SimpliFaster Blog

Instilling Practical Sport Science in a Team Setting

By Devan McConnell

The idea of sport science conjures many different images: Grainy black-and-white film of Eastern Bloc Soviet coaches and athletes performing various exercises and tests, sure to be included in the next yet-to-be-deciphered text. Physiologists in lab coats, clipboard in hand, watching someone attached to a Met-Cart run to exhaustion. Nerds in glasses, pouring over streams of data, assured that the “secret” is just one proprietary algorithm away. Coaches also believe (some) in the latest and greatest technology, the next “great black box” sure to hold the answer inside it…if only you can afford it.

All of these images and many more are common fodder for internet debate regarding what a sport scientist is, what they do, what their value is, and everything that goes along with that dispute. However, my version of sport science is a little different, or at least a combination of all of the above…and then some.

Adding Sport Science Without Losing the Coaching Identity

To me, applied sport science is about using various tools and technologies, along with intelligent expert intuition, to better understand the “what” and “why” behind what is actually happening with my athletes. The system that I have organically developed is really about answering these inquiries, and in the process, coming up with new and deeper questions. (I say organically because I never set out to develop a “sport science” system or program…I was just curious and kept asking questions.) It’s like the proverbial “rabbit hole”—as I begin to understand and answer one question, another two or three emerge, sucking me deeper and deeper down the hole, spinning and spinning until everything is a blur and then suddenly…AHA! Something makes sense! Or at least it creates another question.

Image 1. Culture is easy to talk about, and buying into a program means you need to evaluate athletes fairly. Sport science is essential to the art, just as the applied craft is essential to the research.

To break down why I believe sport science in general, and my program in particular, are so important within the process of player development, I want to outline some of these topics a bit further. The first one is the idea of understanding the “what” and the “why” behind training, and really behind competition. At the root of my sport science program, the goal is to better understand the actual physical demands of my athletes and be able to quantify as much of that as possible, so that we can make more informed decisions regarding training, practice, competition, and recovery.

One of the philosophical tenets I hold as a professional is to never do “work for work’s sake.” I don’t ever want to do things just because they are hard, or because they look cool, or because some other coach is doing them, or whatever. I need to have a reason for why we are doing what we are doing every day. I tell my athletes all the time to question me—if they don’t understand why I’m asking them to perform a certain exercise, use a certain tool, fill out a certain questionnaire, etc., I want them to ask.

This is for a couple of reasons. First, because the more they know and understand, the more likely they are to buy in. And we all know that buy-in is one of the most, if not THE most, important components to a training program. An average program performed exceptionally beats a great program performed poorly. If we can perform a great program exceptionally, we are going to be in a great place.

An average program performed exceptionally beats a great program performed poorly. Click To Tweet

I firmly believe that education and communication are key to athlete buy-in. I send out anonymous surveys once or twice a year to my athletes, to gather feedback about my program—what they like, what they dislike, what they want more of, etc. Every single time, I get responses back that they want to know more about X, Y, and Z. Why this exercise, why those force plates, why that post workout drink, etc. Today’s players want to know “why,” and not in a bad way. They are curious, informed, and hungry for knowledge. And, without a doubt, the more they understand about what it is I’m asking them to do, and how it will affect them and their goals, the more they are going to buy in.

Accountability in Modern Sport

The second reason is accountability. I’ll tell you a short story that illustrates how I feel about this point.

Brett Hull was one of the greatest pure goal scorers in the history of the NHL. If you aren’t a hockey person and aren’t familiar, Brett was the son of one of the other greatest players in NHL history, Bobby Hull. Towards the end of Brett’s career, he signed with the Detroit Red Wings. At the time, the Red Wings were one of the most dominant and successful teams to ever play the game.

Brett Hull had no need to do anything more than camp out on the left wing and fire one-timers into the net—his spot in the Hall of Fame was already locked up, his Stanley Cup success was all but assured, and his place in history was a foregone conclusion. It just so happened that one of his last seasons was one of the first “behind the scenes” documentaries that was filmed and it went on to be the wildly successful “NHL 24/7” series. This was one of the first times that players were mic’d up during practices and games, camera crews were allowed in the locker room, and fans got to see and hear what really went on with their favorite teams and players.

