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The Living Lab: Using SPT to Perform Research and Strengthen Partnerships

The Living Lab: Using SPT to Perform Research and Strengthen Partnerships

Thayne Munce, PhD
Director, Athletic Health & Performance Lab
Sanford Research, Sanford Health, Sioux Falls, SD

Whether you are a coach, a sports scientist, or a researcher, the optimal utilization of technology and data often comes when you are seeking answers to meaningful questions. This is especially true for GPS tracking systems, considering the vast amount of data they can generate.

I am a research scientist at Sanford Health (Sioux Falls, SD) interested in athletic health and performance. About five years ago, I started thinking about how youth flag and tackle football might be different with regards to physical activity. Given concerns about brain health in tackle football, it is not surprising that individuals and organizations have been promoting flag football as a safer alternative. In addition to improved safety, flag football may also offer additional health benefits due to the fast-paced, running-based nature of the sport. However, nobody had ever studied this before, meaning that empirical data comparing physical activity in tackle and flag football did not exist. 

While researchers often use pedometers and accelerometers to measure physical activity, I thought that wearable GPS devices would do a better job of capturing the intermittent, high-intensity movements and activity of football players. Key GPS measures of interest I needed to answer my primary research questions were the same as those commonly used in a team sports setting – work rate, distance, time spent in various speed zones or bands, etc., but the goal was to evaluate the data in the context of physical activity performed, not workload, workload ratios or exposures (e.g., hard running efforts, accelerations, etc.). When evaluating GPS products to use for this project, I found SPT to offer the right combination of data quality, ease of use and cost-effectiveness. 

With a tool in hand, we then partnered with South Dakota Junior Football (SDJF), a community-based youth football organization based in Sioux Falls, SD that runs flag and tackle leagues. Over two years, we recruited over 100 flag and tackle players participating in SDJF’s junior (5th-6th grade) and senior (7th-8th grade) divisions. All players wore SPT units during their practices. However, only the tackle football players wore the SPT devices during their games because the flag football league played their games indoors where GPS signals were not available. 

We found that work rate was higher in flag compared to tackle, but due to differences in practice length, average distance per practice ended up being greater in tackle football. Also, in addition to the tackle teams having longer practices, they had more of them, resulting in the tackle players covering more cumulative distance throughout the season. Although these findings were not surprising, they do offer valuable insights into how we can best utilize flag and tackle football to promote physical activity in youth. While both versions of football can deliver physical activity benefits, achieving weekly activity targets might necessitate different adjustments to practice intensity, duration and frequency. Our team is currently finishing a more detailed analysis of these results and preparing a manuscript for submission to a scientific journal. Please stay tuned!

While conducting this initial study, I started thinking of ways to get more use out of our SPT system, since our youth football teams were only practicing one or two days a week. I suspected there were opportunities to leverage our resources to provide actionable data to our high school and collegiate partners. Thus, I reached out to the strength coach at a local Division II university that we provide sports medicine services to and proposed that we pilot SPT with the football team. Like most non-Division I Power 5 schools, this athletic department does not have a sports science program, so they welcomed the opportunity to collaborate. That first year, while sharing units with our youth football teams, we were able to provide approximately 30 units for the collegiate team to use on a limited basis throughout the season. The trial went very well, and we were subsequently able to acquire additional units that we have since used exclusively with this team.

From the start, I viewed our collegiate football collaboration as a synergistic research and sports science partnership. My team provides our SPT GPS technology and operational support in exchange for asking the athletes to consent to have their data used for research. We give the coaching staff full access to their team’s data through our Gametraka software account. This arrangement gives our partners access to tools they otherwise would not have, hopefully providing a competitive edge, and allows my research team to acquire extensive data that we can analyze through a scientific lens. 

We have continued working with this collegiate football team and they have used their SPT data in numerous ways, such as load management, identifying game demands to simulate in practice, and recognizing players with high workload volumes during pre-game activities. We have since expanded our partnership with this university to the women’s soccer team and have also partnered with a local high school football team for the past two years. In both instances, we have effectively implemented our living laboratory model. The research questions we can answer are limitless and it is fulfilling to provide our school partners with tools and technology that can contribute to their success on the field. I would encourage research scientists and sports teams alike to explore similar partnerships and find potential synergies. This could lead to collaborative funding pursuits, technical skill development and most importantly, opportunities to gather data that benefit both parties. 

We have enjoyed our experience with SPT and look forward to making an impact through our scientific contributions and our partners’ success in the future.