPT. I assisted as a strength coach, and I also managed the sports science and performance analysis for our group. Our staff was tasked with preparing a group of NFL hopefuls for their upcoming combine and pro days, and serving a small group of NFL veterans in their offseason.
We took great effort to design an onboarding and assessment process that best served the needs of each athlete. These are high-level, accomplished football players entering critical junctions in their career: the NFL draft, free agency, or the final year of a contract. Erik, Ryan, and all the staff members were diligent in designing the screening and assessment process, making sure the chosen interventions were justified and would yield results in a timely manner.
As the sports scientist of the group, I knew how important it would be to assess the readiness of each athlete’s recovery as it related to our training goals. This is where the appropriate use of technology would help our group facilitate the process.
Technology and the Offseason
The creation of an interdisciplinary staff in athletics gave me a perfect opportunity to implement my athlete management system, Voyager. Our staff had spent considerable time designing and scheduling our process within our unique high performance team: Ryan has developed a customized screening process as a physical therapist, Erik has multiple assessments and performance tests he implements as a performance coach, and I had elected to use a simplified approach to assessing readiness and recovery. Voyager would allow us to connect each department within our staff into a single hub for our athletes.
Whether by phone, tablet, or computer, each staff member had ready access to key performance indicators daily, and these were simultaneously stored in a database. Perhaps the best part about our athlete management process with Voyager is that it is customized to fit our needs; only the information we wanted to collect was included, and we could create new metrics, forms, and surveys quickly and easily.
In our system, each athlete filled out a quick recovery questionnaire each morning via their phone. I elected to use a popular five-question/five-point scale used often in the literature1. Athletes received instructions on using Voyager on their phone and also on answering the questionnaire, and learned the importance of the information.Athletes must understand how a process benefits them if we expect them to adhere to our methods. Click To Tweet
Athlete education is a critical element in sports science: Athletes must understand how the process benefits them if we expect them to adhere to our methods. Erik and I have a history working with most of the athletes in these groups, and the relationships we enjoy are based on trust. This element takes great time and effort to develop, and is central to the effectiveness of not only a sports science process, but to any performance-staff-related endeavor. Data and technology have great importance, but they cannot replace human interactions and relationships.
In addition to recovery data, we collected data on key performance indicators within strength and conditioning, as outlined by Erik. We were careful to collect data relevant to the goals of each athlete: Clearly, the goals of a quarterback entering the NFL combine are not identical to the goals of a three-year NFL veteran receiver entering the final year of his contract. The athletes do not train in the exact same way, they are not assessed in the exact same manner, and each received individualized considerations in their training and recovery process.
After extensive conversations with the athletes, their agents, and skill coaches, and using scouting feedback, our staff outlined a plan for each athlete. After we outlined the plan and proposed a program, I created metrics in Voyager so that our staff could enter the information during or after training. Instead of keeping track of endless information for each athlete, we focused on relevant performance metrics when building our database.
In addition to training, the use of Voyager showed perhaps the greatest benefits in the recovery process, as the data we collected on recovery helped drive athlete education on individualized recovery interventions. We were able to define sleep behavior patterns and show each athlete their effect on readiness and performance. It’s not as simple as telling an athlete to get eight hours of sleep; the underlying concepts surrounding their sleep behavior ultimately affects the quality of their sleep.
This element took center stage when one of our NFL combine hopefuls exhibited sleep-quality disturbance during a period of travel for meetings and post-season All-Star Bowl games. He exhibited the utmost professionalism by devoting himself to his craft and manipulating his environment to maximize his sleep. During this period, we demonstrated to him the importance of sleep quality by highlighting the way he felt it affected his physical performance. He displayed tremendous self-discipline in his response to the situation, utilizing methods to manage his stress response, relax his mind and body, and ultimately return to a high quality of sleep.
On his experiences during the offseason and combine preparation, Erik said:
“Using Voyager as our athlete management system has allowed our entire staff at EForce to more effectively manage and monitor both subjective and objective KPIs for athletes we’re working with that are relevant to their sport. Not only has Voyager helped us drastically decrease our paper trail, but it has also allowed us to more clearly communicate to athletes the interplay and effect of different variables on overall performance. All this has enabled our athletes to train more consistently and free our staff to spend less time working through Excel worksheets.
Voyager allowed us to streamline our own process, and it became a powerful tool for us to drive athlete education. This was a trial run during an intensive period for our staff, but the ease of use and customizability of Voyager gave us all new insights on how to connect to our athletes and clients. It didn’t take us long to start visualizing how Voyager would allow us to provide them with additional services that would help yield real results in performance.”