Image 2. Transparency with effort isn’t easy, but heart rate data can help everyone get on the same page. With the right interpretation and a good culture, heart rate adds value when the athletes are honest in training.

A moment stood out, and still stands out in my mind, from that first series. It was a scene from a Red Wings practice, where Brett Hull (who was always known to have a sharp wit and equally sharp tongue) was mic’d up and homed in on. He was talking trash to one of the young up-and-coming stars in line waiting for a drill to start, calling him out for not backchecking hard enough during a simple 3-on-2 drill.

After the practice, the producers asked Brett why he was giving this player such a hard time about such a seemingly insignificant detail of a routine drill in practice. He said something to the effect of, “Because if I get on his ass for being lazy, I sure as hell better not make the same mistake and act like a dog out there.” Here is one of the greatest players to ever play the game, a player who was literally being paid just to post up and rip slapshots into the goal—not for his two-way play, not for his leadership, not for his defensive abilities—and he was holding himself accountable by getting on the heels of one of the next superstars of the game.

I tell you that story to tell you this: Sport science is as much about holding myself accountable to never fall into the trap of “doing things because it’s the way we have always done them” as anything else. The system I’ve developed and the tools and technology I utilize are my way of ensuring that I always try to progress and never get too comfortable. You know what they say—if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse.

I want to keep an eye on long-term development, but I also need to respect short-term preparation. Click To Tweet

This is certainly not the only reason I’ve gone in the direction that I’ve gone, but it is a central one. The idea of doing work for work’s sake is one that eats at me. My job is to do what is necessary to keep my athletes as healthy as possible first, and then to improve their performance. Both of these goals should be done with the proverbial “minimum effective dose,” because at the end of the day, readiness to play trumps all else. I want to keep an eye on long-term development, but I also need to respect short-term preparation. Applied sport science helps me walk that tightrope.

Why the ‘Little Things’ Matter in Sport

The next reason I have embraced applied sport science within my performance program has to do with chasing the 1%. This is an idea that I talk about with my athletes and I feel is crucial in an environment where everyone is doing everything they can think of to gain a competitive advantage. The idea comes from something called the “aggregation of marginal gains.” I won’t bore you with the details, but it originated in the business world and was adapted to high-performance sport. There is plenty of debate on the topic, but the simple premise is this: Every action or detail matters. It might only matter 1 or 2%, but it matters.

The example I often give is that of sleep. We can all agree that most people need about eight hours of sleep per night to be at their best. If I only get seven hours of sleep tonight, it’s not a big deal, just a small difference. I’ll be fine tomorrow. But if I do that seven nights in a row, I’m suddenly seven hours into sleep debt. Extend that out a month, a year. Suddenly, that small change in my sleep habit has grown into a major problem for me. That is the power of marginal gains—that is the 1%.

Sport science is about finding as many small changes as possible to develop a program over time. Click To Tweet

The opposite of this example is just as true, and just as easy to implement. A few extra minutes of sleep per night is pretty easy to get, and over time it can have major positive implications on my health and my performance. Sport science is about finding as many of these small, 1% changes as we can for training and developing a program over time.

Video 1. Coaches in an applied setting need to find a way to get the job done in their specific situation. Don’t wait for someone to figure it outgo find a way to get the information you need.

The last big reason why I believe applied sport science is so important in a high-performance environment is the end result of always coming up with another question. Here’s another short story.

One of my first forays into technology was the acquisition and use of a team heart rate monitoring system. I was able to procure this system with the goal of “figuring out the energy system demands of hockey.” Can you believe that? I was going to figure it all out and devise the perfect ESD (energy system development) program. What. An. Idiot!!!

Well, what ended up happening was this: I surely gained a much deeper and more nuanced understanding of the energy system demands of my players both in games and in practice…and I was able to devise more intelligent training strategies around these newfound insights…and then I started to formulate other questions…and other questions…and questions upon questions upon questions.

