LAWRENCE — In August, after a Kansas football open practice, head coach Lance Leipold uttered the words “load management” as he explained why some players didn’t do as much as others that day.
The two words probably aren’t uncommon to the ears of sports fans. They highlight how a team is handling the workload of an individual or, in this case, group. And as Leipold further explained his rationale for the decision that day, he mentioned they were trying to ensure those guys were in the best shape possible ahead of the season opener.
But just because game week ahead of the Sept. 2 contest against Tennessee Tech has come and gone, not to mention those for West Virginia (Sept. 10) and Houston (Sept. 17), doesn’t mean they’ve abandoned their efforts to study the data they collect while monitoring player activity . Conceptually, director of sports performance Matt Gildersleeve said Wednesday, what they’re doing now doesn’t differ from what they did in fall camp or prior. It remains a critical piece of the week-to-week plan and dates back to when he and Leipold were at Buffalo together.
How the program started
In 2019, when Gildersleeve began to get into monitoring what’s associated with what he called “player load,” he started by contacting different schools about what a normal practice looked like for them. That was his first instinct. He wanted to gather information to see how his team stacked up and discern what a hard practice looked like.
What Gildersleeve found is it’s critical to amass normative data for what applied to its program and how it operates. It provides something to compare to, evaluate with, in the way the data on an Ohio State wide receiver wasn’t useful because the two teams weren’t practicing the same way.
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“Really, the whole first year we started tracking, it was all just collecting our normative data,” Gildersleeve said.
Think about a game week this season at Kansas, where Gildersleeve works with assistant performance coach Conor McNally as Gildersleeve did back at Buffalo for two seasons before they joined the Jayhawks with Leipold in 2021.
In terms of the significance of the load of a practice day, Monday is a low day coming off a game. Tuesday and Wednesday are higher days. Thursday is more of a moderate, mental day before the highest of any day — game day, which in this example would be Saturday.
Because Gildersleeve and McNally know how Kansas practices, they can compare the intensity of the days ahead of the Houston game to the days ahead of the West Virginia game. They can see if, in a good way, the players were straining harder during those Tuesday and Wednesday practices. They can see if, they should have been pushing too much, they need to back off as a team.
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“So, yeah, we’re training for the sport,” Gildersleeve said. “But my whole point, to bring this back to the normative data thing, it don’t matter how West Virginia practices. It matters to us how Kansas practices and what is our practice model. So, for us to have a rhythmic cycle of how we practice and what our weeks look like, is critical because it allows us to prepare the athletes for that.”
It’s not just about what’s happening during the game week, either. The data McNally collects and provides to Gildersleeve helps determine their plan for the season. From January to July on through, they are building toward a peak of the most significant load a week might present in season.
“Conor’s the best in the country at this stuff, and so people will reach out to us all the time and ask us questions,” Gildersleeve said. “Or, they’ll ask me, ‘Hey, what advice do you have with this stuff? We’re about to get started with Catapult. Can you share your information?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah. It’s not going to do anything for you, because you need to find out, like, what is a week? Because if a week of our practice is half of what a week of your practice is …’”
McNally chimed in: “Don’t take our stuff.”
“Yeah,” Gildersleeve competed. “Your guys are going to be wildly unprepared. And vice versa.”
How this might manifest with a player in a given week
As Gildersleeve said, Kansas uses a wearable technology through Catapult that can track various data with its athletes during a practice or game. There are also force plates in the weight room that guys jump on each week that provide more insight. And they also use what’s called NordBord, which measures hamstring strength.
These each have their applicability over a given week.
Say McNally, who’s tracking data live every practice, is following along on his computer as he usually does. Although Gildersleeve noted this is more rare now with guys compared to when they first started doing this, McNally may see someone like redshirt sophomore wide receiver Lawrence Arnold’s load spiking — going more than 10% higher than it ever has before. McNally would let Gildersleeve know because that’s a red flag.
Maybe it’s the 20th period of practice in a day they have 28. They might not immediately shut Arnold down. But Gildersleeve would let wide receivers coach Terrence Samuel know what the data is showing and leave that decision to Samuel, while also potentially getting ready to grab Arnold after practice for more intentional recovery.
That’s one example.
Say, actually, that Arnold’s load is down on a given week. Gildersleeve and McNally will first look to see if that’s by chance, if Arnold didn’t run as many deep routes as usual or missed time during practice because of an equipment issue. They’ll also look to see if there’s an accumulation of fatigue, which would be a problem.
Enter Arnold’s force plate data, which Gildersleeve’s explanation boiled down to outline as the “speed at which he produces force.” McNally agreed that’s a simplified way of putting it. If that, for Arnold, has slowed significantly, Gildersleeve and McNally will look at each other and go, “We better make some adjustments here.”
