Oct 31 2006

Tech Scores Big in College Sports

The latest technology tools have changed how the game of sports is played.

To hold a proper gymnastics practice, Boise State University’s head coach Sam Sandmire needs balance beams, uneven bars, vaulting horses—and for the past year, the office equivalent of a home entertainment system.

During practice, a stationary video camera records her gymnasts as they race to the horse and vault over it. She uses a digital video recorder (DVR), a device for recording TV shows on hard drives, to show instant replays. After each vault, gymnasts join Sandmire in front of the screen to analyze their maneuvers. She loves the DVR because she can program it to show a replay on a 16-second delay.

“It’s a great teaching tool because it shows exactly what they’re doing right and wrong,” says Sandmire, whose gymnastics team was ranked 20th in the country this past season. “I can tell them that they bent their knees or arms or their legs split, but they could argue, ‘I didn’t do that.’ When we review the replay, they realize, ‘I did do that.’ It really helps.”

To win and perform well in college sports, it’s not just about strength, speed and teamwork. Technology tools also play a pivotal role. Coaches and athletes in all sports—from football and basketball to wrestling and gymnastics—use the latest video technology to view footage of themselves and their opponents in order to develop game plans and review their performances. Studying video—and correcting mistakes—can give coaches and athletes a decisive competitive edge.

Beyond the playing field, tech gadgets have revolutionized the recruitment process, coaches say. They rely on e-mail, instant messaging from their computers and text messaging from their cell phones to communicate with potential high school recruits. Most carry personal digital assistants (PDAs) to maintain a contact list and jot down notes as they scout potential recruits in high school tournaments across the country.

College sports administrators across the country rely on information technology (IT) to run their operations—everything from handling finances and ticket sales to displaying stats on stadium scoreboards.

“Technology assists in all aspects of athletics—on and off the field,” explains Arnold Baldeaux, the equipment systems specialist at San Diego State University.

A Competitive Edge

At Boise State, digital video technology allows the football team to prepare for games much faster. Gone are the days when coaches lugged a stack of VHS tapes, sat in front of a VCR and fast-forwarded through a tape to find the play they wanted to show their players.

The football team videotapes its practices and games, and stores the footage—including previous games of upcoming opponents—on a server. Todd Campbell, the athletic department’s video coordinator, digitizes and edits the footage. Other staffers review each play and categorize them, such as all running plays to the right side or all pass plays thrown to the left side of the field. Coaches can connect their notebook computers to a dedicated network to view the videos and build game plans. When they search for a specific type of play, all the matching results are displayed instantly.

Campbell builds reports out of the database for each of the offensive, defensive and special teams coaches. Digital video technology gives the Boise State football team a competitive edge because it allows them to design game plans more quickly.

“Ultimately, winning comes down to having good players and good coaches, regardless of the technology,” Campbell points out. “But if the other team has good players and coaches, too, then every bit of technology helps you prepare for games.”

To remain competitive with rival football programs, Boise State’s football team constantly seeks to upgrade its video technology. On the horizon are cameras that record directly to hard drives, which eliminates the time required to digitize and transfer video footage to computers, Campbell says.

At San Diego State University, the baseball team has video cameras aimed at hitters and pitchers at all angles. During games, staffers record each pitch and swing with the click of a mouse. They then burn DVDs and give them to players, so they can review their at-bats, either on their own or with the coaching staff, says Mike Sweet, the school’s director of baseball operations.

After facing 90 miles-per-hour pitches, players can watch slow motion video of themselves to ensure that their hitting mechanics are correct, Sweet says. Videos can show flaws—such as dropping their elbows as they swing—that they need to fix. “It’s an extra tool to learn and [improve] their game,” he says.

The situation is similar at Arizona State University. Joe Kenn, the university’s sports performance head coach, records players’ workouts, so trainers can review their techniques and correct their flaws. Kenn can overlap video of an athlete who has poor technique with video of an athlete performing the identical exercise with good technique. Showing both videos at the same time can teach the athlete to perform the exercise correctly, he explains.

“Sometimes you can explain something verbally, but some athletes are visual learners,” Kenn says. They need to see what they’re doing right—or wrong.

Recruiting Tomorrow’s Stars

Technology, particularly e-mail, has revolutionized the higher education recruiting process because it’s a cost-effective way to communicate with prospective students, says Jen Daniels, San Diego State’s assistant director of compliance.

