Biotech is coming to UConn, and athletes ought to be ready

Korey Stringer Institute. (File Photo/The Daily Campus)

In a recent Hartford Courant article titled “Technology is becoming part of the game for UConn men's basketball,” Director of Recruiting and Video Tripp Doherty posited that in the near future the team may embrace technology in seeking a competitive advantage. This included potentially outfitting the players in wearables from Catapult Sports, who purports to be the “World leader in sports performance tracking devices.”

It would be a nice synergy. The program could cultivate valuable player health and fitness data, while Catapult would add another high-profile organization to its arsenal of utilizing entities. They would not be UConn’s first team to undertake such an endeavor.

The ways in which biometric data has been collected and are put in use varies by sport. It is becoming more and more common in professional soccer, with clubs like Real Madrid and Barcelona utilizing Catapult technologies. In Major League Baseball, wearables are used to collect data, mostly to determine pitcher health and breakdowns from fatigue. However, the MLB Collective Bargaining Agreement mandates that the information collected must be destroyed if requested by the player.

The NBA and NFL have similar mitigating approaches. Wearables are prohibited in NBA games, and use in practice has to be an opt-in from the player. The NFL Players Association preempted some concerns by signing a five year deal with WHOOP, another human performance company, to measure sleep and recovery, but made it explicit the data will be the player’s exclusively to own and distribute as they choose.

With the caliber of the tech and what it can assess advancing, the use of wearable and advanced sport science will only become more pervasive and it may become a major point of contention in upcoming collective bargaining sessions for the teams.

The NCAA does not have a player’s union to combat it. Wearables are allowed to collect information in game, but that data cannot be used to make performance-enhancing adjustments. This is all subject to evolution and change.

At UConn, it is already here. According to Maureen Butler, Head Strength and Conditioning Coach/Director of Olympic Sports, the following teams use Polar Team Pro System tracking technology: Men’s soccer, men’s ice hockey, field hockey and women’s basketball. In speaking with other athletes, other teams that have or do employ wearable tech include women’s soccer, women’s ice hockey, women’s cross country and volleyball as well.

Not all two programs are alike; the women’s hockey team only used their monitoring devices in practice and workout settings, while the men’s team brought them into games.

Starting their second week of training camp, the women’s soccer team wore monitors from WHOOP and had access to myriad measurables collected this season.

One member of the team shared that there was an intro session explaining the process, how to utilize the device and the significance of the data while addressing any questions the team had. There were only 20 available devices, and they were in high demand to the point that inactive players, goalies and some freshman were not able to participate.

According to this student athlete, those partaking could see a host of metrics including average heart rate, resting heart rate, heart rate variability, calories burnt, daily activity/strain, hours of sleep, sleep performance and suggested sleep. Participation also allowed for comparison and cross checking with previous data.

While there were some initial concerns about what was being collected and how, the team’s worries were assuaged by assurances individual discernments were not being made.

Elsewhere, the UConn volleyball team has just started using jump monitors from a company called VERT during its spring season.

This entails strapping a monitoring device around the waist, below the belly button. It gives feedback on the height of each athlete’s jump, the impact of their landing, and dynamic movements like peak acceleration or quality of movement.

Even though no player said they wanted out of the program, one player said she was not sure of an opt-out. The only real worry is the fact that the device relies on WiFi, and with Gampel’s notoriously spotty quality, there was some suspicion to the accuracy of the data collected.

Still, in the opinion of both student athletes, the data is valuable because the coaches can ascertain when players are under or over performing their stamina, as well as adjusting their workload properly.

“I definitely think, overall, it was an advantage and had a positive impact for the team,” the women’s soccer player said. “It was just really beneficial and interesting to access to such much information.”

In 2016, Dr. Douglas Casa, Professor and CEO for UConn’s Korey Stringer Institute (KSI) in conjunction with WHOOP, a human performance company, completed a study “to explore areas of human athletic performance and recovery.”

They measured “how sleep, heart rate (HR) and heart rate variability (HRV) metrics can be integrated together and inform decision making to promote optimal performance, speed recovery, and promote general health and wellness,” according to an article on BusinessWire.com.

The subjects were 40 (26 male and 14 female) student athletes from the men’s soccer and women’s cross-country teams at UConn. The participation was from March to December of 2016. WHOOP wearables collected data, in and away from game action. In addition to heart and sleep data, information was collected on participant hydration, demographics, and blood biomarkers.

