If the women of Central Michigan University's soccer team possess more zip these days, there's a reason.
A GPS-based tracking system has the Chippewas "training smarter" than athletes at many other colleges. Players are reported to be in peak shape and injuries are way down.
Each player wears a small GPS device in games and practices that picks up movement, distance and speeds.
Paul O'Connor, a health sciences faculty member in The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow College of Health Professions, and Dylan Fitchett, an assistant director of strength and conditioning for CMU athletics, say the system is a huge success in its third year this fall.
"It'd be hard to work without it now," Fitchett said amid clanging weights at CMU's Indoor Athletic Complex.
O'Connor said players are fitter and stronger.
Players get physiological evaluations at the start, middle and end of the season, measuring body composition, speed and power, plus aerobic and anaerobic endurance.
"That lets us build a profile of each player," O'Connor said. "We look to see where their strengths and weaknesses are."
Results are shared with soccer coach Peter McGahey and the conditioning team.
"The strength coach knows he can target certain areas in certain players," O'Connor said. "We're trying to provide a more individualized approach to their training, instead of every player doing the exact same thing."
The GPS devices fit into a small sports vest pocket between the shoulder blades. A heart rate monitor, about the size of two small coins, is worn in front. The system is used with women only because men's soccer is a club sport at CMU.
"We wanted to see what players actually do in the game," O'Connor said. "We want to know the distance they cover, and more than that, we want to see at what speeds they cover it."
The GPS data shows midfielders cover the most distance in a game, while forwards cover their territory with the greatest speed. Players can cover more than six miles in a 90-minute contest.
"We can tell the coaches the midfielders need to be more aerobically fit," O'Connor said, "and the forwards need to focus their training on speed as opposed to more endurance-based stuff.
"That allows us to shape training," he said.
The GPS data also helps create "player loads" — raw numbers based on measuring distance, speed, acceleration, deceleration and heart rate — to minimize injuries. Women are three times more likely than men to sustain knee injuries in soccer, O'Connor said. The worst injuries are torn ACLs, which can put a player out for a full season or more.
A load number is produced for each player after every practice, O'Connor said, and it should be 0.8 to 1.2 times a rolling three-month average. Workouts that are too light or too intense increase the risk of injury.
"The players also work on their landing technique, turning and deceleration," O'Connor said, "because a lot of injuries are noncontact."
Lauren Sherry, a human resources senior who plays on defense, is a big fan of the system. After practice, the strength and conditioning staff knows how hard she was sprinting, sight unseen, in another part of the complex.
"I like it a lot," the Minnesota native said. "It gives more information, and that helps coaches better prepare us for the training we do.
Score one for recruiting
McGahey called the collaboration with Health Professions "a truly Chips-helping-Chips partnership."
"We're able to create an experience on the academic side, where working and partnering with athletics is benefiting the educational and research mission of the university," he said. "I think that's really powerful in terms of the big-picture mission."
McGahey, O'Connor and Fitchett said GPS training is common in professional soccer, where money is more plentiful, but it's still a rarity in college.
"It costs about $60,000 for a set of GPSs, and not every university can do that," Fitchett said.
CMU's system has another benefit: It's a great recruiting tool.
"We do tests at some of the camps and bring in the GPSs," O'Connor said. "The students are amazed.
"It's one of the best recruiting tools you can get," he added. "It's a really good sell, not only for players but parents as well."