Using Data to individualize training

VCU’s Basketball Teams Use Data to Individualize Training

Every sport requires a unique pattern of movement, that places various strains on the body’s ability to generate energy and power. Basketball players often exert short, explosive bursts of energy when driving to the basket, while at the same time sustaining a continuous jog up and down the court. And though there are basketball related skills that all players need to master, every person’s body is unique and needs specific training programs to reach their full physical potential.

That’s why the men’s and women’s basketball team at VCU partnered with the Exercise Physiology Research Lab and Run Lab, both in the Department of Kinesiology and Health Sciences, to scientifically assess their players’ bodies and performance, and to build training programs around each players’ individual needs.

The Exercise Physiology Research Lab provides performance assessments such as cardiorespiratory fitness and body composition analysis to members of the team. Players undergo testing at the beginning of each pre-season, and then throughout the season to evaluate the effectiveness of their training.

“We set a baseline of what we want our guys to be at the start of the season and where they’re going to be most successful at. Having those numbers allows me to create the most effective program for them, so that when we retest we see a change in numbers. But most importantly, the guys on the court – they feel a major difference. They recover faster. They can last for a longer duration within our style of play,” said Coach Donald Brown, director of Men’s Basketball Sport Performance at VCU.

This collaboration began in 2011, the same year the men’s team advanced to the Final Four. Since then, basketball coaches at VCU have taken advantage of access to the labs to not only keep existing players fit, but to also recruit new talent.

“If I can prove to them that this is what pros, NBA players, are doing on the next level – the trust is there. If they’re doing it, we better be doing it. And if no other team has access to it, we have access to it,” Brown said.

In the Exercise Physiology Research Lab, each player’s body fat percentage is measured after entering a giant egg-shaped capsule called the BodPod, a body composition assessment tool that uses air displacement technology to detect changes in fat and lean mass.

The Exercise Physiology Research Lab also performs a VO2max test to determine an athlete’s cardiorespiratory fitness, by measuring the maximum volume of oxygen that the body can deliver and utilize within exercising muscles. The higher an athlete’s VO2max, the higher intensity of exercise a player is able to sustain. The test pushes an athlete to exhaustion, while researchers simultaneously measure the player’s heart rate and lactate accumulation. Lactate is a molecule in the blood that is often associated with fatigue and can be used to better specify heart rate training zones. These measurements provide data to both the exercise scientists and coaches, so they are able to identify each player’s fitness level and how well they can adapt to a certain style of play before experiencing fatigue.

The VCU Run Lab performs biomechanical assessments and force plate analysis for the men’s basketball team to assess their gait, landing, and cutting mechanics.

“The two labs complement each other really well,” said Director of the Exercise Physiology Lab and Associate Chair, Lee Franco, Ph.D. “Both labs target what we like to call player opportunities. Not only can lab results measure fitness variables, but we can identify an athlete who applies an abnormal amount of pressure on their knee or ankle because of weak hips. Targeting any imbalance could prevent an injury, especially during a long season with VCU’s style of play that has always excited VCU fans.”

Having regular, scientific performance assessments throughout the training season allows coaches to track the changes in their athlete’s bodies, and holds players accountable when their fitness levels decline.

“If the coaches and players can better understand what’s happening over the course of the season, then they can start to design activities that improve the retention of any fitness level,” Franco said. “The goal extends beyond being your best at the start of any season, rather being your best come March.”

During his sophomore year, men’s team point guard Jonathan Williams had the lowest VO2max score of all his teammates. He found that having numerical data of his physical progress over the years was inspirational, and helped him to continuously try to improve his performance. Today, Williams has the second-highest VO2 max score on the team.

“The scientific part of it helps in your mind to keep yourself going, because you have numbers to compare it with,”’ said Williams. “It’s tough, but it proves good results over time and it shows how you keep working better over time.”

Students in the Exercise Physiology Research Lab and Run Lab also benefit from this collaboration with the men and women’s basketball team, because they gain access to a small portion of the population that many of them hope to one day treat – high-performance athletes.

“It’s a win-win all around. Our students get the benefit of testing elite athletes, which is a really cool experience in being able to conduct any performance assessment on an individual at that fitness level,” Franco said.

The VCU Run Lab and Exercise Physiology Lab offer performance assessments to the men and women’s basketball team, as well as other VCU sports teams at a discounted rate, but members of the public at any skill level can also access their services.

Written by Megan Schiffres