Casa and the KSI recently conducted another research study with ten NCAA soccer programs across the country.

Dr. Robert Huggins, an assistant research professor in the department of kinesiology and the KSI’s Vice President for Research, was one of the leaders of that project. He says all studies like those aforementioned go through thorough vetting and informative functions, including receiving approval from the IRB (Internal Review Board) for ethics, and explaining to an athletic department’s compliance the scope of the project such as what the athletes will be doing and wearing, as well as what is being collected.

They adhere to a Data Safety Management Protocol which is used to anonymize data. Medical issues that are flagged may be shared, but otherwise the coach and human performance staffs only received data in the aggregate.

Their study is not fully published, but Huggins believes they made exciting inroads in the study of stressors, injury prevention and recovery. Their team will meet and present their findings to administrators at the NCAA in the near future.

It is necessary to consider future implications as well. DNA and blood testing, despite public setbacks, are progressing to a point where one day they will be ostensibly able to “optimize” and “prescript” the athlete experience when it comes to health and nutrition. It is a question if student athletes, already lacking stature, should simply just trust authority figures to handle this. For example, in 2017 Nike and University of Michigan received some public ire after agreeing to a deal that gave Nike deep access to student athlete data while affording them few protections.

There will be a lot of gray in the merit of whatever existence occurs.

On the one hand, athlete data can be incredibly valuable. According to Huggins, as long as programs are consistent and diligent in employment, like staying with the same system, there is valuable insight that can make a large impact on the student athlete and their experience. The key will to be to make small, but tangible and targeted, changes.

It genuinely can be used to obtain both more winning and success alongside player wellness and injury prevention. Theoretically, if UConn went full bore in this realm, it could be on the cutting edge of the next disruption of sports and not only gain a competitive advantage but set precedent as well.

They already have a major boon with the Korey Stringer Institute on campus. Huggins said their study is one of few in the ether because of the massive workload and obstacles that entail undertaking one.

“UConn can be a pioneer and at the cutting edge,” Huggins said, “People are looking to us for how to successfully integrate this all with college athletes and the game, while protecting students interests.”

He believes having the right people is key, and some of those types are already in place at UConn.

“It all hinges upon how data is collected and presented. If you have a coach or Director of Performance who is trained in health data analytics, and the sport itself, that’s the person you need,” Huggins said.

On the other hand, put in the hands of a malevolent actor like a coach or sports performance staffer with malintent, risks of harmful conduct and conflict of interests present themselves. In the NCAA, adult authority figures hold leverage over students and could demand information some feel is too personal.

It is a simple invasion of privacy to some. A reasonable first principles question would simply be, “Why is the staff member, and by proxy, the university entitled to this information?” There will also be a burden on teams and the university to protect this data and handle it appropriately.

Butler thinks there is a misconception about the use cases; people suspect it is a gauge of “how hard an athlete is working,” but really “it is a means of collecting valuable information to make informed decisions on training and recovery needs.”

Consider the hypothetical that would surround the now popularized transfer portal where student athletes present themselves to other schools as interested in transferring without requesting a release. What if the school set to lose the player leveraged their data against them in the athlete marketplace, inhibiting their prospects? Programs often cut, or strongly imply that players should move on because of performance, academic and/or cultural reasons. Would it be wrong for a staff to notice a player who fatigues easy, or has a gimpy elbow, and do the same?

Huggins says athletes need to be aware and ask questions. Making sure the representatives who work with athletic departments are bringing up proper concerns and advocating on their behalf. UConn has a Student Athlete Advisory Council (SAAC) that launched in 2016, but a request for comment was not answered prior to the deadline of this story.

“I cannot speak on behalf of our student-athletes but anecdotally, student-athletes who I have spoken with do enjoy participating and understand the value,” Butler, the Human Performance head, said. “Prospective student-athletes often ask what forms of technology are being used and appear to have a basic knowledge of what is out there and utilized.”

“It’s all new to us,” the volleyball player said. “I think we will be attentive to how it goes, but at the end of the day, we are looking to improve. If this helps with that, I don’t foresee any problems.”


Matt Barresi is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at matthew.barresi@uconn.edu.