Illinois Staff using Catapult Tech


Photo Courtesy of Illinois Athletics

Ricky Smalling uses the catapult vest at Memorial Stadium. The vests transmit data to assistant strength and conditioning coach John Ferranto, who monitors it during practice.

By Gavin Good, Staff Writer

Illinois always wants to know more about the physical outputs and performance capabilities of its players.

That’s part of why the program bought 44 Catapult vests that provide coaches with a live feed of data as players go about their everyday efforts in practice and workouts.

Fit with a GPS device, Illinois players wear the vests, or ‘bros’ as they’re nicknamed, for each of the 14 spring practices.

Fourth-year head football trainer Jeremy Busch is eager for the program to yield the results of the vests’ data.

But for now, it’s about building a baseline of data to assess.

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“Right now, it’s more of trying to put these devices on them, track them and get some baseline data on them,” Busch said. “Then we can move forward in terms of how do we use that.”

Illinois knows every athlete is different, so it wants to establish what each athlete’s expected workload should be.

The vests transmit data to assistant strength and conditioning coach John Ferranto, who monitors it during practice.

Duration of heavy workloads, maximum velocities, time spent within a percentage of maximum velocities, acceleration and deceleration are all measured.

Busch said Illinois is still figuring out how it will use the data received from the vests but that it will help the staff make decisions for practice and conditioning plans.

Strength and conditioning coach Lou Hernandez agrees it’s probably too early to assess the returns of using the vests during spring practice, but he noted they’ve already been helping hold players accountable.

There’s a difference between a coach’s opinion of how hard a player has worked and the cold, hard figures.

“Guys at times can think, ‘Hey, coach, I’m working hard,’” Hernandez said. “It’s like, ‘You might feel like you’re working hard, but your expectations have to meet our expectations.’ That computer program is very unbiased. It’s just actual facts and numbers; it shows where you actually are. It’s like if you get pulled over for a speeding ticket, you can sit there and try to complain about it however you want. However, this was the number you were actually doing. That’s exactly what this is, too.”

Busch has thought about joining a growing wave of schools using similar technology for some time.

“We’ve been looking at it from afar from a little bit. (It) took some time to see if it would be something that fit our program,” Busch said. “This is a time where we’re starting to get the pieces in place. We want to try to maximize that while we’ve got them all here.”

Hernandez, for his part, saw the benefits of having such detailed data at hand while he was North Carolina’s strength and conditioning coach.

There, the staff realized its players were exerting themselves more during the pregame routine than in parts of the actual game.

“What we found, which was really valuable information for us, was that we noticed our pregame activity was probably the highest, or if not, amongst the highest in workload and output,” Hernandez said.

While Busch and the Illini haven’t uncovered anything as big as that, Busch has no doubt the vests are a positive for the student-athletes and the coaches alike.

“It reassures our student-athletes that; No.1, we have their health and wellness on the top of our minds at all times,” Busch said. “We’re trying to organize what we do from a sports medicine side, a rehab side, from a strength and conditioning side, really trying to maximize their performance but also minimize their injury risk.”

Injuries are a reality every football team must deal with, but the fewer, the better.

Ultimately, the Illinois staff believes the data they take in from the ‘bros’ will help them make decisions which help players stay at their healthiest.

By tailoring workloads to each player’s needs, Busch thinks Illinois can put guys in position to avoid injuries throughout the season.

“This is a great tool for us in order to truly maximize our student athletes’ performance and reduce their injury risks,” Busch said. “Football is inherently a sport that runs a high injury rate.”

When certain muscles or areas of the body are overworked consistently, they can begin to wear down, which can lead to soft tissue injuries.

Hernandez said using similar statistics at North Carolina helped mitigate injuries, particularly soft tissue injuries, which leads to a competitive advantage.

“Probably what’s most important is with injury prevention,” Hernandez said. “We don’t want guys to come out here for consecutive days and consecutive weeks and have super high workloads. That’s when you’ll start to have some issues with soft-tissue injuries.”

Now, Illinois is starting to get a wealth of data on its hands.

Learning more about the maturing roster this spring, the staff is planning to implement its findings over the summer and fall.

Players, meanwhile, can also use the data to learn about how they are coming along in their strength and conditioning regimens.

From heart rate to max velocity, those that put in the amount of work expected will be able to see the numbers as validation, while players lagging behind will also know.

“It’s going to make sure that guys are actually hitting the specific goal for the day,” Hernandez said. “It’s a tough sport. It’s a demanding sport. It’s a grueling sport.”

Hernandez thinks the vests will be crucial to holding players accountable for putting forth their best effort, especially as the grind wears on throughout the season.

“There is no substitute for hard work and pain and discomfort,” he said. “Not everybody every day wants to get to that level of discomfort. So it’s those days when maybe you’re a little slower coming out of bed, whatever it might be, you still have to try to hit this goal of the day.”


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