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GPS and heart-rate monitors are helping save Maryland college and high school athletes from injuries

The black fabric strapped to each member of the Loyola Maryland men’s soccer team is a dead ringer for a sports bra, but it’s not.

The Greyhounds are part of a growing number of college, high school and professional teams using GPS and/or heart-monitoring systems to protect their players. For Loyola, that protection comes in the form of a chip on the back of the “vest,” which follows the players’ every move and will spew fountains of data for coaches to parse through.

Loyola employs the GPS monitoring system from VX Sport to track five main variables — total distance, high-speed running (above 17 kilometers per hour), number of sprints (above 25 km/hr), acceleration and deceleration, using players’ coordinates. If a forward is running but isn’t sprinting where he needs to be in the zone, the coaches know. If a midfielder is decelerating on the wrong spot on the pitch, the coaches know.

“You can tell who put the work in and who didn’t,” coach Steve Nichols said. “You can tell if something’s going on. It helps with a lot of little things you never would have known and, more importantly, health.”

Take two Greyhound center backs, for instance, Sam Carter and Mickey Watson. Watson would run five miles in a game, and Carter would only run two.

“Sam is so much more talented and he can do it in two, do it better than Mickey did in five, but the problem we run into is that Sam's fitness level is [down],” Nichols said. “Now he's unfit. Without the tech, we wouldn't know that.”

The staff has the Red Bulls Academy product running on the team’s off days. This is how practices work — each training session is tailored to all 29 players’ individual needs. Collectively, those who run close to 90 minutes in a game will have 30 minutes of weight-training the next day; those who rode the bench will clock mileage as if they were playing a game themselves.

Most major college soccer programs, like Maryland, have the tech or something similar, Nichols said. Each team that uses the VX system pays a one-time fee for the equipment and an annual fee ranging from $60 to $150 per athlete, according to VX Sport director of sports performance in the United States, Steve Gisselman. Fifty college teams use their brand; Maryland field hockey, women’s soccer, volleyball, and both lacrosse programs have also invested.

Nichols convinced Loyola to make the $45,000 investment in the tech two years ago.

“We’re recruiting guys from the Red Bulls Academy in New York, and they're wearing it as youth players,” he said. “If we don't have it, why are they going to come to us? They're going to go to Duke.”

Six of the 12 members of the preseason All-Patriot League team were Greyhounds — a fact Nichols finds almost embarrassing, considering they haven’t won an NCAA title in 42 years. The GPS monitor, he thinks, will change that, attracting pro-caliber players for seasons to come.

In four games this fall, the Greyhounds are 3-2. Since adopting the tech before last season, Loyola is 14-8-1.

In the case of Hereford girls soccer, the results are even clearer. The team denied then-two-time defending champion Sparrows Point’s third Baltimore County championship and competed for their first state title since 2000 last fall.

“Is that luck? Or is that partially due to this [tech]? I don't know,” said coach Brad Duvall, who also coaches the school's track team. “We have really good kids and you can't make them play better, but you can be more prepared to play if you've got the quality.”

Duvall was intrigued by the tech after following Maryland men’s soccer and, after researching different companies’ offerings, worked out a three-year lease with VX Sport in January 2017. He raised the money through letter donations, concessions sales and parents’ generosity, justifying the expense by spreading it over the soccer and track programs.

By averaging a player’s weekly load of work versus what they normally do in a month, coaches can separate a player into green, yellow and red zones. A player in the “green” was pushed, but within their limits. By the time they hit red, they’re either severely under-exerting or, more often, over-exerting themselves, leaving their bodies more susceptible to soft-tissue injuries. Nichols said he shuts a player down for a day if they’re well over their usual numbers.

Nichols, who staff members say has a hard, pressing style of coaching, isn’t of the mind to push his players past their physical limit just to succeed.

“You see what happens at a place like Maryland. I was at McDonogh for 20 years, that kid was there. I knew the kid there,” Nichols said, referencing Jordan McNair, the Maryland offensive lineman who suffered heatstroke during practice and died two weeks later. “As a parent, you bring your kid in here, it also says, ‘These guys are monitoring these kids. They care about these kids.’ ”

He points to the numbers to explain his decisions to his players, who have quickly learned to respect them.

“Sometimes you don't feel like you're in the red, but your body's telling you to stop. It [stinks] because you have to tone it down a bit, but it's just what's best for you,” said Loyola junior midfielder Barry Sharifi, who often finds himself in the yellow.

Loyola lost seven starters because of injury at the beginning of last season. This time, Nichols said, they’re missing one.

Former McDonogh forward Nico Brown wrestled with hamstring issues in previous seasons at Loyola, but said the monitor has helped him learn which numbers to hit every week so that he wouldn’t strain himself.

“My last hamstring issue was spring of my freshman year,” Sharifi also said.

Hereford, who unlike Loyola uses both GPS and heart rate monitors, only had one major injury last season as well, losing one girl to an ACL tear before the season.

“I think our kids were more rested at the right time for matches,” Duvall said. “We were able to keep all our kids on the field for the most part. I didn't have a kid sitting because of a hamstring or a quad.”

The Hereford track team has been dominant for so long, it’s difficult for Duvall to piece what he can credit to the technology. But by monitoring their coordinates and their heart rates, Duvall can balance fitness with fatigue in time for championships.

Translating the numbers is no easy task, though. Duvall is the only one who can at Hereford. Loyola contracts strength and conditioning coach Ruben Cisneros, who has similar experience in Major League Soccer, to sift through pages of data. Both said it trial, error and time to properly channel their flood of information.

Typically, Loyola plays Wednesday and Saturday games, but not always. Through their monitors, the Greyhounds learned that they were actually risking hamstring injuries to their players by resting them on non-game Wednesdays.

“We thought the more the rest the better. It's actually not that case. Your body, you have to stimulate your hamstrings and quads, and if you don't you go to that next Saturday, they're not ready for that load,” Nichols said.

The staff still balance the tech with common sense. The Greyhounds have trained through hot, muggy summer days, leaving them looking sluggish. The data will tell them that no one ran enough, but the data doesn’t factor in heat.

“The GPS is not the almighty answer to everything,” said Cisneros.

There are few high schools in the Baltimore area who use the tech, and McDonogh was one of the first. Unlike Hereford, the private school bought similar equipment, Polar’s Team Pro, for girls soccer outright in 2011 and then upgraded in 2015. Girls soccer coach Harry Canellakis had used the monitors at a high school in Indiana.

In that time, the Eagles collected five Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland A Conference titles with 96 wins, 13 losses and nine ties, highlighted by a 35-game unbeaten streak. The team has also only suffered one ACL tear during a season in 10 years. The girls swimming program also uses the monitors.

Canellakis had considered doing away with the tech this year, but his players refused.

“There’s a placebo effect as well. I think the kids know we’re watching them and are a little more honest with their work rate,” he said.

The monitors have prevented injuries, yes, Canellakis said, but also mostly helped him to learn a better way of coaching. He redesigned drills to put his players on the ball in practice, rather than shuttle sprints and other isolated fitness, strapped with the heart-rate monitors. He, too, is the only one who can translate the data.

On a hot day, for instance, he doesn’t rely only on heart rates and coordinates to tell him to ease up on his players. A decade of reevaluating how to coach a successful team has done that.

“I don’t think it’s saving lives or anything. But I think being aware of over-training is really important,” Canellakis said, “and data helps with that.”

kfominykh@baltsun.com

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