Man bra? Sports bro? Penn basketball invests in wearable-tech vests
“They kind of look like man bras,” Steve Donahue laughed. “That was kind of strange.”
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Mind you, there was a method to the Penn basketball coach’s madness. Since October, the Quakers' practices have included an unusual wrinkle: A skin-tight compression vest that monitors each players’ respective heart rate and how far they’ve traveled over a particular period of time.
“But it’s pretty valuable to have things like that and have data on how much we run in practice,” guard Jamal Lewis said. “I think it’s helped us out a lot this year. I’m positive it’ll continue to help us become a better program.”
Stage 2: The funny feeling.
“They’re light not heavy at all,” Lewis continued. “There’s a (card) you insert, and, yes, you can definitely feel that if you get hit there.”
The back of the vest has a slot for a monitoring card that’s roughly the size of an egg, situated just above the shoulder blades. The entire package is the brainchild of GPSports, an Australian company that debuted the player-tracking technology with rugby and Australian rules football. The vest was eventually adopted by soccer giants such as Chelsea, Barcelona and Bayern Munich for training purposes, as well as the NFL's Seattle Seahawks.
The idea popped into Donahue’s purview when he saw the Philadelphia 76ers using wearable tech to gauge player performance during practice sessions. Because Stage 3 is ramping up the tempo: The Quakers visit Brown Saturday on ASN to cap the first of six consecutive back-to-back Friday-Saturday Ivy League weekends.
“You’re not guessing any more,” Donahue said. “You can put some science behind it.”
In addition to monitoring the heart, the vest features a metric for player work rate, training load and recovery time. Support staff can track the data in real time. Donahue can get a print out at the end of practice that gives him a general idea who was pushing it and who wasn’t.
“You just see what percentage of practice were they at 70% of their maximum heart rate and then what they were at 90%,” the coach explained. “Just watching how much it takes out of guys. And (if) this guy doesn’t play hard and the numbers prove it you can tie it right to film as well, and that exact time (in practice).
“You don’t want to overdo it, but I think it’s another method that eventually makes us smarter and inspires and motivates the guys to get better and they’ll have an understanding of what their bodies are going through.”
Knowledge is power. And pace. A typical college game features 67 possessions for each team. The Quakers are averaging 68.5 possessions per 40 minutes this winter, according to KenPom.com, up from last year’s 63.4 and up from the five-season average of 65.7 the program posted from 2011-15.
“You can get lost in the numbers,” Donahue said. “I can get lost myself.”
But he also wants to try to keep the Quakers close to the cutting edge or as close as the coffers will allow. Penn also features SpatraTrac technology in its weight room to help target player weaknesses and refine workouts, a system used at Kansas and Arkansas.
“I think that’s a big piece of what we try to do,” Donahue said. “I don’t want kids to think they’re coming to the Ivy League just for the great education. I want them to feel they’re chasing their dream of being as good a basketball player as they can be. If that’s as a professional, great.
“And here are the steps we’re taking and how committed we are to you and when we to commit your (well-being) physically, we’re not going to guess whether it’s too light and too hard. And I think that’s kind of the message we tell these recruits and we’re doing it now. And they don’t see it at every place.”
After all, it’s better than a sports bra. It’s a sports bro. Of course, it also reportedly retails at more than $1,000 per unit a pretty penny for progress.
“I think we know the drills that make us more tired,” Lewis chuckled. “But, yeah, I think it’s more useful for the coaches who aren’t actually going through practice, to see how we’re reacting.”
Above and middle: Penn men's basketball program uses GPSports technology similar to that used by Wake Forest and AUstralian rugby team. (Courtesy GPSports Systems)