Cam Davidson had been using the new medical devices with the Penn State men’s hockey team for less than a week, and he was still learning what all the information meant.
The Nittany Lions were about to face off against St. Lawrence in their second game of the season, the starters were setting up for the puck drop, and the team’s strength and conditioning coach was looking at his computer screen showing the heart rate of every player.
Each name was highlighted in green on a four-color coded scale. That was good, he thought. That’s the lowest heart rate reading, and he thought it meant everyone was relaxed.
Five minutes of game action later, Penn State was trailing 3-0, and Davidson was rethinking that assumption.
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In the weeks and months since then, he learned more about the system and how to interpret what he saw. He realized the players should be in the opposite zone, with hearts pumping hard. In that first period, the Nittany Lions were not warmed up enough. In every game since, they have been where they were supposed to be, and it took until January before the team lost another game.
It’s the latest technology giving an assist to the Nittany Lions: heart monitors on every team member for every practice and game, providing real-time information to Davidson so he can evaluate their conditions, and relay that to the student-athletes and coaches.
It’s like a Fitbit, but it gives far more depth and breadth of information.
“What really would help us coaches is knowing when we would need more conditioning, and when we might be getting burned out,” head coach Guy Gadowsky said. “Individually, or if the team is looking sluggish, we can see that. We can see that (without the monitors) but we don’t know if they’re sluggish because they’re out of shape, or because they’re getting burned out.”
Taking a look
The device is a small oval, a little bigger than a quarter, that sits at the bottom of the sternum and is held in place by a strap around the body. The Nittany Lions started wearing them during their first practice on Oct. 1 and it didn’t take long for the players to get used to wearing them.
“You can’t really tell when you’re wearing it at all,” sophomore forward Chase Berger said. “I think maybe the first day there was a bit of an adjustment, just for like five minutes, but I don’t notice it at all.”
Davidson said on rare occasions the device will slip out of place, and has to be put back on during an intermission. Also, during one game Andrew Sturtz took a crosscheck right on the device, which bruised his ribs, though Davidson thinks Sturtz would have been injured anyway just from the hit.
The monitor transmits all of its information to Davidson’s laptop as he watches from the coaches’ booth inside the press box, and he can follow along, either specifically looking at one player’s information or small thumbnails of every team member.
Since they started wearing the devices, loads of information has been compiled on each player, from resting heart rate to their maximum rate, and then calculations are made for calories burned, oxygen consumption, their training load and training effect. Davidson can tell when players are not working hard enough, and when they are getting close to burned out, who does his best when his heart rate is near its maximum and who does better at a lower rate, when they are not eating right and when they are not getting enough sleep.
Each player gets an email updating their levels, complete with charts and graphs, and Gadowsky also gets a report, both from practices and after games.
“Everybody works hard,” Davidson said. “It’s just who’s working smarter.”
It didn’t take long to convince the players of the importance, but Davidson and the coaches met with the players frequently to explain the system before they first started wearing them.
There were a few who were not getting good rest early in the season, and Davidson had a couple conversations with them right before the team played at Notre Dame. The team earned a win and tie against the then-No. 3 Fighting Irish, and Davidson could tell his words had an impact.
“Those guys that I talked to played extremely well,” Davidson said. “That added validity. Whether it works or not, if the guys didn’t believe in it, it wouldn’t be helpful, but since they understood it and didn’t have a problem with it, they are seeing it work and guys are believing in it, now it’s just another part of what we’re doing.”
Some team members appreciate the importance but don’t dwell on it, but there are some who are enthralled by the system, including a couple kinesiology majors.
“It’s really fascinating to be able to see all those kind of numbers,” said senior Dylan Richard, who wishes he had the system earlier both for himself physically and to use with his kinesiology classes. “Trying to find out any trends that comes with it.”
The readouts on Davidson’s laptop and the printouts include colors to emphasize where the athletes’ heart rates are reading. Green is the lowest, for resting and recovery; there are two shades of blue for their aerobic zone, when they are good and warmed up; and the final two stages are yellow and red for the highest intensity — like the high RPMs on the tachometer of your car. Much like that car, you can hit the red sometimes, but you don’t want to live there.
As for that game against St. Lawrence, after the team had skated around the ice a few laps, the starting lineups were introduced and the national anthem was sung before it was time for faceoff. The five skaters on the ice were all reading green.
Over the ensuing months of learning nuances of the program, Davidson realized the players on the ice need to be good and sweating even before that first puck drops.
“I knew it, I saw it,” Davidson said of that night. “Guy didn’t know until Monday.”
Gadowsky, however, thinks the issue was the team was not mentally prepared for the game — although that could have led to the players not skating with purpose before faceoff.
“Over the course of a season, now we can look back and see if there was any correlation,” Gadowsky said. “At that time we didn’t even have enough information to raise a red flag.”
The charts the players see after games show their work, with yellow and red peaks on the graph when they are sprinting down the ice, and blue and green as they sit on the bench between shifts.
Another new tool, added in January, is a force plate that sits on the floor in the weight room. Players jump up and down on the plate three times in quick succession, and from that a lot more is learned about their bodies including muscle reaction, recovery, muscle strength and if one side is being favored to forecast a possible injury.
The baseline is much smaller for Davidson as he is still learning about the force plate, but it is another tool they can use, and the two systems put Penn State in an advantageous position.
“As far as the curve with the best teams in the country,” he said, “we are there and maybe even a little bit ahead.”
The heart monitoring system comes from Firstbeat, an analytics technology company. The business has better than 700 clients around the world, including professional soccer and rugby teams overseas, as well as teams in the NFL, NBA and NHL and a number of college programs including Alabama, Michigan and Wisconsin.
There are a number of other Nittany Lion programs that use monitors, either from Firstbeat or similar devices including soccer, field hockey and basketball. Davidson thinks it is practical for nearly every sport except baseball and throwers in track and field.
One of the most important things Davidson has stressed is the information he gets will not be determining playing time, and he does not contact Gadowsky or the other assistant coaches during games.
“If he says they’re not working hard, it’s from what he sees, from being a coach for so many years and knowing,” Davidson said.
The first four years of the varsity program were about laying a foundation, both for the program in general and for how they train and what players learn about their bodies. With that in place, this adds another layer.
“We need data first,” Gadowsky said. “We need experience in general, and then experience with individuals. … There’s no one-size-fits-all.”
Has the new technology contributed to the best season in program history, helping them achieve the No. 1 ranking in the country last month? It surely hasn’t hurt.
It has helped balance practices each week, so if one day is especially taxing, the next can be a little lighter, or vice versa.
The student-athletes didn’t get to enjoy a system like this as they were learning the game and playing in juniors, and many who move on to play professionally likely won’t see it again.
But while they have it, they are learning to be better, healthier, more prepared athletes.
“It definitely had helped us a little bit,” Richard said. “It’s those little things that can put a team over the top. It’s definitely important and working well for us.”