In recent years, the science around sports medicine and sports performance has exploded. What I could not have even imagined in training 20 years ago is now the social norm—not just at the elite level but in most college level athletics as well, and quickly creeping into the secondary school realm. If you would have told me that, for 14- to 18-year-olds in middle and high school, we’d be monitoring 20+ metrics using GPS, sprinting daily with live feedback from laser timers, and choosing to emphasize the power and velocity of movements rather than hitting the “traditional” force generating power lifts multiple days a week…I would have called you crazy!In recent years, the science around sports medicine and sports performance has exploded, says @KyleSouthall1. Click To Tweet
With 15+ years’ experience in professional and collegiate athletics, various works with the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee and USA Wrestling, PhD training, and living in both the sports medicine world as an athletic trainer and in the strength and conditioning (S&C) world as a director, I come at my role from a unique perspective and background. In 2020, when I was set to take another faculty position, I landed a temporary role (or so I thought at the time) as an athletic trainer at Briarwood Christian Schools, just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. At the time I was just going to bridge the gap between a longtime athletic trainer (AT) who left and their new long-term AT solution; after months of more conversations, prayer, and picking the brains of more people than I can count, I called the university I was set to join and instead told them I wasn’t moving forward in the process and that Briarwood was my new professional home.
That’s where the work began—starting the process of building an elite “one stop shop” with the health and performance of our athletes at the center by becoming the Director of Sports Science and Performance. In this role I would oversee all aspects of sports science, the S&C staff, and the sports medicine staff.
How It Began
Briarwood had purchased a lot of equipment and technology—such as 30 GPS sensors and a data dashboard that were not being used—but found themselves in the place asking the same questions as many others: “What to do with it all?” It was great seeing all the numbers—how fast, how far—but what does it all mean? And, then, what to do with it all?
That’s where the conversation started, in a discussion with longtime Athletic Director Jay Mathews. The task was to build a model of health and wellbeing that is second to none at the secondary school level. Sounds straightforward and easy enough, right? Make a few phone calls, have some gurus stop by and show you what they do, buy some tech, and you’re there!The task was to build a model of health and wellbeing that is second to none at the secondary school level, says @KyleSouthall1. Click To Tweet
Thankfully, we had the foresight to know better. Initially, we started with a vision of where we wanted to be in five years. Then we worked backwards, planning to dot every i and cross every t along the way. The first part of the strategy was recognizing that it will take a minimum of four to five years to test and implement the model, and then possibly longer to see the fruits of the labor.
Our very top priority was, and still is, taking care of the kids. This molded our mission: to maximize performance while minimizing time-loss injuries. The goal had nothing to do with wins and losses or any other socially-driven outcome: we want our kids to perform at their physical, mental, and spiritual best. If we do that, the wins and losses will take care of themselves. As a byproduct, we will produce young, resilient, active adults ready to be functional members of society and ready to lead their families and communities.
We know we cannot eliminate injuries, as they are an inherent risk of sports, but can we decrease the amount of time loss due to injury? For example, by training and providing the resources, can we take the hypothetical four- to six-week ankle sprain and have them physically, mentally, and spiritually ready to return to competition in two to four weeks?
Along the way, objective measures will indicate performance gains and that our athletes are truly healthy, not just showing up with a doctor’s note and saying they “feel good.” By doing this, we can set them up for success on the field, court, and in life by encouraging a lifelong habit of a healthy, active lifestyle. One of our former athletes went on to an elite level Power 5 school and their coach paid us my biggest professional compliment: “Coach, we love Player X and your other guys in our program. They are weightroom, nutrition and life literate. They show up here, get straight to work, and automatically make us better.”We can set our athletes up for success on the field, court, and in life by encouraging a lifelong habit of a healthy, active lifestyle, says @KyleSouthall1. Click To Tweet
Putting the Model Together
To do this we heavily relied on the Evidence-Based Practice Model. While traditionally used as a medical model, it translates very well to performance training. The model uses three factors:
- Contemporary research
- Clinician expertise
- The wants, needs, and values of the stakeholders
I wanted to take it a step further. As we studied programs around the nation at all levels, we learned from others’ mistakes and weaknesses and expanded on their strengths. Ultimately, we wanted a one stop shop that included sports medicine, sports science, S&C, and high-level coaching. We knew this was going to be a process and not a product.
This one was easy. With 15 years of experience and connections, we started here. It kicked off with solidifying a relationship with some of the best and now most accessible sports medicine physicians in America, if not the world. This allowed us to expedite and guarantee medical services from initial evaluation to injury management to post-injury return-to-play rehabilitation for our student athletes, which previously was not available to them. Then we moved on to adding an additional athletic trainer to the full-time staff and created a relationship with a physical therapy group that specializes in pediatrics and sports medicine. We then approached services securing mutual relationships with a sports psychologist, nutritionist, and a data scientist consultant.
The wild card of our major plan was sports science. Here, I took on providing oversight of sports medicine, S&C, and performance. This is also where the big investments are. Our recipe called for 80 GPS sensors—enough for nearly all outdoor athletes to monitor their workloads. Second, we developed “universal movement patterns” that we implement in the seventh grade and build upon as the students’ progress through their physical education curriculum, all the way through graduation. Third, it factored for facility upgrades in the meeting spaces and weight rooms to allow for the successful addition of the sports medicine component of our athletic department.