Sports science keeps me honest, keeps me asking questions, and keeps me getting better. Click To Tweet

In my view, this was and is a great thing. This is what keeps me honest. This is largely what keeps me, 15 years into this journey, hungry for more each and every day. I don’t know much. I know even less then when I started. And at this point, I’m pretty sure that at the end of my career, I won’t know a thing. That can be a scary proposition for some people, but for me it’s exciting. Sport science keeps me honest, keeps me asking questions, and keeps me getting better. Or at least not worse.

So, that is some of the “why.” Now how about the “what” and the “how.”

What I do is pretty simple: I train athletes. Specifically, collegiate ice hockey players. At the end of the day, what matters most and hopefully what I do best with my athletes are the basics. We warm up well; we sprint and jump with intent; we push, pull, hinge, and squat heavy. We do intelligent core work, mobility work, and recovery work. Without any of the tools I currently have access to, we would still do largely the same stuff, and get largely the same outcome. Remember, applied sport science is about the 1%, not the 99%.

It is crucial to build assessments, data collection & technology into a training process seamlessly. Click To Tweet

That being said, we build in our technology, tools, and assessments so they are camouflaged as part of the process. A really important part of implementing sport science practices in an applied setting (read: real-world team training) is the ability to perform these various tasks with whatever the technology, with minimal extra “touch” to the athlete. They have enough on their plate; they shouldn’t feel like they are constantly being poked and prodded. They shouldn’t even know that what they are doing is “more” than just training. In fact, I think this is where many practitioners go wrong—as soon as the athlete feels like they are a lab rat, they will be all done with whatever it is that you are doing. It is absolutely crucial to build assessments, data collection, and technology into the training process seamlessly and effortlessly.

Technology: Tools That Work for Coaches

From a technology standpoint, this is what I currently use and/or do with my team.

That may seem like a lot, but the ability to build these tools into a holistic system is key to the ability to seamlessly and efficiently utilize each one of them, with smooth transitions between each.

One point of note: Pieces of technology are just tools, just like a barbell is a tool, a dumbbell is a tool, and a kettlebell is a tool. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. Each has a proper application and an improper application. Not one of them is the be-all and end-all. They are just tools in the toolbox. And there is always another tool.

This is how our system is laid out:

CM+ Wellness Questionnaire and Weigh In: Performed on the way to the arena prior to practice/games (weigh in when the players get to the rink).

Coaching Point: This is the first layer of athlete monitoring. It allows me to see where our players are at from a physical and psychological perspective. It identifies any red flags that I need to be alerted to. It highlights any athletes who I need to bump into and prioritize a conversation with in the 2-3 minutes I might have before we get going.

Image 3. The day starts with real-time data from physiological or subjective monitoring. Having a dashboard that shows insight for each athlete requires a solution that is powerful and connected to the mobile devices of athletes.

VBT: Main lifts (often our loaded power and lower body push exercises) are performed via velocity.

Coaching Point: This allows us to autoregulate loads based on individual readiness/fatigue, individualize speed zones within the team setting based on needs (five players on the same rack, performing the same exercise, can load the movement differently specific to their needs), and provide an opportunity for intrinsic motivation and competition, which drives intent by utilizing the leaderboard function.

Image 4. Team data for training in the weight room is a great starting point. Testing is important, but plenty of data can be found from day-to-day sessions with barbell work.

Jump Profiling: Contact mats are used within lifts to create intent in jumping exercises, track development over time, autoregulate certain exercises, and create a jump profile for each athlete.

Coaching Point: We utilize a Just Jump mat at each of our six racks. This allows us to perform a number of different vertical jump variations, namely the drop jump (to establish RSI and elasticity), the countermovement jump (to establish global power output), and the non-countermovement jump (to establish concentric force application). We build these into our lifts as part of a tri or quad set, so athletes perform and record their jump outputs as part of training, each and every week.

*Jump Profiling: Force plates are used on a weekly/monthly basis to create a more in-depth analysis of our jump and force application profile. Currently, we are performing CMJ and an isometric mid rear foot elevated push test. The use of force plates is in its early stages for us, so I don’t have a tremendous amount to talk about at this point.

Image 5. A combination of jump testing and monitoring is great for teams that want to use contact mats or grids frequently and profile with force plates. Know the limits and benefits of both systems before investing in any equipment.

