BATON ROUGE, La. The new training room in the $28 million football operations building at Louisiana State features jetted tubs, antigravity treadmills and sodium-infused water coolers. A room nearby holds another piece of equipment tucked out of sight: a centrifuge.
It is another example of how modern efforts to improve performance in big-time college athletics have moved beyond smoothies and sleep monitors. The centrifuge is used for blood work for injury treatments such as platelet-poor plasma therapy and stem-cell injections.
L.S.U. players also regularly have their sweat analyzed for nutritional deficiencies. They swallow digestible electronic pills that monitor body temperature. This summer, a dozen athletes wore neuroimaging headgear for the first time to get a peek at how their brains function in simulated athletic conditions.
Colleges have long boasted about world-class research laboratories and world-class athletic programs. Lately, the chances are greater that the two will intersect.
The rapid increase in slick gadgetry dedicated to collecting and analyzing biometrics now factors into the recruiting arms race for the top programs in college football. It has also prompted questions about player privacy and, in some cases, criticism over athletic spending for everything but player compensation.
Last fall, Clemson opened its Applied Sports Lab right in its football facility. It features a green screen and motion imaging technology that can capture detailed movements of each player. Two years earlier, Alabama unveiled an interdisciplinary center for health science and athletic training.
The University of Oklahoma collects urine samples from athletes for hydration studies, and football players at the University of Memphis sometimes wear sensors as they walk around campus to measure the amount of daily force exerted on their legs.
The University of Nebraskas Athletic Performance Lab has a system to measure blood flow in the brain. West Virginia has added far-infrared heat therapy pods, float tanks and cryotherapy chambers to its football recovery suite.
This suffusion of science onto the playing field is affecting all aspects of training, treatment and even player evaluation informing coaches how to maximize the efficiency of their athletes or perhaps to decide which of them belong on the bench. Many of these same coaches used to resist having many doctors and scientists around their team. Now, they are embracing the potential of the latest technology in the hands of skilled practitioners.
I love it, L.S.U. Coach Ed Orgeron said. Its the facts. Its not emotions.
Orgeron watched keenly last year as his wide receivers and tight ends ran routes wearing goggles that monitored their pupils to detect which eye they favored when catching passes.
That helped Orgerons assistants design better routes for the receivers. A similar test for defensive linemen could help them get off the snap quicker, Orgeron said.
Few places have been as willing to experiment as L.S.U., where the football support staff includes two kinesiologists from the universitys Pennington Biomedical Research Center and a full-time sports science research associate. They meet with the athletic trainer, Jack Marucci, three times a week.
Together, they have brainstormed some intriguing approaches to football players performance and wellness. There is, for instance, on the practice field, a 40-foot shipping container, chilled to 49 degrees, in which players can instantly cool down during hot summer workouts. Inside are two rows of bleachers for seating.
The locker room inside the newly renovated practice complex reflects the teams latest response to sleep science. Each of the 120 lockers contains a foldout bed, inspired by the fully reclinable seats in the first-class cabins of some planes. The lockers even have filtered air piped into their storage drawers to reduce the odor of used equipment.
L.S.U.s reveal of the locker rooms was lambasted from other parts of the campus, with professors and others on social media saying the universitys money should have been spent elsewhere. The school responded by saying all spending for the renovations came from private athletic donations.
Marucci, 55, considers the locker pods a game changer for recruiting. But for science and research, he is even giddier about the immersive virtual-reality room, complete with down markers for the team to simulate game situations.
Marucci is far better known for the eponymous wooden bat company he started out of his garage in 2004; today, more hitters in Major League Baseball swing Marucci lumber than any other brand.
When he is not traveling to baseball stadiums, he is typically evaluating one of the 15 new sports science product pitches he receives on average by email every day. Most are deleted. Not all.
When the Tigers find something they like, a result can be a full-blown makeover. Three years ago, after a spate of dehydration episodes, the staff analyzed players perspiration with wearable patches. Their conclusion: The athletes needed to be ingesting far more sodium.
So the trainers started dumping sodium tablets into the sideline coolers. The cafeteria chefs were instructed to be generous with the salt. And Marucci traveled to the Coca-Cola headquarters in Georgia to meet with executives about a Powerade machine that could customize drinks with precise amounts of sodium, electrolytes or sugar.
These machines are our water fountains now, Marucci said. The players will have their own custom drinks. If a guy needs to lose weight, he doesnt need to have as many carbs or sugars in his drink. We can identify guys that are cramping so we can add more sodium to his drink.
In some cases, the sodium obsession has gone beyond fluids. An L.S.U. tennis player with a tendency to cramp didnt love the taste of Powerade, so the trainers gave him cans of high-sodium Campbells soup to eat before matches.
He cramped one time all season, said Nathan Lemoine, the research associate. Why? He didnt take his soup.
For additional studies, the Pennington lab, Marucci said, is equipped with $200,000 cameras for biomechanics, scanners for body composition assessments and magnetic resonance imaging machines for concussion examinations. Were using all our resources, Marucci said. We have the access to the players, he added, and they have the expertise.
For years, coaches tended to oppose lending athletes to the scientists. Testing equaled time. And coaches stay protective of time.
But the rise of more consumer-friendly (and expeditious) equipment combined with savvy marketing has changed that. As teams started investing in more tools like wearable GPS technology for player-movement tracking all the data gathered often fell in the lap of a strength coach or a trainer. Those coaches then turned to scientists to interpret the analytics.
Thats how I started at Ohio State, said Josh Hagen, now the director of the Human Performance Innovation Center at West Virginia. I saw they were overwhelmed with data. I was like, Hey, Id love to help you with that.
He added, As long as you can provide a direct benefit to their daily routine, thats your ticket in.
Coaches began to see the benefits, too, particularly as a recruiting chip for attracting young athletes who have grown up natively comfortable with technology. These kids are different, Orgeron said. Theyre going to try stuff. Theyre reading about it, and they want to be a part of it.
Others have urged more caution. Warren Zola, a sports law professor at Boston College, has watched the proliferation of sports science technology advance from wearables to the more invasive techniques, like blood and urine analyses. And he wonders about how all that data might be used, who gets to use it and who gets to keep it.
I have no doubt that these institutions are developing these athletes in ways that they think will enhance their abilities and skills, Zola said. The question is, Who is looking out for the students?
Unlike professional sports, college athletes have no union supporting them or agent reading through the fine print of how a neural assessment might impact their playing time or draft position.
If youre an 18-year-old recruit on a football team, Zola said, are you willing to stand up to your coach and say: No, I dont want you to draw my blood because I dont know how youre going to use it or protect it. You may be trying to help me, but there may be stuff I dont want to know.
Marucci said participation in the various studies and biometric data collection at L.S.U. is voluntary; not everyone agreed to participate and there were no repercussions. One particular research request the digestible electronic pill did have a few players raising their eyebrows.
One of the first questions they asked me is, Are you tracking me? Lemoine said with a laugh. The answer is no.
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