Traditional recruiting can get expensive. Coaches make long-distance phone calls to talk with prospective players. They travel cross-country to watch them play in tournaments. They mail letters and packages, which also costs time and money.

E-mails, however, are basically free. And while the National Collegiate Athletic Association places limits on phone calls to students, the governing body places no limits on how many e-mails coaches can send to potential recruits, Daniels says.

Sandmire, Boise State’s gymnastics coach, says e-mail helps her tremendously with recruiting. Nothing beats meeting a potential recruit face-to-face or talking on the phone, but e-mail is a great way for both coaches and students to get to know each other and stay in touch, she says. In fact, many high school students who want to join her gymnastics program regularly e-mail her short video clips of their most recent performances.

“Coaches from the bigger programs can fly around the country and visit kids, but technology levels the playing field because anyone can e-mail,” Sandmire explains.

Mike Giuliano, the women’s soccer head coach at San Diego State, also sees e-mail’s value. “There are so many students we want to communicate with, and to [reach] a large number of people in a short period of time, e-mail is very important,” he says.

Giuliano and his assistant coaches have also embraced PDAs. He uses the handheld device to take notes when scouting potential recruits, replacing the paper notebook he previously used. In the near future, the coaching staff will likely begin to sync data between the PDAs and the staff’s main recruiting database.

Working All Hours

Managing IT for sports departments is different from managing technology for any other university department, says Lisa Packett, director of IT for the University of Maryland’s athletics department. She points out that professors typically work set hours, while sports teams travel around the country. That means Packett must provide tech support for remote workers—specifically, coaches who may have trouble checking their e-mail from hotels.

Packett also manages the technology at stadiums and arenas—everything from making sure the scoreboards work to providing wireless Internet access to journalists. Staff members also post game stats on the Internet for every University of Maryland team, so parents across the country can keep track of their children’s performances.

In addition, Packett provides tech support to athletics department administrators. They have multiple needs, such as software that manages game ticket sales.

In all, Packett and her department manage 240 users, several student computer labs and five servers. Because each sports team has different technology needs and preferences, she rarely standardizes on specific software—except in the cases of antivirus software and Microsoft Office, which everyone uses.

Packett provides technology recommendations to coaches, but she lets the coaches make the final buying decisions. For example, the football team prefers a Windows-based video-editing system, while the basketball teams use Mac-based video-editing systems. “You learn to be flexible,” Packett says.

Clearly, technology now impacts all aspects of college athletics. “You used to have coaches who didn’t know how to use a computer, but now it’s [almost] mandatory,” says Baldeaux, who manages IT for San Diego State’s athletics department. “Now, every coach comes up to me and asks, ‘What should I get?’”


College sports IT leaders Arnold Baldeaux of San Diego State University and Lisa Packett of the University of Maryland share their top tech challenges and how they meet those challenges.

1. DIVERSE USERS AND NEEDS: An athletics department isn’t just about coaches and players. It’s a business. Members of sports team are road warriors who need to connect to the network from hotels. Administrators need business software to run the finances and manage the ticket-selling process, which often includes an e-commerce Web site. Be ready to multitask, because you and your staff must be trained to solve different user problems.

2. HELP DESK SUPPORT: Sports teams want everything fixed right away, especially during their seasons. You can generally hold off on administra-tion's tech problems if they’re not urgent. But if something affects a sports team, you have to fix it pronto.

3. STAYING CURRENT ON NEW TECHNOLOGY: Attend conferences. Share strategies with IT managers from other athletic programs. Talk to your coaches. They chat regularly with competing coaches and know what innovative technologies other universities are using.

4. STANDARDIZATION: One size does not always fit all. You can standardize on general technology, such as e-mail systems. But each team has its unique technology needs and preferences. Learn to support multiple environments.

5. PURCHASING: Make recommendations to coaches about the technology you think they should purchase based on functionality, vendor reputation, budget and other key factors. Generally, however, let coaches make the final purchasing decision because they are the ones who will rely on the technology and have to be comfortable using it.

6. WORKING ODD HOURS: Many games are played at night or on weekends. Teams travel for road games and need IT support. Be accessible 24 x 7. Take comp time for the extra hours you work, but be available when the team needs you.

Wylie Wong is a Phoenix-based freelance writer who specializes in technology.