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Using Big Data to Advance the Athletic Training Industry

Published on 10/23/2017

Life as a student-athlete is not for the faint-hearted. Between grueling academic and athletic schedules, free time is in short supply for most athletes. For many of these athletes, an injury on the field, the court or the ice could mean losing their spot on the depth chart

Consider the typical student-athlete at Notre Dame. In the first week of their freshman year, they receive a complete medical physical, concussion baseline testing and a thorough movement assessment. Through several methods, our sports performance staff observe how our student-athletes move through spaces, searching for any irregularities, discrepancies or red flags that need to be addressed. Based on the demands and needs of each sport, our athletes will also receive baseline testing, looking at the athlete's basic strength, range of motion, resting heart rate and recovery rate. Throughout their career on the team, these student-athletes regularly receive these tests and fill out wellness questionnaires to assess their ongoing health and wellness with the goal of keeping them injury-free.

Notre Dame has long been known for our culture of excellence within our athletic program. Today, we continue to carry that tradition by applying data analytics and individualized health plans to protect the well-being of our student-athletes is a top priority. Through the collaboration of sports medicine, our sports performance staff and the data we collect, our athletes are more protected from injuries than ever before.

Creating a culture of data-driven outcomes

It's not easy for athletic programs to adopt and implement health IT platforms overnight. In most cases, it takes years of slow and continual growth to create a program that is driven by technological innovation, both on and off the field. There are dozens of performance analytics platforms available to athletes and their performance staff, but time and staffing constraints are often the biggest obstacles.

My advice to other professionals: Start small, be deliberate and communicate with your staff members. The best injury prevention insights come from year-over-year data, which requires patience and consistency. At Notre Dame, we saw huge spikes in injury rates at the very beginning of each school year during training camps, but it took years of data collection to begin making correlations as to why - and even longer to develop plans to prevent these injuries.

As athletic trainers, we operate within the broader scope of the sports performance team, which includes everyone and everything that touches that athlete. Nutritionists, strength and conditioning coaches, physicians and mental health experts can work together to paint a broader picture for every athlete. As the athletic trainer, we're able to act as the quarterback and work with the athlete to help call each play in his or her health care journey. It's exciting to be able to look at each athlete with a broader scope, but it changes the way we think and act in our day-to-day work. We're forced to recall conversations we've had and draw data points from months and even years past to consider the best course of action.

In using information that comes from people and the systems they use daily, we can capture a complete picture of each athlete, which is crucial to both treating and preventing injuries before they occur. We can pull in data from multiple systems and understand every aspect of an athlete's health and wellness, and we can use that information to help our athletes perform at a higher level. In the past, athletic trainers might have only considered the injury of which an athlete needed to be treated. Today, we're using data analytics for more than identifying how and why an injury may have occurred. It supports an athlete's fast and safe return to the field, prevents future injuries and promotes long-term health.

Questionnaires and connected devices feeding health IT

We have found that daily wellness questionnaires provide a valuable baseline view into the athlete's emotional state and livelihood. Every morning, the athlete provides their answers on an app, and although these data points are subjective in nature, over time, they provide a valuable look into the athlete's health. We're able to understand how our athletes feel, how they slept, if they had an exam, what they've eaten and if they're sore, happy or stressed. Through these insights, we're able to see a week-over-week, month-over-month and even year-over-year view into the athlete's physical, mental and emotional performance, which is critical to effective treatment. We look at these scores daily and compare them to objective data that we're able to pull from wearables and other technology.

Depending on the sport, or even the person, we're outfitting athletes with connected devices on a case-by-case basis. From load sensors, accelerometers and heartrate monitors to sleep and step trackers, we're able to measure both on-field performance and off-the-field habits to gather a full picture of what our athletes experience throughout a season. By referencing this data when reviewing injury rates, performance teams have a better view into the root of injuries. Today, athletic trainers are transitioning from reactive to proactive care for our athletes, and the results so far have been promising.

Athletic trainers sometimes act as the athlete's de facto primary care provider - not in a traditional medical practice, but as a consistent touchpoint in the athlete's health care journey. We're concerned for their outcomes, and we're providing them with individualized plans based on an all-encompassing view of their health. We're also embracing technology to help athletes who are on the bench return to the playing field without compromising their long-term health. Likewise, our health IT systems provide a way to prevent or predict illnesses, as well as injuries. Younger generations are less intimidated by these technologies and the feedback that data provides. As the athletic training industry increasingly looks to data-driven insights that can impact the lives of our athletes, so too are our athletes evolving and taking ownership of their own health.

The importance of trust in sports science

As athletic trainers, trust and communication are our most critical tools. We have an opportunity to sit at the table with everyone who is part of the performance team - including players, coaches, nutritionists, strength coaches and physical therapists to talk about every piece of the athlete's health. We can discuss both subjective experiences and objective data points and use these to promote short-term performance and long-term health. Through the mass of data we've collected, we're able to make better-informed decisions as safely as possible.

For data analytics to truly make an impact on the athletic training industry, we need buy-in from everyone involved on the team: coaches, athletic trainers, team physicians, strength coaches and, most importantly, from the athletes themselves.

From day one, we're on the athlete's side. Because we build relationships with our athletes and observe them on the field and in the training facility, we are afforded a great deal of trust. That trust goes both ways. We expect our athletes to be honest and forthcoming with how they feel, and they expect us to be confidants who have their best interests at heart. Optimizing their long-term health outcomes is our primary goal, even over improving short-term performance, and the insights and results that data analytics have provided us reflect this.

HealtheAthlete is a secure, web-based health management platform that helps you and your athletes track their health and care throughout their lifetime. Learn more here.