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In the varsity weight room at Weiss Pavillion, freshman Will Duchow, a sprinter on the track team, stands on the SpartaTrac system's force plate, which measures baselines for athletes in three categories of signature movements.

Credit: Julio Sosa , Julio Sosa

In addition to the branding overhaul of the University, Grace Calhoun is quietly upgrading — no, revolutionizing — what it means to practice for Penn Athletics. And we’re not talking an Allen Iverson-esque rant.

We’re talking bringing Penn to the forefront of sports performance on the collegiate and national levels.

“I’d like sports performance to be something that the Penn programs are really known for,” Calhoun said. 

Throughout her tenure as athletic director, she has helped the University acquire three new cutting edge technologies in the realm of sports performance: a BodPod managed by the University’s first full-time sports nutritionist, SpartaTrac to be used primarily with strength training and GPS tracking vests for the men’s basketball team. 

What makes these technological upgrades so revolutionary? Calhoun's is the only program in the Ivy League with these advantages, truly putting Dear Old Penn in a league of its own.

Of all the new technology utilized by Penn Athletics, the BodPod by far has the most clever and intimidating name. Run by Kayli Hrdlicka, Penn’s first full-time sports nutritionist, the BodPod is a highly advanced machine that measures variables of healthy body composition.

The BodPod is not designed to be a dieting device — with the joint support of Hrdlicka, it is another tool to help student-athletes to hit their target fitness and performance levels.

Calhoun was an enormous supporter of the acquisition of a BodPod, making Penn the only Ivy League school with such advanced sports nutrition technology.

As Penn’s Associate Athletic Director for Sports Performance and Head Athletic Trainer Eric Laudano explains, “The new arms race in athletics is nutrition.

“Not only from a ‘don’t eat this, don’t eat that’ standpoint,” he said. “[The BodPod] allows the athletes to really see where they should be and where they are.”

Beyond just nutrition, Calhoun has supported specific teams’ attempts to maximize their training. For example, starting with the 2015-16 season, men’s basketball coach Steve Donahue and his team will base their training on data from GPS tracking vests worn during practice. These vests monitor heart rate and how far a player travels during practice — among other things — to provide the coaching staff with a more complete picture of player effort on the court.

Perhaps the most sweeping new reform in Penn Athletics is the SpartaTrac system. The technology was first introduced in the University’s varsity weight room back in Jan. 2015 at the suggestion of Strength and Conditioning Manager Jim Steel. The training system is designed to provide athletes with custom workouts based on their perceived strengths and weaknesses, no longer subjecting entire rosters to one-size-fits-all weight lifting routines at Weiss Pavilion.

“It’s something we’re setting the standard on,” Laudano said. “No one else in the Ivy League has this tool. Only a select few Division I colleges in the nation have it and only a select few pro teams.”

Athletes first must perform a series of baseline tests on three signature movements: load, explode and drive. Based on the data collected, the SpartaTrac system then sorts athletes into categories based on which signature movements are their weakest.

According to Laudano, SpartaTrac enables a degree of workout customization never before possible. 

“With these movements we can determine the deficiencies either in muscular weaknesses and movement patterns, and we are able to individualize each student athlete’s program based off of the broad team program,” he said. “The end goal is to ensure that we’re addressing the missing link to not predispose student athletes to injuries.”

On top of the new workout regimens in the weight room, student-athletes can download the accompanying SpartaTrac app on their smart phones to monitor other factors related to sports performance, such as caloric intake and sleep. In the event of an injury, team trainers and physicians can access the data to prescribe a more informed course of recovery for student-athletes.

Additionally, because the SpartaTrac software is customizable, data from the BodPod and Donahue’s GPS tracking program can be incorporated into each player’s training regimen as designed by the SpartaTrac system. This influx of data and numbers into sports practice is overwhelming at first glance. 

However, in life, as in sports, knowledge is power. Obtaining better metrics on athlete performance both on and off the field will only help push Penn Athletics towards its goal of perennial championship contention in all 32 of its varsity sports.

“I really think we’re positioned with a lot of relationships and resources that our peers don’t have,” Calhoun said. “I really think the sum total of what we can do ... not just the training individual athletes to peak performance but the injury prevention [as well] is a combination now of our use of technology, our relationship with having a world-class medical school and health system not only right across the street but also the Sports Med Clinic in our building [Weightman Hall].”

The SpartaTrac system can’t be optimized unless both athletes and coaches go all in — athletes must input their results regularly, and coaches must heed trends in the metrics of signature movements.

Given that most of the new sports performance technology tracks long term trends, it is too soon to give a definitive answer on whether the programming will give Penn Athletics a clear advantage when it comes to wins, injury prevention and performance. And although the University’s teams have only been implementing the SpartaTrac system into their training since the spring, the preliminary results are promising.

Since first experimenting with SpartaTrac during spring practices, football coach Ray Priore has noticed a marked difference in the fitness levels of his players.

“I think our kids came back in a more well-balanced shape,” he said of his team’s return to campus in August. “For the first time in a long time we had less lower body muscle pulls — hamstrings and quads and hip flexors and stuff like that — which are sometimes based upon overuse and/or over- or under-training.”

Priore’s observation tracks with what Laudano calls a preliminary snapshot of SpartaTrac data: For the handful of pilot teams that used the technology in the spring, injury risk is down by 40 percent.

What all of these new bells and whistles boil down to is helping coaches and trainers gather better metrics on their athletes — metrics that can only improve the quality of practice. And if practice makes perfect, better practices can only bring Penn Athletics one step closer to perfection, be it in box scores or season records.

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