While Voyager allowed our staff to assess recovery data and document progress on key performance indicators, we also used the Omegawave. I have direct experience with the system as both an athlete and a coach, and the privilege of having trained and worked under Mark McLaughlin. There are few people in the world who have trained as many athletes over the past 20 years while using the Omegawave as Mark.
Because I have trained with and learned from Mark since the beginning of my career some 13 years ago, I have an exceptional understanding of not only the utilization of the Omegawave, but also the use of this unique lens when training athletes. The system allows you to understand the potential “cost of doing business” when training your athletes. While we, as strength coaches, are obsessed with programming and performance outcomes, it is critical to understand how our training program affects the athlete, based on their readiness and preparedness. It is mandatory to understand how the functional state of the athlete affects their ability to train specific systems or traits.
Think of the central nervous, cardiovascular, and metabolic exchange systems, or traits like power, strength, endurance, coordination, agility, and functional movement. While many strength coaches become fixated solely on getting athletes bigger and stronger, or spending most of their programming focused on improving movement efficiency, it is critical to understand that these important traits have governing factors.
For those not familiar with the current interface of the Omegawave, the home screen gives a summary of the functional state of the CNS, cardiac, and metabolic exchange systems, as well as the Windows of Trainability™ of the athlete. There has been misunderstanding of this system in the past, as some practitioners decided that the Omegawave is simply a “red light, green light” system. This implies that, based on the quality of your screening results, you are either allowed to train hard or not at all. This is not the case, however, as the specific information each athlete receives in their reading offers critical information on their readiness to best accommodate the timing, type, and amount of training to produce a desired response.
For example, just because the Window of Trainability™ for strength is not within the highest stratified level (“green,” as of the current version), it does not mean the athlete cannot perform any strength training, nor does it mean that the athlete cannot or should not perform the prescribed strength training workout. Additionally, it does not guarantee that the athlete is not capable of executing a prescribed strength training session to a high level. The screening is communicating the fact that, based on the readiness level of the athlete, performing a strength training session will most likely yield a limited training effect, or could potentially result in a detrimental training effect due to increasing recovery time (think of issues like increased muscle soreness, greater depletion of local metabolic substrates, etc.).
Our staff aimed to have the athletes test on the Omegawave as often as possible, but with realistic expectations. We had space in our facility dedicated to performing the screenings, and based on best-practice methodology developed in the field surrounding heart rate variability measurement reliability, we performed our process in the morning. Though not ideal, we did the screenings at our facility 15 to 30 minutes after the athletes arrived. The issues are obvious when thinking about increased stress due to traffic, morning meal timing, and other problems athletes face when not operating in the vacuum of a research lab environment.
Our staff was very selective about communicating the results of the readings; I believe there is a definite art to this process. A useful tip I can offer is to establish with the athletes early on that this screening process is a “snapshot” rather than a “pass or fail” examination. From my own experience as an athlete, the test itself can create stress, so be mindful that athletes should be allowed to be inquisitive about their results without feeling resigned to a dim fate based on a sub-optimal reading. (Just as Mark McLaughlin joked about me breaking his Omegawave because I tested so poorly early on in our time together.)Establish with athletes early on that the screening process is a snapshot, not a pass/fail exam. Click To Tweet
Because of our relatively short time frame, our staff focused on only a few metrics from the Omegawave during this first offseason. Functional state of the main systems received attention during each screen, as was the Windows of Trainability™. The idea of “keeping plan B as close to plan A as possible,” proposed by many coaches in the field, was in full effect during this period. The programming covered many things, and one of the foundational principles was separate sessions devoted to the development of specific systems.
For example, the Monday session for some of our athletes was an anaerobic development day where strength and structural hypertrophy were the main emphasis. Power and speed elements were also trained, but programming was implemented through both the lens of physiological/morphological development and neuromechanical elements (i.e., determining if they are performing fast enough to develop the desired trait). There are many great resources on the SimpliFaster blog regarding velocity considerations for speed and power.
The Omegawave’s Windows of Trainability™ allowed our staff to understand the individual athlete’s capability for maximizing the training goals of each session. If an Omegawave reading indicated a suboptimal window for the development of speed and power on a Monday session, Erik would use this as a flag when timing sprints, measuring jumps, or observing technique during high-velocity lifting. As a former national junior-level Olympic weightlifter, Erik knows upholding a high quality of work when developing these traits is mandatory.
During instances where readiness was not optimal in the previously mentioned traits, there were often slight reductions in volume, intensity, or both. It did not mean the athletes weren’t going to train hard, but it did mean that we, as coaches, could not be oblivious to the risk of diminished returns on performance from the session. As previously addressed, a suboptimal Omegawave reading does not mean an athlete is not physically capable of achieving a high level of performance. It does, however, indicate that the “cost of doing business” will likely be higher than normal.
