The laptop screen showed that Cody Doolin's heart rate had reached the red zone, meaning he was giving his maximum effort during a recent basketball practice at the University of San Francisco.
The freshman guard is one of the team's hardest workers and among its fittest players, typically burning 1,700 calories over the course of a 40-minute game. These days, the coaches know this not just based on a hunch but because they have scientific evidence to prove it.
San Francisco's men's basketball program invested $10,000 this season for its athletes to wear heart rate monitors in both practices and games, and even for workouts in the weight room.
Dons director of strength and conditioning Evan Nielsen and director of basketball operations Jack Kennedy watch and monitor each player's exertion every day.
When a grid on the laptop reveals a player has reached his max heart rate, signaled by a red number in the color-coded software program, coach Rex Walters is told it's time to sit him down for a break.
“It's automatic, for the most part,” Kennedy said. “As soon as we see somebody getting in the red, we're telling coach they've got to come out.”
In fact, Nielsen provides the coaching staff with nightly reports breaking down the players' outputs and how hard they worked down to a given drill, and even a chart showing how long it will take for an athlete to recover after a game.
Doolin, for example, played 37 minutes in a 68-62 victory over rival Santa Clara on Feb. 5. Nielsen determined — from the monitoring program developed by Polar USA — that the point guard needed from that Saturday night until Tuesday to be full strength again. Doolin was given Sunday and Monday off, returning to the court for Tuesday's practice last week.
Walters is able to pull players out for a rest based on what the data tells him, making it hard to argue such a move.
“It's something different but it's pretty useful,” Doolin said. “Sometimes as a player you don't want to come out. Everybody wants to play the whole game. I think it's good because we stay fresh and I think we close out the end of games pretty well.”
Wearing the monitors is a health and safety precaution but also a strategic move by the Dons, who have begun the West Coast Conference season at 8-3 for their best league start since 1982.
“Statistics show more turnovers happen, there's worse shot selection and decision-making when you're in the red — the anaerobic threshold,” Kennedy said.
The NFL's Atlanta Falcons began using the heart rate technology this past season. Polar has approximately 200 systems across the country from the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, U.S. Soccer, some Olympic teams and in collegiate athletics. In addition, heart rate monitors have become a presence in some public school districts to monitor students in physical education classes.
Heart issues hit close to home in the WCC — and in San Francisco. Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers collapsed and died on the court in 1990. More recently, top California women's basketball recruit Tierra Rogers was diagnosed with a rare heart condition after a Sept. 21, 2009, workout in which she had trouble breathing and later collapsed at Haas Pavilion outside the training room. The prep star from San Francisco saw her college career end before it began.
In Seattle, there was also former University of Washington women's basketball player Kayla Burt, whose heart stopped on New Year's Eve 2002. She has her teammates to thank for performing CPR that kept her alive. Burt had a defibrillator implanted and returned to basketball, but the device went off during a game in her senior season of 2006 and her career ended.
“We all want to win, but these guys' lives are our responsibility,” said Nielsen, the USF strength coordinator. “First and foremost, my primary concern for every one of these athletes is their health.”
So, are the Dons setting a trend nationally?
“It could be,” said Dr. Ken Akizuki, a team doctor for both USF and the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. “It's an added piece of information. It could help in safety and performance, but I would emphasize the safety factor.”
Polar estimates about 15 Division I college basketball programs are using the monitors, though a number of schools utilize them in other sports, too.
Considering this is USF's first season doing it, Walters isn't ready to say for sure that the monitors have contributed to his team's success — but he is pretty sure it hasn't hurt the Dons' fortunes, either.
“This type of conditioning is absolutely leading edge,” Polar president Jeff Padovan said. “Not just at the pro level or the collegiate level but also at the high school. At least once a year in the summer or the dead of heat, you hear about a player who dies — whether it's exhaustion, dehydration or a heart issue. Every time I hear of that, I shudder. There are technologies out there that provide real-time data on how they're being stressed in what they're being asked to do.”
USF has won all three of its overtime games, including a thrilling 96-91 victory over perennial conference powerhouse Gonzaga on Jan. 22.
“You're always trying to find the fine line between hard work and overwork, training and overtraining,” Walters said. “We just wanted to be as smart as we could with how we work our guys, and it's really been helpful to understand our guys' bodies. When they're going too hard, that's how fatigue and injuries occur. As a coach, it gives you peace of mind knowing your guys are giving you all they've got and I'm not pushing them beyond their boundaries.”
In a 94-88 loss at Pepperdine on Jan. 29, Walters gave his players the choice to not wear the monitors for a change. They all removed them and the staff is certain fatigue late in the game contributed to the loss. By Monday's practice, the monitors were back on. Players wear a black strap around their lower chest under a jersey. The monitors are two-inch plastic devices comparable in shape and size to a keyless car entry remote. They send a wireless signal to the computer.
The Dons are going to take the heart monitoring to a new level this spring, when they will put players through a VO2max test to determine an individual's maximum capacity to transport and use oxygen to make muscles function. Having that information on each young man will make the statistics from the heart monitors even more meaningful and useful.
Walters also plans to wear a heart rate monitor next season, with everyone knowing full well it will spike when he is in a heated discussion with the officials.
“If our guys are working at peak performance, there's no question in a two-point game we have an advantage,” Walters said. “We want to make sure we're taking the right steps with this. It has paid off, I think, because we've won a lot of close games. I feel like we are fresh and confident.”