Athletes across all sports have been wearing them for years. Yet the look still inspires ill-informed reactions that skip over logic, going directly to the absurd. This is the 21St Century; sports medicine is at its apex, an ever-developing, changing one at that.
Maybe it’s Brandi Chastain’s fault. After scoring the winning penalty kick to claim the 1999 Women’s FIFA World Cup for the United States in the United States, the elated, joyous Chastain tore off her jersey and brought viral-level attention to sports bras.
You want me to wear what?
“At first, they are uncomfortable,” conceded Sporting KC Captain Matt Besler.
As those in other sports, Besler and his teammates have been wearing the vests during training for years. But they have not worn them in games until this year. Restricting movement, not feeling “open” – especially when its 100 degrees at game time – is a concern.
“There was some fight back [from players] a little bit because on game day it just wasn’t part of our routine and our uniform,” said Besler. “But [Director of Sports Performance and Science] Mateus [Manoel] made some good points to the players about how it is the best way to gain data and how, in the long run, it’s really going to help the team.”
The Technology within
Manoel sat down with The Blue Testament at Sporting’s Pinnacle Training Center on Tuesday to give us an education about the technology and science behind the use of the vests, a tactic that fits with Sporting’s focus on being at the forefront of high tech in the sporting world.
Seated within the vest is a “pod” that has a GPS that tracks distance and speed. There is also a heartrate monitor. That’s pretty basic – things a GPS watch can track. In an average match, a Sporting KC player who plays the full 90 minutes runs anywhere between 10-12K, according to Besler. But the next step goes far beyond.
An accelerometer and a gyroscope are also housed within. Those sense abrupt movement, impact, and the directions of those, as in jumping up and down vs running forward and backwards vs rotation of the body. This tracking of human movements gives a true picture of, for example, how hard the athlete is sprinting, how hard the athlete is stopping, and how hard a goalkeeper, for example, is falling to the ground.
“What you are trying to do is quantify what is happening to one’s body in a training session [or match], which is the Holy Grail of training for sports – this balance between how much training load one is getting and how much recovery one is getting,” said Manoel.
“Your effort is always to try and prevent injuries from happening and to increase their performance. But if you don’t know how much they are doing, and you are just basing it off the eye, then objectively you don’t really know what they are doing,” he continued.
The eye can see the session. And a trainer can ask questions of the individual like, ‘How difficult was that training session for you?’
But with the pods, “At the end of the day, the player can’t lie about anything,” Manoel stated. “We have full access to everything they are doing.”
The Art … how data is used to achieve purpose
After the data for a training session or match is taken in, Manoel downloads it to his computer through a dock and then uploads it to a cloud-based software called Conduct. Conduct allows access anytime, anywhere for those in Sporting Club who need to see not only the first-team Sporting players’ metrics, but those of the 2nd team – Swope Park Rangers, as well as the U-19s, 17s, and 15s.
“For example, if I know there is a player coming up from Swope, and I don’t know what he’s done the last week in training, I can, in two seconds, figure out what he did last week and then plan his day for today, as opposed to taking a shot in the dark and say ‘He’s okay. Let’s just have him train,’” Manoel explained. “So we are planning workloads for everybody because there is this true integration in the club between different properties.”
Those are important logistical aspects for certain. But what is done with the data? How it is interpreted is where, said Manoel, “the art really comes in.”
“Practitioners have a lot of different ways of looking at data. They pick different metrics,” he stated. “We have a recipe here of analyzing the data and making sense of the data because there are over 2000 metrics and data points that at any point I can look at for each player.”
Though Manoel did not give away any secrets, he is seeing results.
“It’s yielding some results because we have a better idea of what these guys are doing on a daily basis and how to best prepare them for the game…,” he revealed. “I know how much they do in a game; therefore, I know how much I need to prepare during a week or over several weeks to get them fit for a game so by minute fifty they are not falling over and dying.”
An interesting case…
Sporting Kansas City recently signed Spanish center back/midfielder Andreu Fontas on a free transfer to a contract that will require using Targeted-Allocation Money. He will provide needed quality depth in both areas, the sooner the better. Fontas was in preseason mode with his former club, thus his level of match-readiness is unknown. Or is it?
“Fontas is actually a pretty cool example because the team he is coming from, Celta Vigo, uses the same system,”said Manoel. “I’ve ask the physical coach there to send me, literally an Excel file, with all his data for the last three months. I take the data, upload it to my cloud, and now he’s a part of my system. And I have an idea of what he’s done.”
However, “…it’s just numbers.” Manoel doesn’t know exactly what those training sessions were.
“All I know is that he ran X amount of miles, did these many sprints, did these many changes of direction,” he explained. “But I have a clear idea of what we do on a weekly basis. Is that a lot more or a lot less than what he’s used to doing, so when he comes here, it’s not a spike in training load, that he’s not doing so much here compared to now so that he does three sessions and he’s falling over begging for three massages at the end of the day.”
A caveat. And the impact on players.
There is no live monitoring of players via the pods during MLS contests (Manoel believes the league does not allow it), so Manoel cannot use data to communicate extra burdens on players. The old fashioned eye must suffice. However, Manoel does live monitor training and communicates with Vermes. For example, if the training is getting too heavy the day before a game, Manoel will alert the manager, and he will shut it down.
The Monday following a weekend match, the players receive a printout of their metrics. And, not surprisingly in a competitive group, there is a fair amount of comparing, chiding, and bragging that goes on between players as they see if they are “up to par.”
But, for the players, the most tangible impact of the pods and the metrics comes psychologically: ‘Why did I feel so good last game?’ ‘Why does my body feel heavy this week?’
“If a player is interested in those statistics and information, we just go in Mateus’ or [Assistant Fitness Coach] Joey’s [Harty] office and say, ‘…Can we look at the last week in my workload and see if its any different than in weeks past?’” Besler revealed. “[They may say], ‘Actually, it is. So that’s the reason why you are feeling heavy.’ If it’s not, then you know that. It’s knowledge. Knowledge is key. It’s piece of mind.”
If the workload is not more when a player is feeling heavy, a logical progression of ‘Is it your sleep? Is it your diet?’ commences.
Which leads to a shake bar and a mistake you may be making…
Traditional body weight measurements are made to gauge a player’s loss of fluid and similar details. Pinnacle features a shake bar that is positioned, by design, next to the players’ locker room. It’s a part of the recovery strategy at Pinnacle.
“Through research, we know that nutritionally, there are two important phases: getting nutrients in so that you can go perform and getting nutrients in so that you can recover,” said Manoel.
“There is a 30-minute window to optimally replenish all those nutrients [from a workout] so your body doesn’t lose any muscle mass and you can recover quicker. So we have a post-workout shake immediately after training that our nutritionist is preparing, based on their needs…”
“If it’s a younger guy like [Gianluca] Busio, for example, he is going to get a little more calories and protein [to bulk him up some]. They take that and we know they have their replenishment. And then we have lunch everyday about 12:45pm (from the full kitchen at Pinnacle). Then they will get their meal, and everything is taken care of, as opposed to a lot of guys who go to the gym and do a hard workout for an hour-and-a-half, two hours; then they put nothing in their mouths for two hours,” Manoel pointed. “Your body needs fuel. Fuel fuels your cells. Your cells need the building blocks of muscle, which is essentially protein.”
It all makes sense. Science sense. Let’s ditch the absurdity, and embrace the vest. All the top athletes and clubs are.