Interesting article on how The Ohio State University Football Team is still looking for ways to gain an advantage, even from the pinnacle of the college football world.
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Buckeyes, Marotti Stay On Top

by Jeff Svoboda
Mickey Marotti admits that in his younger days, he could be stubborn.Ohio State’s associate athletics director for football performance, who is often described as Urban Meyer’s right-hand man, is an old-school kind of guy, too, so when advancements in technology and training methods came along, his first thought used to be that he knew what he was doing.

“When I was younger, you’re always resistant because you take it personally,” Marotti said. “But as you get older, you understand if you’re not learning every day and you’re not enhancing that program, you’re either getting better or you get worse.”

That is one of the bedrock philosophies of Meyer’s program, and Marotti has embraced it. In a marketplace where numbers are helping change or enhance strategies on the playing field across all sports, the same can be said when it comes to training methods in college football.

Technology makes it possible to monitor athletes’ performance and health in ways Marotti likely never thought possible when he started as the strength coach at Grove City High School southwest of Columbus in the late 1980s.

Ohio State is near the forefront of those changes, all part of continued work to make sure the program is using the latest methods and research to produce athletes that are ready to compete with and oftentimes beat the best in the nation.

“You want to be the innovator,” said Marotti, who recently led Ohio State through winter conditioning drills. “You want to be the creator. The creativity part of it, that’s how you get production. I know Coach Meyer studies Nike a lot, that creativity and innovation equals production. Stay ahead of the curve all the time. We try to do the same things here as well as in terms of evaluating and preparing to practice and how we can best get our players ready to play.”

The Buckeyes have a variety of ways they are trying to use the latest technology to help the program. Fans and reporters were equally intrigued two years ago when the program acquired a Dynavision board, which uses series of flashing lights that players have to identify and touch as quickly as possible in an exercise that improves reflexes and cognitive abilities.

Inspired by Meyer’s offseason visit to the Philadelphia Eagles this past year, the Buckeyes brought back a number of technology-based initiatives, including the acquisition of GPS monitors that players can wear during games and practices that measure all sorts of physical characteristics.

“They took a next step as far as player welfare, as far as the hydration, nutrition,” Meyer said looking back on that trip, in which he visited with Eagles coach and close friend Chip Kelly. “They all wear these things and a lot of our guys do, too – they do GPS tracking. So it’s just player welfare. They do a phenomenal job on nutrition to the teaching them and educating them.”

Currently, Ohio State is working in partnership with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on a study in which the base is hoping to create an algorithm that can determine the mental readiness of players based on a number of physical measurements including hydration, sleep cycles, brain waves and more.

The hope is that college football players, who train for and then perform in high-stress competitions in front of millions of people, can provide insight on the way to help soldiers be mentally ready for combat.

“They have a multimillion dollar grant to study algorithms of mental combat readiness,” Marotti said. “We are looking at everything possible out there, and the research people at the air force base are helping us get this stuff together. It’s ridiculous.”

Marotti also mentioned the team has experimented training with altitude masks, which can boost lung stamina, lung capacity and mental focus. But all of this won’t change what lies at the heart of Marotti’s operation – pushing the Buckeyes to exceed their previous physical and mental barriers.

Most of what the coach does in the weight room, his sanctuary, has remained the same. Barbells and mat drills aren’t going anywhere, but the ability to measure how players are actually handling and responding to the stressors put on them is developing at a rapid pace.

While the Buckeyes are doing what they can to combine the best of both worlds, some schools have gone more over-the-top to try to use data in real time. In a story posted over the summer, detailed how Florida State uses sensors to track its athletes in real time, with a newly hired coach who had previously been a rocket scientist sitting on the practice field with a laptop monitoring performance.

Ohio State hasn’t bought in quite to that level. Instead of fitting every player with a GPS unit for each practice, the Buckeyes have about 30 that they parcel out to members of each position group, with the results filling a black binder that sits in the corner of Marotti’s office.

Some key elements of the research are sorted and delivered to the coaches each day, which helps determine practice cycles and informs the coaches to make decisions so that their players are ready to go on game day.

“Everybody is aware of it,” Marotti said. “Coaches are aware of during a two-a-day camp, they are aware of Nick Vannett has run 11.2 miles today … so on a practice drill, they may cut him back a little bit. But it definitely helps. You can’t just keep driving guys into the ground. Now the assistant coaches have an idea of where they are at.

“A lot of the time it was just by injury rate. If guys weren’t getting injured, soft muscle tissue injuries, then you’re fine. Now you have some objective analytical numbers to help that and some data, but we still don’t know. This year, going into camp, we’ll be better equipped because we have all the information from last year.”

As Meyer said, a lot of what the staff does is teaching and educating players as well – answering the why instead of just giving commands. That is one reason Marotti said some of the older members of the team embrace changes more than younger players, many of whom are just getting used to conditioning at the college level.

“You can’t be with them 24/7, so we try to give them the why,” Marotti said. “This is why you need eight to 10 hours of uninterrupted sleep in a dark area where it’s 68 degrees. This is physiologically why, this is mentally why, this all the reasons why. This is why you shouldn’t drink alcohol before a day of competition. We teach them that and educate them that as best we can.

“It’s great the information we tell them, but can they reiterate it back and digest it? We talk constantly about rejuvenation and recovery, but in light of all this technology, the biggest thing is education.”

Much of what has been found through the recent explosion of data merely backed up what already were best practices in the Buckeyes’ strength and conditioning program. Going forward, Marotti expects to see some of the biggest gains come as science advances and more information – and that information’s effects – can be studied and understood in shorter and shorter periods of time. But for someone who started in the field before the personal computer was commonplace and GPS was but a pipe dream, Marotti now has numbers at his disposal that he couldn’t have even dreamed of years ago.

“You can’t even imagine how far it’s come,” Marotti said. “You just can’t. It’s ridiculous. It’s science, and there will be more as it comes out. It’s crazy.”