Part 1: Manatee High’s Raising The Bar In Player Safety and Performance

“If we conduct this with every student, it would be phenomenal, but if I can at least benefit the football team it’s huge in my book…” ~ Biology teacher and coach, John Friel, Manatee Hurricanes

Bradenton, May 15, 2019- The Hurricanes are setting the stage for Florida high school football and programs alike across the nation, being the first sunshine state school with a professional piece of GPS data tracking technology they’ve implemented over the last year; getting the upper hand on evaluating their athletes’ physical and mental health. I got a chance to speak with one of the brilliant minds behind the operation in Biology teacher and coach, John Friel, pushing all the right buttons to optimize Manatee’s potential. Without further ado, let’s dive right into “Football’s best-kept secret for over a decade” (claimed by the company themselves) in this two-part, in-depth series.

This ground-breaking piece of exciting equipment putting teams ahead of the curve is called PlayerTek by Catapult Sports, who now own the rights to the product. Originally, PlayerTek was based out of Europe; Ireland to be exact to monitor soccer athletes, and was later acquired by Catapult Sports (founded in Melbourne, Australia in 2006 from a partnership between the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and the Cooperative Research Centres (CRC) to maximize the performance of Australian athletes ahead of the Sydney Olympics, according to in 2016. Catapult had already obtained the GPS technology and the business that came with it; Catapult’s timeline shows NBA’s New York Knicks Basketball as their first U.S. client in 2009. They’ve amassed 300 employees and counting since 2017.

“How it works is our guys wear vests underneath shoulder pads with the device cradled on the back the vest, and a sensor instituted with Riddell in their helmets for player safety- ultimately that is what it’s about of course. We use those two pieces of equipment to monitor calorie burning, top-end speed, how far did they sprint, how long they run and so forth. There are a million different uses so, the hard thing is weeding out the things you don’t need; what we’re focusing on is total player load, and workload. With the InSite helmet, we’re detecting how hard and where on the helmet is taking the blow- it time stamps the hits as well. It records in five-minute intervals when it starts, and you can’t get it more precise at this point in time,” states Biology mastermind and coach, John Friel.

As of now, Catapult’s twitter proudly states they are the world leader in sports performance analytics, serving 2500 teams in 39 sports, in 135 countries. The data can be accessed on both Apple Mac and Windows computer platforms, as well as on the mobile app. The PlayerTek Plus retails for $169.99 for each pod and the standard for $149.99 each.

Mr. Friel continues passionately, “We also have player surveys as a big part of the system’s abilities; so I came up with all the formulas, and we ask how much sleep these guys getting, how was the quality of said sleep, their current energy level and stress levels, mood, nutrition, quality of meals, when they consumed meals, how much water drank, as well as what liquids did they drink. The player pod device itself is only one part of the puzzle- lack of hydration and nutrition are the biggest factors in injuries, so our main purpose is to prevent injuries as much as impossible, and it’s aided us most in that.”

“What a quarterback needs is way different from what a lineman needs, so that’s why we’ve individualized the stats so much. So far this spring, we’ve had no significant injuries; one player suffered a minor ankle issue but that’s it. Right now we’re using baselines and then when you get closer towards the upcoming season and prepare the team for games, we know where players’ optimal performance resides so we can gauge whether to rest or work players out harder towards their limits.”

There are a few of other high school football teams in select parts of the country that have taken on the ingenious investment already, including Bradley-Bourbonnais Community High School in Bradley, Illinois who started the wave as the first high school in America to incorporate this system into their daily regimen according to sharing the PlayerTek article.

“From what [head coach] Shakir told me, DeSoto high school in Texas is only other program using it, but they didn’t have someone to bring all the analytics together at the time. This all fits into my wheelhouse though, so we started talking and I just took off with it from there. The coaches were all for it- even if they didn’t understand it, they were on board with the concept. The biggest challenge was getting the kids to understand why and all the things that went into tracking the data; but I’m a firm believer in why these young men need to understand the point of why they should do this for the long-run of their careers so, in turn, they’ve all bought into it when we broke it down for them.”

“We can find out about more serious matters, and that’s the reason I chose to monitor these daily life encounters. You see a lot of athletes’ careers fall short to mental stability and things of that nature, so they end up resorting to bad coping mechanisms and that’s the end of that. These mental health and emotional index elements have really helped us in narrowing and cutting off external issues players are having trouble with because we can figure out things in their life, address it before its too late and take action on it.”

Collegiate programs have certainly taken advantage of this laboratory-esque analytic testing early on, with more funding provided for bigger expenditures. Texas A&M is proud to be on the list, courtesy of former Florida State University football head coach Jimbo Fisher who pushed to integrate it within Texas’ program after raving on the success he had with it in 2013, as coach Friel proceeded to tell me he was one of the first, if not the first coach to implement the tech. The University of South Carolina’s soccer and football teams have also embraced it in its entirety.

“Yes, we’re a football team that wants a great reputation and to send them to the next level, but what we truly desire is the best for these kids in every aspect of their lives and future, even after football. If we conduct this with every student, it would be phenomenal, but if I can at least benefit the football team it’s huge in my book.” says coach Friel wholeheartedly.

“The only con would be that normal everyday people wouldn’t understand this to its maximum capacity; it’s so specific to every individual with quantitative numbers, so it does have a steep learning curve. We can focus on separate muscles and variables within the body with this technology, and have a lot of college coaches’ attention for it. We’ve already had upwards of eighty college scouts come around and they saw this tech and are very impressed with it; so it definitely gives us a boost in that sense, too”.

Throughout time as technology has grown into the beast that it is today, it has been one of humanity’s greatest benchmarks and worst downfalls all wrapped up into one sophisticated bow. The undeniable thing is, pieces of tech like this leave a bread crumb trail for something even more beneficial than its predecessors; to flourish into its maximum potential. THAT is something to look forward to.

The devoted mentor concludes, “Hopefully, athletes will start noticing what new have here and join the process; [head] coach Shakir is an amazing coach and guy. He’s tough for sure- you certainly need some thick skin, but for good reason, and he’s interested in the full development of these young kids; when other catch on to it, the sky’s the limit.”

Vaughan Sixbury, BCP Contributor