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How Montana soccer mined new technology to aid its run to the NCAA tournament

How Montana soccer mined new technology to aid its run to the NCAA tournament

Written by: Frank Gogola Missoulian

MISSOULA — Chris Citowicki somehow got a phone number for the former coach of the United States women’s national soccer team when he was working his way up the coaching ranks.

The third-year Montana coach got about 15 minutes to talk with Anson Dorrance, who led the U.S. to the 1991 FIFA Women’s World Cup title. He was surprised that a lowly NCAA Division III head coach like himself got even that much time to talk with the likes of Dorrance, who also has coached the North Carolina women to 21 NCAA championships since 1979.

Citowicki was interested in incorporating technology into his team’s training and got to pick Dorrance’s brain. He’s ramped up the technology he’s used at Montana this spring, from GPS wearables to marrying fitness data with film to in-game electronic communication.

The technological advances have been a boon in helping the Griz make their second NCAA tournament trip in three years. This time, they’re going to Dorrance’s backyard in Wilson, North Carolina, where they’ll face South Carolina in a first-round game at 4 p.m. MT Wednesday.

“It’s been a pretty cool technological year for us this year,” Citowicki said ahead of his team’s Monday flight for the tournament opener, the next step for what’s been arguably the most successful athletic program at Montana since he arrived on campus in 2018.

The big technological change for UM this year is using GPS wearables. The most prominent benefit that Citowicki has seen is how it’s helped keep players healthy as his team hasn’t sustained any soft-tissue injuries this year, he said, just the random concussion.

The GPS collects a player’s speed, ground covered, acceleration, deceleration and the work they get at different heart rate zones, among other things. The data can then be used by players, coaches, the athletic training staff or the strength and conditioning staff to help a player maintain their fitness level with the type of work or rest they need in a tightly compacted season.

“There’s a strong correlation between the programs that use these and winning because they’re managing athletes correctly,” Citowicki said. “So, if you have the technology to track, you can manage your athletes better and keep them healthy and they peak at the right time.”

Before the technology, Citowicki would’ve said senior Mimi Eiden had to do a full training session and a certain number of sprints at practice to make up for playing fewer minutes than others in a game to keep her fitness at the desired level. The GPS data told him that because of her position as a forward that she covered more ground, had more hard sprints and was in higher heart rate zones longer than others who played the whole game.

“We were doing this in a barbaric, old-fashioned way that made no sense,” Citowicki said. “And now that we have this data, we can actually manage our team a lot better.”

The technology has changed the way they practice. Citowicki and his staff created a weekly routine based on advice he got from other coaches who’ve used the GPS technology. They alternate days between a functional day based on acceleration and deceleration work, a high-speed running day and an endurance day, never repeating the same day twice in a row.

“Our practices over the course of a week are managed based on the fitness goals that we have to hit, and then we tie in the soccer goals to that as well,” Citowicki said. “Because of that, we’re never burning them out, we’re keeping them fresh. It’s such a unique way of doing it, but that’s what the pros have been doing for years, and now we have that technology, so we can do the same thing.”

Citowicki had wanted to incorporate GPS technology as he watched pro teams and Power Five schools use it to their advantage in recent years. When he called Dorrance a handful of years ago, it was heart rate monitors he was interested in adding as technology was taking off in the game. That technology has continued with things like video assistant referees (VAR), soccer balls with microchips inside and goal-line technology connected to a referee’s smartwatch.

Montana finally got to use the GPS wearables this year, the result of what Citowicki called “a very generous donation” that allowed the software to be purchased. The wearable technology fits near a player's sports bra with a GPS unit attached to the back and uses straight-through processing to automatically transfer the data to a device where it can be viewed.

The data can be matched up to film from games and practices to be analyzed for a variety of things. Beyond fitness, a player’s movement and positioning can be tracked. Reviewing and revising that can help them become more efficient as they work on improving their fundamentals and techniques.

UM's 2.04 goals scored per game and 0.58 goals allowed per game in their 9-1 campaign are by far the best marks under Citowicki. That's more so the result of a formation change and maturing players, he said, but it's also aided by technology.

There’s so much data to be sorted through that Citowicki even got two interns to help with making it useful rather than just a pile of numbers.

“It’s mind blowing,” Citowicki said of the technology, “but the amount of extra work that it adds is also mind-blowing but fun.”

In another technological change this spring, the NCAA is allowing coaches to electronically communicate during games, so Citowicki wears a headset to talk with volunteer coach Eric Schmidt, who’s in a coaches’ box atop the stands getting a bird’s-eye view. The two talk about what they’re seeing and how they can make tactical adjustments sooner than they previously had and hopefully sooner than the other team.

That came into play when UM was trailing Eastern Washington 2-0 this season. Schmidt relayed how EWU kept pushing its defenders back further and further, which Citowicki countered by moving up his outside backs, particularly Taylor Hansen, who scored a goal and helped set up another score because of her positioning as the Griz forced overtime.

“The first time, I didn’t know if I was going to like this, but by the end of the game, I’m like, ‘I’m never going back to the old way of coaching ever again because I feel like I’m blind, I don’t see everything that I’m supposed to see,’” Citowicki said. “I just need that steady flow of information coming to me because I see ball, I feel emotion, I see things going on in front of me, but he sees the entire picture, and we can make changes a lot quicker than everybody else.”

Even with all the technology, having the right mindset and approach is still something Citowicki values. That could be required even more so when facing Power Five teams like South Carolina of the Southeastern Conference, which likely have the resources for even more advanced technology or just more forms of technology to mine for advantages.

Montana’s best technology this week might come from more primitive times: a slingshot. Citowicki has his team embracing the mindset of this game being David vs. Goliath, the biblical story of an underdog armed with a sling and a rock defeating a larger opponent.

“We’ve got to go with that mindset,” Citowicki said. “We don’t have anything to lose. Absolutely nothing. And so we’re going down there with that attitude. If you can play free without being worried of, ‘Ah, if we lose this thing it’s embarrassing,’ ... absolutely not. We’re going down there swinging.”