NCAA beach countdown: No. 5 Florida State uses technology to stay sharp

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There are, the athletic trainer at Florida State likes to joke, two types of “in shape.” There’s in shape for normal people and athletes playing sports on normal surfaces like grass and wood.

And then there’s beach shape.

“It’s a different thing,” Seminoles coach Brooke Niles said, and she has the information to prove it.

She gets this information from a wearable called the Whoop band, a device that looks and feels like a watch, and is about the same size as one, which all of her athletes wear. It tracks a variety of measurements in the body, primarily heart rate; sleep, and its various stages of R.E.M., deep, light, and awake; and heart rate variability to assess how much strain an athlete puts on his or her body that day, and how recovered the athlete is to do it again the next.

“It helps me understand the girls differently,” Niles said. “I’m old school: You just push through everything. My coaches just killed me when I was in college. Sometimes as a coach you can look at a player and they’re doing the same exact thing as another player but they’re maybe a little slower or it looks like they’re dogging it when they’re doing a conditioning thing, but it’s not that they’re not trying, it’s just that they react differently to the same workout that somebody else is doing. It’s helped me understand that and I look at things a little more scientifically now rather than trusting my instinct.”

The result? Florida State is one of the healthiest teams in the nation, and a perennial power in the East. As is the Seminoles’ soccer team. That’s where the idea for the Whoop came from. In 2018, Florida State’s women won a national championship, and coach Mark Krikorian shared with other coaches at the school that his team hadn’t had an ACL tear in seven years, “and that was something with soccer. You get those all the time,” Niles said. “That struck home with me.”

That season, Niles, like Krikorian, had all of her players wear the Whoop, using the data to determine how hard to push each of her athletes in practice, when to sit certain players, how to adjust to sleeping schedules to West Coast trips.

“It takes a second to buy into it because it’s just like ‘Is this actually how I feel?’” said Alaina Chacon, a junior from Crown Point, Indiana, who went 27-15 in 2019. “I’m the kind of person that — I’ve never had good sleep, and if I’ve never had good sleep then how can I play so well? But when I try to sleep better, I definitely do play better. I see it more in a cognitive state. I’m in a better mood, so it’s not so much athletic for me sometimes. It’s definitely more like mood and all that stuff.

“I really like it. I like to see how hard I’m working and that’s definitely the thing I use it for because I’ve never been a good sleeper. I like to see how hard I’m pushing myself or if I need to push myself more or if I need the coaches to push me more.”

It’s not a perfect science, but the metrics are largely reliable indicators.

“A bunch of freshman got sick in the fall, and they were like ‘Oh, wow, this is what I have to do. We can’t burn the candle on both ends,’” Niles said. “It’s just a learning tool, and our sport, you have to be accountable for yourself.”

Niles and the Noles are now in their third season using the Whoop, and both Niles and her athletes are becoming more accustomed to the metrics and what they mean. She no longer sits athletes who have a recovery score “in the red,” which is anything below a 40-percent recovery. She allows them in light drills, where they can still stay sharp but not put themselves at risk. She doesn’t allow athletes to see their recovery scores on match days so they don’t psych themselves out. But it is no coincidence that the Seminoles are rarely, if ever, injured. That they almost always have the full lineup which is, again, loaded.

Florida State is returning seven starters, including Madison Fitzpatrick, a hometown junior from Tallahassee, and Chacon, as well as Jenna Johnson (a soohomore from Stuart, Florida), Kate Privett (a sophomore from Grapevine, Texas), Molly McBain (a senior from Toronto), indoors standout Payton Caffrey (a 6-foot senior from Chuluota, Florida) and Sara Putt (a senior from Jupiter, Florida).

“This is Brooke’s first full recruiting class that she’s recruited by herself so I think it’s a lot that she’s recruiting a lot of similar characteristics so we all are very, very similar on and off the court,” Chacon said.

“I think she searches for a super competitive athlete and I think that has something to do with it where we are all on the same page. We all ask ourselves why this year feels so different but I think it’s about this team being entirely what Brooke had in mind when she was thinking who’s going to win a national championship and create the best team.”

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