When Notre Dame's Director of Sports Science Matt Howley first started working with the men's soccer team over three years ago, head coach Bobby Clark gave him the reigns to revise their fitness training program.
A significant part of Howley's revision was the introduction of a new athlete monitoring technology called Catapult.
The GPS device is fairly small, no bigger than a bar of soap, and it fits snugly into a pocket that sits between the shoulder blades on compression shirts worn beneath the players' jerseys. Using satellite technology, the device measures things like how far or fast a player runs, how many times they sprint in a game, and various body movements, to name a few.
The measurement Howley looks at most, though, is 'player load', a number that, simply put, encompasses all of an athlete's movements to represent the total output of an athlete. "[Player load] takes into account what speed you're running at, how many accelerations you're doing, how many decelerations you're doing, how many times you change direction (front and back, side to side, up and down), all that kind of stuff," said Howley.
The soccer team wears these devices in all of their games and practices. On the surface, game data collected by the system provides some fascinating numbers.
The highest speed recorded by a player in a game, for example, is 33.4 kilometers per hour (about 20.8 miles per hour) by sophomore forward Jon Gallagher. Data from the devices has also shown that the players run, on average, about 6.8 miles in a game.
While these numbers alone are intriguing, the technology accomplishes so much more than just measuring who ran the fastest or the furthest in a game. The Catapult system is an invention that has truly transformed the fitness program of the men's soccer team, which is exactly what Coach Clark asked Howley to do.
For Howley and the soccer team, gathering data from games is essential in the larger goal of helping athletes perform at their highest level while also staying away from injury.
Once game data from the devices is collected and analyzed, the performance requirements for a typical soccer game can be determined. Then, Matt and the coaches can use that information to efficiently map out their practices and training for a given week.
"When we're planning practice, we look at the data so we can know what's easy and what's hard," said Howley. "The biggest thing is, you can train however you want to train but you need to understand the demands of your game to actually be on a program. By monitoring it and understanding the load you did in a game you can then adjust your training load - do more, do less. By having everything charted, then we can be proactive. We know if we do X drill, we're going to accumulate on average X kind of effort. We will then know what drills to do [in practice]."
Not only does the data, and especially player load measurements, collected from the devices help the coaches decide which sessions and drills in practice will help players achieve optimum performance in game scenarios, but it also helps the coaching staff monitor fatigue and, in result, decrease the likelihood of injury in their players.
When it comes to fatigue and injury, Howley says, the high intensity movements, such as sprinting, are the ones he monitors most closely.
"We know that those higher intensity movements are the ones that can potentially be the most harming but, they're essentially instances that can win us games," said Howley. "So, if we can have them better maintained and healthier at that point, we can then ensure we're able to perform on game day."
Noticing fatigue represented in the data is one thing. But, making conscious decisions in response is more challenging.
"The hardest thing to figure out is what to do with the information and how to convey that to a coach," said Howley. "I like to think we're now in a position where we're able to use it week to week and actually make some informed decisions."
Those informed decisions could be changing the intensity of a practice or just giving the players a day off altogether.
When I spoke to Howley last Wednesday, the team was coming off a six day stretch where they played in two double overtime games and one single overtime game. Based on the Catapult data and more subjective measures, such as wellness questionnaires given to the players, a decision was made to give those who played the most minutes an extra day off.
These decisions, though, are not made my Howley alone. The entire coaching staff gets a chance to analyze and apply the Catapult information that is collected.
Howley also sends an individualized report to the players after every game so that they can see what kind of data is being recorded and how they are performing. "The coaches get a report every day," said Howley. "We give the coaches a little more information [than the players], though that doesn't mean that they'll necessarily understand it any more. We just give [the players] game data and some basic running information."
So, what numbers do the players focus on the most?
"For them, it's all about top speed," said Howley. "It's never 'how much distance did I run?' It's usually 'how fast did I go?' It's a competition between the guys."
Once they get past the speed element, though, Howley says the devices are helping the players better understand and appreciate the training process.
"The guys, in some sense, are really trusting," said Howley. "They know that we know how we're managing them and that there's a reason for everything. It's not like we just come out here and train. There's a rationale behind what we do and a reason that the day before a game looks the way it does and why they get days off when they do. It's all planned out."
Captain Max Lachowecki is in his fifth year on the team and has been here throughout the entire process of incorporating the Catapult system. Lachowecki acknowledges the impact of the system on the team's fitness regimen. "[Matt] completely changed the culture around our fitness program and the way we do things," said Lachowecki.
And while Max said it's "cool" to see the results from the game in terms of the effort he's putting out, he understands that there's a deeper effect as well.
"It's a confidence boost for us going into each game knowing that we are the fittest team in the country," said Lachowecki. "There's no reason that a team should outwork us. It's all mental at that point."
So far, the revitalized fitness program has had plenty of chances to prove it's worth. The men's team has played in seven overtime or double overtime games this season. Their record in these games is two wins, zero losses, and five ties. Being able to stay in the game is, in large part, due to the fitness of the team, something Howley credits to more than just the Catapult system.
"If we hadn't gone to the structure, the program, the philosophy we use, we wouldn't be at this level," said Howley. "That all stems from the underlying of the coaching and those kinds of things that we instilled three years ago. But [Catapult] gives us the ability to provide the coaches and the guys with more information."
While Howley works closely with the men's soccer squad, they aren't the only team using this technology. The women's soccer team has been using Catapult for four years and men's and women's lacrosse as well as women's basketball have been using it for two years. The hockey, football, and volleyball teams have all done trials with the system and, according to Howley, will likely adopt it completely in the near future if funding is available.
Outside of Notre Dame, the system is even more popular. It is being used on a regular basis by 15 NFL teams, 11 NBA teams, 2 NHL teams, 35 schools in the NCAA, and countless professional rugby and soccer teams internationally.
If you ask Bobby Clark about the fitness of his team, he'll give almost all of the credit to Matt Howley and his implementation of the Catapult system. How does Howley feel about that?
"[Catapult] definitely helps," said Howley. "I wouldn't say it's the ultimate reason, but without it we wouldn't be able to make some of the decisions we've been able to make."