Athletic department leaders have come together to ensure student-athletes are at their best // By jeff rice

Penn State’s athletic department prides itself on its ability to support its student-athletes. Whether it is an injury, stress, performance or a desire to change body composition, Penn State student-athletes benefit from a myriad of experts who can address any given issue.

Recently, several of those experts have taken their responsibilities one step further collecting and sharing data, discussing common issues and determining which new technologies best serve student-athletes.

Examples of what this team has the potential to accomplish include predicting and preventing injuries before they occur, reducing factors that cause stress, taking advantage of the latest technology that will not only benefit the majority of the players in a specific sport but also multiple teams across campus and making more staff members aware of a student-athlete’s challenges so that they can help in different ways.

These are examples of the various issues discussed and taken on by Penn State’s sport performance team, implemented more than a year ago by Athletic Director Sandy Barbour and headed by Senior Associate Athletic Director Charmelle Green. Its members include:

Keith Embray - Asst. Athletic Director, Student-Athlete Welfare and Development

Dwight Galt - Asst. Athletic Director, Performance Enhancement

Tim Bream - Asst. Athletic Director, Training Services

Kristine Clark - Director of Sports Nutrition

David Yukelson - Director of Sports Psychology Services

Scott Lynch - Director of Athletic Medicine

David Hamilton - Asst. Athletic Director, Applied Health and Performance Science

Front Row (left to right): Kris Clark, Charmelle Green. Back Row: Tim Bream, Keith Embray, Dwight Galt, David Hamilton.

“It’s a linking together of experts in the field who are here to help our kids develop and grow, as people, as athletes, as students,” said Yukelson, who will end a career that spanned three decades at Penn State when he retires this June. “We can just talk about what we see, and how we might be able to help each other.”

Bi-weekly meetings give team members the chance to relay feedback from coaches or student-athletes, discuss best practices, trends, resources, future opportunities and future needs.

“It’s significantly improved communication and provided us with an opportunity for face-to-face discussion of what’s going on in each unit,” Clark said.

Discussion topics can be broad in scope — Clark, for example, is developing a voluntary program for senior athletes that helps them adjust their caloric intake after they move on from their sport – or based on an individual, such as an athlete who is struggling with how to mentally handle a serious injury.

“Sharing with all the leaders of the units trickles back down to the staff,” Clark said, “and then from there, it trickles into the areas where we all work with the student-athletes.”

Hamilton is the newest face in the group. The native of Durham, England spent the previous three years with USA Field Hockey (he spent eight weeks in University Park with the team in 2013) and has also worked with the English Institute of Sport and done consultation for the Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Flyers and the Manchester United Football Club.

“David has a unique quality in his ability to cross communicate with a variety of units,” Green said. “He knows how to bring those practitioners together, use data to help inform, and then begin those dialogues that have to happen to strategize about how we take care of our student-athletes.

“This has really enhanced how we make decisions about student-athlete well-being and readiness.”

Since arriving in State College in October, Hamilton has worked with Penn State’s coaches to identify the variables they want to measure, focusing on player development and player management and identifying risk factors. He then shares that information with the other practitioners on the sport performance team.

Hamilton initially met with roughly 15-20 of Penn State’s 31 varsity programs, then made a group presentation to all of the head coaches in December. He estimates he’ll spend time with up to 10-15 different teams per week. A big part of what he does is benchmarking, and to do that he needs to know not only the current abilities of the athletes but how hard they’re working throughout the week or the season.

Data can be collected by simply asking a student-athlete how hard that practice session was — a 6 out of 10 or an 8 out of 10, for example.

“If you say you had a 6, and I know you trained for 90 minutes, then it’s 540 arbitrary units of load,” Hamilton said. “You’re developing an understanding through the week of how Monday was compared to Tuesday through the week to the games.”

Finding a balance between implementing the latest technology in sport and meeting the specific needs of the programs is another priority for the sport performance team. Hamilton has worked with the football team to measure soft-tissue strength using a device called the Bod Pod and has used force plates to measure vertical jump for the ice hockey team. Eventually, Penn State plans to measure student-athletes’ sleep patterns using biometrics.

From left to right, Kristine Clark and Dave Yukelson, who will be retiring later this year, with outgoing Athletics Faculty Rep Linda Caldwell and men’s and women’s swimming head coach Tim Murphy after being honored at a meet this past season.

Hamilton, however, wants to avoid implementing technology for technology’s sake so that the Nittany Lions aren’t a victim of “paralysis by analysis.”

“As much as technology is driving the performance,” Hamilton said, “we’ve got to make sure that it’s not wagging the dog.”

The sport performance team must also consider economic factors when considering the potential addition of new technologies.

Finding technology solutions that work for the maximum number of sports and athletes is a prime goal.

“We want to make sure we’re not making quick decisions that don’t allow us to fully vet and analyze what the needs are,” Green said. “It’s ‘are we doing a great job with making the best decisions on the front end and analyzing what our needs are, and then incorporating technology that makes sense?’”

“Everybody wants to win and be successful, but sometimes by working separately on our own goals, you’ve now compromised their work and vice versa,” Hamilton said. “With an open line of communication, that will happen less often, and the ability to influence change will be more significant.”

The members of the sport performance team have already discovered that it’s easier to get Penn State’s teams to adopt new technologies or approaches with a group approach than if the suggestion is coming from one office.

“If this group adopts a new change — everyone using the Bod Pod, for example — there’s no pressure really put on a coach, but if there are enough key leaders suggesting his or her team needs it, that’s very helpful,” Clark said.

There is a lot of science applied by the members of Penn State’s sport performance team in their respective jobs. Bringing those department leaders together has helped the team break down those respective sciences into easily communicable information or suggestions for the coaching staff, and in turn allowed the coaches to create environments where their athletes can perform their best.

“All of us understand the demands on student-athletes,” Yukelson said. “And we’re trying to find the most effective program, so that they’re rested, they’re managing their performances, managing their stress, and that’s what mental health and welfare is really about.”

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