That example could lead to an analysis of how much Arnold is practicing, if he has any recovery issues or even if he’s sleeping right.
Say, on the other hand, Arnold received his best NordBord result ever recently. Arnold is a player with a significant player load. For someone like that, Gildersleeve would be constantly looking at NordBord data because of the worry of fatigue leading to a serious, non-contact, season-ending injury.
“But when Conor gives me his NordBord score and I see that we’re in Week 4, he’s literally the strongest he’s ever been before, he’s got the best NordBord score reading, we go, ‘OK, he’s clearly not fatiguing,’” Gildersleeve said. “’He’s just getting better at practicing and training, becoming more efficient.’”
How Gildersleeve and McNally transitioned from Buffalo to Kansas
The transition from Buffalo to Kansas didn’t require a reset back to the year that was spent acquiring the necessary normative data.
As McNally explained it, they had their practice model. They knew what they would be looking for their athletes to handle.
But what was difficult coming into a new place was they didn’t know what the players had been exposed to in the past. They didn’t know the starting point. So, McNally said they started off conservatively for a couple weeks and then began to gradually build upon that.
“How can we quantify what we need to be ready for?” McNally said. “And then prepare them appropriately to go handle those demands, so that in the long haul we can practice more, we can practice harder. We just do it in an intelligent way.”
And given the increased resources with the jump from a Group of Five program in college football to one at the Power Five level, McNally allowed it’s definitely easier to accomplish what they’re setting out to do.
More work, Gildersleeve noted, but easier.
Which McNally doesn’t have a problem with.
Now their view of the team can be broader. They don’t have to only spread out, say, 12 Catapult units among the offense and defense — six on each side. Their focus can extend beyond likely starters.
It’s important to know what is expected of a starting linebacker. But that player might not be taking a lot of special teams reps in the same way the backup is. The team wouldn’t have as much of an idea on what the latter should be prepared to handle, which could see a rise in the risk of injury.
“So, if you take the starting linebacker that doesn’t play special teams and you say, ‘All right … the special teams guy needs to be prepared to handle what the starter does,’” McNally said. “Well, it’s really like almost two different positions to a certain extent because that backup guy, yeah he needs to be ready to play linebacker, but he also has the demands of what comes with being on every special teams unit.”
If they have 44 units instead of 12, they can analyze both the starters on offense and defense and others who have critical roles.
Combine that with a coaching staff led by Leipold that’s bought in to what they’re doing, and they feel very fortunate.
“I would argue to say coach Leipold is the most cerebral in the country with this stuff, just the buy-in,” Gildersleeve said. “You go to a strength and conditioning conference, there’s — we sit there and tell people the buy-in we have from our staff and our head coach. People just start drooling, like, ‘What? How do you?’”
“What?” added McNally, laughing.
How the Kansas football program moves forward
Last season, McNally started tracking Quentin Skinner with Catapult probably halfway through the season. Skinner, then a redshirt freshman wide receiver who’s now a redshirt sophomore, wasn’t playing much offensively but was being used a lot on special teams. Maybe they should have recognized this sooner, McNally acknowledged, but they came to realize Skinner had the capability to run about 22 miles per hour while covering kickoffs.
This season, Gildersleeve said redshirt junior running back Torry Locklin set a personal record for how fast he was running during the win at Houston. McNally volunteered that came on Locklin’s 60-yard touchdown catch. Locklin was sprinting at almost 21 miles per hour.
Neither example is to say using Catapult led to these results, but they showcase how McNally and Gildersleeve can quantify for the players what’s happening. And due to how fluid the space is that Catapult and everything else they use are a part of, the highlights a year from now could be different because the way they operate might be.
As resources become available, Gildersleeve said they will continue to use and explore them. They want to evolve. What they’re doing this year isn’t exactly what they did last year, and what they do next year will likely look different as well.
“We’re never going to allow ourselves to just say, ‘Hey, we’re in the top of sports science and we’re doing some of the premier things,’” Gildersleeve said. “Right? Like, we want to stay on that cutting edge.”
McNally routinely brings Gildersleeve something new, whether it’s research or a thought on a piece of data that could give them a better picture of what they’re looking at. There’s a list of things they talk about, and McNally said there’s no shortage of discussion topics. One thing that’s on McNally’s mind is continuing to dive deeper into how the ways they use Catapult and force plates might overlap.
“I’ve got a pretty good little section in the notes of, like, questions that you want to get answered,” McNally said. “And, obviously, it’s exciting and we’re very fortunate to be able to have the resources we do to go try to figure out some of this stuff.”
Jordan Guskey covers University of Kansas Athletics at The Topeka Capital-Journal. Contact him at [email protected] or on Twitter at @JordanGuskey.