Speed Profiling: Performed 1-2 times per week in a 10-yard and flying 10 (10 build up, 10 record) sprint.

Coaching Point: These assessments are performed weekly. Acceleration and speed are absolutely the name of the game in ice hockey, where elite level athletes routinely skate >25mph. We utilize a laser timing system to monitor and drive intent behind our speed and acceleration work. Thanks to Tony Holler, I have become a “Record, Rank, and Publish” fanatic.

Video Capture: Used on a case-by-case basis.

Coaching Point: The use of Coach’s Eye is instrumental in multiple areas, from sprint mechanics to Olympic lifting, to mobility assessments.

Eccentric Power: Used with our “Eccentric Bucket” group via the kBox kMeter.

Coaching Point: This allows us to track and monitor eccentric overload and other important metrics in our “Eccentric Bucket” group to see who needs more work in this area.

Athlete Management System: Utilized on the front and back ends, as a direct contact tool for recording wellness, sRPE, and weigh in and out, as well as central data storage, reporting, and communication.

Coaching Point: Our AMS serves multiple roles and is instrumental in our process. It is the “hub” for all our data, testing, recording, reporting, and basic visualizations.

Data Collection: An important but not very sexy tool for any and all performance coaches and sport scientists is simply Excel.

Coaching Point: We use Excel to warehouse all of our data, which allows me to run statistical analysis, compare simple or more complex metrics and relationships, export to visualization tools, and last but not least, develop and design training programs.

Data Visualization: Used to illustrate data, take away messages, and create reports.

Coaching Point: Tableau has become an invaluable tool (along with basic statistical analysis tools such as SPSS) for creating creative and effective visualizations, so that I can easily and effectively explain data in terms and pictures that resonate with the decision-makers within our program.

The Final Word on Sports Science in the Real World

Each of our tools is built into our process, so that important data can be collected where applicable, displayed in real time, and quickly and efficiently disseminated on the back end to better understand the “what” and the “why.” For example, our jump and sprint “testing” is built into our training program, so within the context of a tri or quad set, one of the “exercises” the athletes perform is a vertical jump or sprint variation. Internal load monitoring is just part of the process. Athletes put on their heart rate straps before training, they see their heart rate response on the TV or iPad during lifts, and they get to see their data after practice or games. Transparency is key.

Allowing athletes to see their data is crucial to the buy-in process—transparency is key. Click To Tweet

I wholeheartedly believe that allowing my athletes to see their data is crucial in the buy-in process. It goes back to having a “why” behind everything that we do. Some of the players don’t care, but a lot of them want to see what their HR response was during a game, and then have a conversation about it. Was this good? Bad? What do they need to work on? What does this mean? Why was mine different from his? These are all teachable moments and important “a-ha” moments for the players and myself.

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Devan McConnell

Devan McConnell was named UMass Lowell's first Director of Sports Performance in September of 2011. He was tasked with integrating a cutting edge sports performance program into the University's athletic department. At the time, UMass Lowell had never had a dedicated Performance Director or Sports Performance program. Under his direction, a comprehensive performance based model was introduced, focusing on movement quality, athletic development, and injury reduction strategies.

Before joining UMass Lowell, McConnell served as the Sports Performance Coordinator at Stanford University from 2008-2011. He worked closely with the women's basketball team, along with men's and women's volleyball, all of which were regulars in the NCAA Tournament. During his tenure, women’s basketball competed in three straight Final Fours, the women’s volleyball team competed in two Final Fours, and the men's volleyball program won the 2010 NCAA Championship.

While at Stanford, McConnell also served as the Performance Education Coordinator, instructing the Cardinals' personnel, building a staff library, and scheduling guest speakers. He continues his role as an educator, both as an Adjunct Professor in the Department of Physical Therapy at Lowell and as an internationally recognized speaker on all topics about performance enhancement. Devan has also authored multiple articles on strength and conditioning for ice hockey.


Dad. Husband. Head of Hockey Performance & Sport Science at UMass Lowell. Author of "Intent" available on Amazon Views expressed...
RT @GibbieDuval: 👇🏼👇🏼👇🏼devan is a wealth of knowledge and Great speaker! Highly recommend! - 2 hours ago