This group of of individuals oversees the major technology in GPS tracking, performance data, and both internal and external workloads. A major point we found was how environmental factors affected these performance metrics, especially when it came to performance metrics such as top speeds, player load, and internal measures such as heart rate and heart rate variability. For example, a drill done on a morning that is cloudy and 70 degrees with 50% humidity elicited different physiological responses than the exact same drill done in the afternoon while sunny and 98 degrees with 65% humidity. While we know this by experience, we now had objective data and a sports science team to analyze the data to provide insight to the sports coaches and administrators. We can now make more impactful training decisions based on these objective measures.
Like all good research, the more we learned in this role, the more aspects we identified, the more we learned that we didn’t know or understand—a true testament to the adage that good research finds more questions than answers. We tracked indoors metrics as well, but not to the extent that we did outside via GPS. Technology-wise, this is where we look to improve the most in the coming one to two years.
Strength and Conditioning
We wanted to revamp the S&C areas the most. We evolved from an old school style of writing the workouts on the white board, lifts by whistle, and a “lifting heavy metal objects up and sitting them down” mentality to a model using technology, science, connections, and emotional intelligence to make the athletes more athletic.
We want fast, explosive, energetic, and motivated athletes—not ones that look good in uniforms but are not performing at their physiological or mental peak. This position we felt to be our most important hire of all. They had to fit the Briarwood mold, being a person who is both professionally solid and spiritually sound. They had to be a great people person because of the relationships needed to build and sustain this growth. The individuals in this role had to be special and sure-fire fits for the school and system, otherwise the whole model would fall apart.
One aspect that we knew we could capitalize on is recovery. While we cannot control what the athletes do on their own time (such as sleep hygiene), we can educate them and maximize recovery when we do have them. We emphasized three points:
- Active recovery
- Passive recovery
For recovery on high workload days and days where their bodies are sore and fatigued, we employ active recovery days including—but not limited to—a dynamic and static stretching routine after the stimulus and hip mobility using track hurdles. For passive recovery, we made a substantial investment in Normatec recovery boots, GameReady units, and foam rollers.
Our pinnacle investment in this area is our post-workout nutrition. We provide a “cafeteria style” nutrition plan that provides a protein shake and two to three snack-like items that the athletes can choose from. Our goal is to have them consume ~35-40g of protein and approximately 500-600 kcals within 15-30 minutes of their workout stimulus to optimize recovery and nutrient replenishment. This has been a major success, especially when coupled with our already highly detailed hydration tracking and electrolyte supplementation when indicated.
High Level Coaching
This one is self-explanatory and not a surprise to anyone reading this, right? Sport coaches are key in any program’s success. They are also the largest moving target. For this one, the biggest part was buying in. With 68 coaches from 16 sports and 58 total teams (responsible for 565 athletes), all we asked was for them to communicate and buy into the program.
Over the first few years we enlisted their feedback and allowed them the opportunity to contribute. Some contribute daily, some more than others, and others less—but they all bought in to fit in. This was by far the most important aspect of the whole program: stakeholder buy-in. If at any point we lost the trust of the players, parents, or coaches, this model and program would not be worth the paper the logo was printed on. Imagine a program where an AT or S&C coach walk into the head football coach’s office and say, “Group X has been overloaded, Group Y is underloaded compared to normal, and overall as a team we are trending above workload norms so to keep optimal given the environmental conditions we need to modify practice”…only to have the head football coach simply say, “Okay, how?” And then imagine that the head coach fully implements the recommendations of the sports medicine or performance staff without question. That’s buy in. That’s trust and faith in the people in the room. That’s an environment for success.
Putting it all Together
About a month into developing the program and collecting the data, it became clear that this was going to be a lot of work. In that time period we had over 8 million data points of GPS metrics, internal workload metrics, wellness survey results, and performance metrics. It’s very easy to get into a state of data overload and go down a rabbit hole only to find a dead end or, in this case, a useless metric.It’s very easy to get into a state of data overload and go down a rabbit hole only to find a dead end or a useless metric, says @KyleSouthall1. Click To Tweet
The challenge was to figure out what was important. The PhD side of me carried the mentality of “there’s no such thing as bad data.” The AT and S&C side of me said, “This needs to be simple to consume and to present to stakeholders.” After tracking data over time, we identified trends of metrics that we perceived as as key performance indicators, such as top speed in functional environments, attendance, force production during specific movements, injury epidemiology, and injury outcome metrics. Based on these, we developed a philosophy: I kept the coding and large data sets to myself and those helping me code, and I would only filter information to coaches and stakeholders that I could do in Excel(C). This helped me keep it simple and not overload the coaches, which helped buy-in immensely.
A favorite quote of mine is “Great research reveals more questions than it does answers.” I think this quote fits perfectly in our situation. I often get asked “What’s next?” After having collected 70 million data points on 11 teams and 374 individuals over the course of just over three years, it’s hard to answer. The data speaks for itself in the table below; we must be on the right path.
The low hanging fruit is to replicate the level of workload monitoring inside compared to outside and to expand our successes into other sports while learning from our failures. What’s next? We’re not exactly sure, but by sticking to our core values, mission, vision, and faith, the future is bright for sports science and performance in the secondary school setting.
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