Imagine trying to perform the infamous Smolov squat program during the phases where intensity is high and frequent. Sure, you could gut out 5×5 at 90% of a 1RM, but think of feeling strong and powerful during each set and walking out of the gym versus feeling like you need spotters to finish each set and likely crawling out of the gym afterward. In both cases, you complete the 5×5 at 90%, but in the latter instance it takes a much heavier toll. You would probably have more lingering muscle soreness, more acute fatigue, and an overall diminished feeling of perceived recovery in the next days. This is an explicit example of utilizing the Windows of Trainability™ to guide your training, and it’s also a great tease for investigating programming and recovery methods to maximize optimal readiness.
An additional Omegawave metric our staff focused on was DC potential, or “Direct Potential” of the brain. After long consultations with, and continuing education from, Mark McLaughlin and the Omegawave staff, and the works of Dr. John Sullivan (@BrainAlwaysWins) and others, as well as my own investigations and athletic career, it became explicitly clear that brain function needed to be accounted for in training.
Think of the massive stress that NFL hopefuls are under—moving to a new city to train, keeping a new schedule focused solely on what amounts to intense manual labor, separation from family and friends, learning new skills, mastering and refining old techniques, spending every hour of their day in the spotlight, and being pressured to meet performance standards—while the national sports media scene observes their every move. Their brain health will dictate their ability to manage and cope with these stressors, and a tool like the Omegawave gives a quick snapshot of this system.
A suboptimal Omegawave reading does not mean an athlete is not physically capable of achieving a high level of performance. It does, however, indicate that the ‘cost of doing business’ will likely be higher than normal.
Because our athletes were also doing sport-specific skill work as part of their training program, we elected to utilize the DC potential reading from Omegawave as a lens to prescribe the volume and intensity of this work. One of our NFL veterans had a personal skill coach during this period, and our staff communicated to the athlete and the coach the ideal session duration, rest periods, drill progressions, perceived effort levels, introduction of new drills, reactivity, complexity, and other factors potentially affecting his nervous system.
If he displayed suboptimal DC potential, he was encouraged to focus on his “everyday drills,” allow for more recovery time during repetitions and between drills, do technique reinforcement at variable (read: slower) speeds, and limit the introduction of more complex tasks. When our staff saw optimal DC potential before certain sessions, we would encourage the athlete and the skill coach to explore reactivity to colors, sounds, and numbers; introduce complexity in environmental processing, such as reacting to a defender; and compete in one-on-one situation-specific drills against a defender, if possible.
Within our system, using the Omegawave along with Voyager allowed us to paint a picture of performance to drive athlete education. The relationships our staff developed with each athlete inspired the trust of the athletes. This paid dividends, as they were open and brutally honest with us in recovery questionnaires, feedback, and personal conversations. Being able to show an athlete something like how their continual poor sleep quality was coinciding with poor trends in readiness and stagnation in performance was like pulling open the bedroom shades in the morning. Our staff educated the athletes on the process they were immersed in by visualizing their progress, with its peaks and troughs and plateaus.Omegawave with Voyager helped us to paint a picture of performance to drive athlete education. Click To Tweet
Enabling the athletes to see these elements firsthand in relatable terms was likely the critical factor enabling the high buy-in we had. The data and technology was a secondary factor to the human element we created: coaches as active listeners who show interest and devotion to improving the athlete, care about their well-being outside of the weight room, and sensitivity to the experiences each athlete brings to the team. There are many strength coaches and allied health professionals who are elite at developing the ecosystem of a program, and they don’t mince words when it comes to establishing a fair and firm approach to leadership in an offseason program. The “ecosystem,” as strength and conditioning coach and sports science coordinator of Navy football, Bryan Miller, has outlined, is often the glue that holds the ship together.
Our offseason program presented a unique challenge where long-term data collection and analysis was not possible. This placed a critical emphasis on the employment of training, therapy, recovery, data, technology, and analysis applications that worked in a short time frame. This highlights a critical, and somewhat controversial, element, particularly in sports science. While data analysis gets much of the attention, it has become explicitly apparent to me and a growing number of coaches in the field that American sports scientists must be able to prove their worth in the short term.
This means that the sports scientist must have a deep knowledge of the sport, training, recovery, and rehabilitation when administering their process. Technical skills in database creation and management, analytics, and visualization are great tools, but anybody can develop these skills with continued education (like watching the right YouTube videos). Having credibility with each member of an allied health and performance team, as well as with sport coaches and athletes, takes a unique blend of specialized experience that cannot be learned online or in a textbook.
