• Bowie Matteson

NCAA: WHOOP, there it isn't?

Thoughts on how to train, recover and keep athletes accountable with or without technology.

Within the athletic community, wearable technology has long been a sign of a more advanced athletic program. Wearable GPS devices like Catapult, Polar and Zephyr first started in the professional ranks and were reserved for only the most elite college programs. The GPS technology was also more functional for sports covering greater distances, like soccer, basketball, or lacrosse. Sports like baseball, softball, wrestling or tennis, with less expansive field dimensions and differently paced competitions weren’t interested in metrics specific to a different type of sport. (total meters covered, degrees of change in direction, etc)

As time went on and the technology became more advanced. Overworked became under-recovered and recovery metrics like resting heart rate, heart rate variability(HRV) and sleep monitoring became key components to athletes’ performances. That’s when WHOOP straps hit the market. This wearable strap, adjustable to fit your wrist, forearm or bicep, measures all of the recovery categories an athlete could be interested in. It tracks both length and type of sleep, your heart rate (and thus your HRV and resting heart rate), and diagnoses you with a daily measurement called strain. Strain is on a scale from 0-21 and measures how hard you’ve pushed yourself in your daily activities. The higher the strain the harder you’ve pushed. One with a high-strain day requires greater recovery. WHOOP also gives a percentage recovery from your previous day. This measurement is a projection based on your HRV and sleep quality. On a scale from 1-100%, there are three categories: RED for more recovery needed, YELLOW for moderate but not peak, and GREEN for all systems go.

This is all without any catering to sport-type. Recovery is recovery whether you’re running 5000m in your soccer game or playing 1stbase in a 9 inning baseball game.

So, with such valuable information regarding student-athlete well-being in an industry investing millions and millions of dollars in performance optimization, why don’t you see more WHOOP straps being dispensed to college programs? The reason is liability. For a school to have access to personal information like that about students (the WHOOP strap is most accurate when worn at all times), it becomes a slippery slope. If QB Joe keeps showing up to Saturday workouts in the RED, is that grounds for disciplinary action? Especially if you know he went to sleep at 4am and had an untitled activity register at 2am? Coaches can use these readings to scale practice participation. You want to practice? Yellow or greater or your headed back to your room to take a nap. This is all assuming that coaches can legally make this mandatory to wear.

Or on the flipside, if an athlete injures themselves during a hard workout when they’re under recovered, can they hold the coach accountable for not taking the necessary precautions? If I’m a university official I’m looking to avoid anything remotely close to something labeled abuse. The cost of “mishandling” a player’s injury is far too great in the recent climate of abuse, misreporting and cover-ups. In the wrong hands, WHOOP could put the school on the wrong side of the law.

Also, let us remember there are few creatures more fickle than the college athlete. Sometimes too much information is a bad thing. Is it a self-fulfilling prophecy when your athletes wake up on the morning of a big competition with low recovery scores and don’t feel energized when it comes time to play? Or does knowing one’s recovery score give the student-athlete too much authority over the level of effort they feel like giving?

For those coaches and programs willing to take the risk, there needs to be clear guidelines and specific filtering of information. For team activities, sure, measure all you can and analyze accordingly. Away from the field, the only real question should be about sleep and if they’re getting enough. The coach’s realm needs to stay within the sport. Use what you learn about an athlete on the field to ask about life off if it. There needs to be that degree of separation.

On game day, no strap. Can you expect coaches or trainers to hide a bias towards less or more recovered athletes? I do not think it would be hard for an athlete to find out who was recovered and who wasn’t based on how they were treated in the warm-up. And like I mentioned before, if an athlete knew they weren’t recovered before a game, what does that do to their mental state?

Cael Sanderson, the storied head coach of the Penn State Wrestling Program, tells his wrestlers not to fear getting tired. Being tired is a part of competition, and it is that fear that can distract you from winning your match. Learn what you need to do whenyou get tired. Looking at it from this perspective makes knowing exactly how tired I am seem less important.

I believe WHOOP presents itself better to those athletes separated from school. They have greater autonomy over their recovery measures and are solely responsible for them. They report to fewer people about their personal conduct and have a more clearly stated allegiance to the sport itself, as opposed to an academic university. College athletics today is still too much of a nest to hold the immature student-athletes entirely responsible for taking care of themselves. Universities also need to be kept in check from becoming too Big Brother-ish and encroaching on the personal lives of those they depend on to represent them.

My solution to drive a WHOOP-less team trying to be mindful of their recovery? It is cliché, but entirely true, that culture is key. Setting clear expectations is first and foremost for both player and coach. Lack of effort in any form, whether team activity, practice, or meeting, will be addressed and reprimanded without exception. Recovery will be prioritized and handled as needed (but not measured). Create a culture where teammates are held responsible for these “side” issues that clearly effect the team’s performance.

In the spirit of educating the student-athletes about how to handle their time and press the concept of working with fatigue, I like the idea of turning certain practices where fatigue is expected, like post-travel days, into optional workouts. Once everyone has arrived and is ready to go they are told that they can work on whatever it is they need to work on. There is no minimum participation expectation. However, whatever they choose to work on, it must be done with maximum effort and focus. This situation puts all players in motion to start. They’re at the field, the coach is telling them that its optional (wink-wink), so they know they at least have to show face.

You’ll get the smug athletes who say “Well, I have to be here. Let me sleepwalk through some drills and get out of here.” Either be here or don’t. As a coach, I want 10 minutes of your best more than I want 30 minutes of “I think this is enough for coach not to be mad”.

You’ll get some who are just straight tired and not afraid to say it. Don’t let them off totally free. Set them on a light jog, or a set of really simple drills, but still hammering home the focus and execution. This gets across what Carl Sanderson was getting at: it’s not necessarily being tired that prevents good work from getting done, it’s the fear of getting tired that distracts us from what we need to do.

As a coach, you are the warden of all this. Be aware of those without an off switch, who would push until they hurt themselves. Know when to cut people off and limit your judgment of people who acknowledge their limit. This is an opportunity for you the coach to show trust in what a player feels. Empowering them to know when to push themselves will pay dividends when it comes time for them to put it all out on the field for you.

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