Every morning before the sun rises, the Dolphins’ strength and conditioning staff loads a GPS unit about one-third the size of a man’s palm into a shirt pocket 56 of the team’s players will wear beneath their jerseys at practice that day.
The players call the little units “jockeys” because the pockets are located on their upper back and that’s where the units ride.
But these little electronic gadgets aren’t meant to be a burden. They’re being used by the Dolphins to monitor and measure hundreds of streams of physiological data the players will provide as they go through a typical practice at the team’s training facility.
Strength and conditioning coach Darren Krein, strength and conditioning assistant coach Dave Puloka and sports science analyst Dave Regan will eventually collect the units from each player, download data such as velocity, acceleration, load or stress, distance, lift rate, metabolic power, output, and wattage — not to mention about a hundred other factors they’re not even putting to use yet — and do all this for simple reasons:
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The Dolphins want to limit injuries.
The Dolphins want to cut down the time players are forced to be out once they’re injured.
And the team is exploring this avenue with the hope the science can offer some advantage opponents might not enjoy, which could help fatten the win column.
Injuries are obviously the priority. Healthy teams win more than teams putting their reserves on the field.
So the Dolphins would love to be able to predict when players are going to get injured so they can prevent those as accurately as possible.
“It’s kind of getting to that point, and we’d like to come up with a prediction model to prevent injuries,” Krein, the former University of Miami standout turned NFL coach said. “That’s the thought process behind it. If you understand what happens prior to an injury, generally it’s from volume — too much volume.
“If that’s it, hopefully we can pull a guy back before he gets to that point.”
Forecasting injuries? No, it is not luck or magic. It is science.
And while the science is not close to being perfected, the Dolphins are doing what they can to be at the forefront of the technology as it develops.
“We haven’t got it all figured out,” Puloka said. “We’re still in the early stages. But we’ve got some very smart people in the building that are helping us with the data. We know we’re going in the right direction. We’re making strides every day. But it’s probably going to take a little bit before we get to it because essentially what we’re trying to do is predict injuries. We’re not there yet.”
So where are they now?
The Dolphins are one of 11 NFL teams employing the units made by Catapult Sports from Australia.
And the team is using the information harvested from each player after each practice to determine significant issues such as when players should be resting or perhaps when they might be able to take more work or perhaps when rest periods, known as teaching periods, need to be inserted into the practice.
“One day we had a discussion about, ‘hey, this player has gotten his player loads or his volume or his max speeds’ and it’s something I’m a little bit trying to get used to, and I’m looking to make solid decisions based on some of the information those guys give us,” coach Joe Philbin said.
“We try to adjust our practice based on what we know,” Krein said. “It’s a comprehensive way of getting more information on the players. Getting a better understanding about what the stresses of practice are.
“For us, as coaches, we can look at it and talk to the guys and ask them, ‘How was practice?’ But this helps to validate what you might have expected, and sometimes it opens your eyes to there being a lot more to it than you think.”
Philbin is fighting the narrative that he’s a milquetoast kind of guy unwilling to try new things. That’s not the case here.
“Coach Philbin has been outstanding. He’s a guy that I think trusts us and allows us to come with ideas that I think could be considered outside the box,” Puloka said. “He listens to us.”
So what has been the sports science crew’s craziest idea?
“I can’t tell you,” Puloka said adding he’d have to kill me if he did. “I mean, I think you have to be creative. I think that’s what successful organizations do. You have to kind of push the envelope.”
The cynics might argue the Dolphins are pushing envelopes when they should be focused on improving something that is actually football related such as on pushing back onrushing defensive linemen.
But embracing the new technology is a tool the team is trying to employ with the idea that, hey, every little advantage can help.
“I think it definitely can help you win but at the end of the day it really boils down to having the right players and execution,” Krein said. “For us it’s a tool in the toolbox. It’s not going to make or break us, but it gives us the opportunity to maybe get that little extra five percent or two percent out of guys that you’re hoping for.”