International scouting recently drew an NFL general manager to Melbourne, Australia, for a few days of rugby. During a lull in the action one evening, his eyes drifted to the sideline. The head coach was walking to the end of the bench, where a team employee sat holding a laptop computer. The two conferred for a moment before the coach returned to his post and ordered a series of player substitutions.
The next morning, the telephone rang in the Arizona offices of Catapult Sports, one of several Australian-based companies that compile live data on athletic exertion. The general manager was brimming with questions for Gary McCoy, the company's senior sports scientist.
"He wanted to know," McCoy said, "what the hell had just happened."
The general manager will remain anonymous because he did not give Catapult permission to reveal his identity. What he had witnessed, however, was the use of a widely accepted supplement to Australian sports training -- an approach that is beginning to gain traction in the United States.
The coach had viewed a live digital display of each player's exertion and conditioning levels as recorded by a GPS machine embedded in jerseys. The technology added precise data to a decision coaches otherwise make by feel. Who is truly gassed? Who should have the most remaining energy? Who is nearing a danger zone for wear-and-tear injuries?
Rugby coaches in Australia and nearly 400 other sports leagues around the world have incorporated such data into their programs, informing decisions like game rotations, playing time and practice schedules. The goals: maximizing performance and minimizing injuries.
The idea, as Florida State's Fisher said, is to take the guesswork out of practice scheduling and player maintenance. NFL coaches often change workout routines based on their perception of the team's condition, but this technology offers objective information. (Consider it the difference between feeling the hood of a race car and measuring its engine temperature.)
A player's profile might suggest that a load score of more than, say, 500 for a given week would put him in danger of pulling a muscle or straining a calf. If he has already reached 490 by the end of Thursday's practice, the coach would be well advised to rest him Friday and find a slower pace the following week.
Jaguars coach Gus Bradley embraced the technology after taking over one of the NFL's most injury-plagued teams, in terms of players placed on injured reserve, in 2013.
"So we did the GPS, and we really tried to stay true to it," Bradley said. "If I got the information back from [strength and conditioning coordinator Tom Myslinski] that said, 'Hey, this guy has gotten so many yards in the last two days and it's above what he normally does,' then we taper it back for him. Instead of four out of four reps, he'll get two out of four reps, and we try to stay pretty strict with that."