Many American sport coaches, particularly American football coaches of all levels, want to see results here and now. An associate of mine at a major school in the Power-5 Conference put it brilliantly when he remarked that, “the first thing that I am asked by coaches is if this technology or method will help us win games, or not.” Sports scientists must also do their part in this scenario by understanding not only the technical and tactical elements of their sport, but also the culture and “ecosystem.” During this current offseason project, if I lacked understanding of Ryan’s goals as a PT, Erik’s goals in strength and conditioning, or the athlete’s goals as a draft prospect or free agent, the wheels would have fallen off the wagon early.
Moving forward, our staff wants to outline the parameters of success in the offseason by producing player profiles. Within the Voyager system, creating metrics and assigning them to athletes is a quick and easy process. The idea behind athlete profiling is to highlight the trends of their key performance indicators. Once your staff have identified the KPIs specific to your program, modeling training and recovery interventions to meet these standards should be the goal.
Another feature within the Voyager system is the ability to create a training report for each athlete that targets these KPIs. By setting appropriate data targets for each metric, our staff can see a performance trajectory in real time. This allows us to make corrections in training or recovery before issues present themselves. Are these predictive analytics in action? I would say “no,” mainly because this is simply a coach or allied health practitioner taking action when presented with information that, based on their knowledge and experience, raises a flag. The difference is that, with an athlete management system like Voyager, you have a database your staff can easily access and refer to when making a decision.
About his experience with forming a high-performance team and using technology to supplement his method, Ryan Baugus said: “Finding technology that fits into the principle-based framework of our system is the next frontier; it’s the same game but with tools like Omegawave, FreeLap, and Voyager we have the cheat codes. Any time we can look under the hood from an objective standpoint is very helpful as a clinician. If all of our staff has a convenient and user-friendly way to access and utilize data, the metrics can guide the programming and training. Inter-provider communication and dialogue is paramount in the utilization of an interdisciplinary system. If we are looking at the same performance metrics we can divide the subcomponents into our specific scopes and break down performance improvement into manageable pieces.”
So, after a busy offseason in a high-pressure environment, was adding foundational sports science even worth it? I would argue it was, as each of our draft hopefuls landed on teams across the NFL and CFL, and our group of NFL veterans are enjoying new or extended contracts with their teams. Our group of athletes achieved all-time personal bests in physical tests at combines and pro days. Additionally, and perhaps more impressively, some of our athletes regained speed, strength, power, and mechanics that previous team physicians and coaches had doubted would ever be possible. When an NFL hopeful is urged to consider medical retirement due to pain and dysfunction, and then receives training and treatment through a new lens based in objective assessment, it should not be considered a miracle when most of his ailments disappear.
One of our NFL veterans was part of a highly publicized contract negotiation and subsequent trade. I won’t pretend that our sports science process or offseason program was the only reason for his success, as he is easily the most competitive, driven, and dedicated, as well as hardest-working, athlete I have ever been around. I am sure there are times he wanted to take the Omegawave belt and sensor and drive over them in his car! But to his credit, and to the credit of our staff, he took each challenge head-on with the highest level of professionalism. As he continues to use the tools and concepts we have installed, and as he enters this next chapter of his career, I am beyond excited to see what lies ahead.
I think the take-home message of our sports science foundation is simple: you must have your procedures mastered and grounded in a firm understanding of human performance and physiology first. Additionally, you must possess relationship-building and leadership skills to foster a healthy ecosystem within your team environment. This takes time, self-assessment, humility, and a healthy sense of curiosity.
I’ve spoken with athletic directors, athletic administrators, and performance staff members at the highest levels of collegiate and professional sports in the United States about sports science. Opinions range from being ready and eager to implement an entire sports science department to serve 750+ student athletes, to being perfectly content with letting thousands of dollars of equipment collect dust in a weight room closet. It is fascinating to me that, although sports science is not yet well-understood by many people I have spoken with in that population, there are two definitive types of responses. The first is that of curiosity and optimism that sports science offers a way to improve the health and performance of athletes by assisting strength and conditioning coaches, all allied health professionals, and sports coaches. The second response is one of fear that sports science will somehow assess the effectiveness, or lack thereof, of offseason programs or medical treatment outcomes.
Ultimately, the best strength coaches and allied health professionals have already been using concepts from sports science to assess performance for decades. The act of using technology or collecting data is not a new concept, it is merely a modern wrapping on an age-old process of assessment. Clearly, sports science has the capability for providing tremendous performance benefits for athletes. It is our job as coaches and professionals to continue the task of applying it meaningfully and appropriately in practice.
1. Buchheit M, Racinais S, Bilsborough J, et al. “Monitoring fitness, fatigue and running performance during a pre-season training camp in elite football players”. J Sci Med Sport 2013; 16(6):550-555.