Of the hundreds of universities that fall under the Division-I umbrella, there are huge differences in the size. Some have 50,000 students, some have 5,000 students and all of them want to be relevant in the sports landscape. Niagara University falls under the smaller school category with around 4,200 students, but has been highly competitive in many D1 sports. The Western New York school has appeared in the NCAA Championship tournament 14 times in seven different sports since 2000 with four of those coming from hockey and three from volleyball.
Niagara Strength and Conditioning coach Matthew Wietlispach, an army of one in the athletic department, took time out of his crazy-busy schedule to talk with Matthew Coller about how the university has utilized the CoachMePlus system to track and maximize health and performance with many athletes despite a small budget and staff.
Matt Coller’s Q & A with Matthew Wietlispach
Great to meet you, Matt. I want to get started by discussing budget. I don’t think it’s any secret that Niagara faces different challenges than universities that have larger athletics programs, yet you still have some of the same needs. How were you able to get the coaching staffs to buy into purchasing and utilizing the CoachMePlus system?
Every team is going to have their own setup. Mine is unique because I don’t have a very big budget at all. So I went to hockey, baseball, softball, lacrosse and volleyball. I went to those coaches and pitched them the idea and told them what we could do with it. They said, “That sounds great, we’re in.” It has worked out.
What were the coaches looking for in terms of improving their teams’ health and performance? I’m sure that when you made your presentation, they gave you feedback, right? And, have they gotten what they were looking for?
A big thing for (hockey head coach) Dave Burkholder is injuries. In my interview, he said, “I think we lead the nation in injuries.” So a big thing is reducing injuries. We do questionnaires, weigh-in and weigh-outs, we measure grip strength every morning at the same time when they wake up. We do that for CNS fatigue. That’s been really helpful.
We have gotten to the point with questionnaires where it is just normal. It actually helps them be more cognizant of how they sleep and how they eat because you can’t baby sit them.
Dave and I sit down every morning and we go over how the team is feeling, what they’re saying and what their grip strengths are telling us. That has helped a lot with practices. When we first started, I gave him examples of people not playing well because they were fatigued. We were playing well on Friday and Saturday, but not well on Sunday. Coach’s philosophy had been that he would skate the team harder. I gave him examples with numbers and he bought in right away.
You work with more than just the hockey team. How have other sports responded?
Every sport is different. Baseball and softball both wanted to focus on lifting. So we use the app for summer and winter lifting, which is a huge portion of the training. I’m also doing a case study with the baseball pitchers to focus on elbow and shoulder fatigue. Volleyball does CNS fatigue with vertical jump every morning. We do the urine specific gravity test with them because they have dehydration issues. The lacrosse coach loves the lifts too, so the offseason program was huge.
So you’ve got a group of coaches who all have different programs and different needs. That has to be a little crazy at times, huh? How does CoachMePlus help you sort through all the information you’re dealing with at once?
How CoachMePlus helps is: I don’t have the time to type numbers into an Excel sheet. If we were trying to track questionnaire or grip strength using that or paper, there’s no possible way I’d be able to do it.
I work from 6AM to 6PM, then have some sort of planning to do at home so I wouldn’t have time to plug the numbers into Excel and be able to tell the coaches what I see. Instead the teams can do it themselves through the app or with hockey we have iPads in the locker room where they can come fill their stuff in there and the coaches can log in and see the numbers themselves. I don’t even really have to talk to the coaches a lot on a day-to-day basis. Without CoachMePlus I wouldn’t be able to do half the things I do.
Let’s talk about the players’ standpoint. We ask so much of college athletes with practices, workouts, games, travel and their class schedules. How do you help them manage all that and how have they responded to using technology as part of their routines?
I explain really early on to the players that they have to enter the numbers properly. If they enter them wrong, then Dave (Burkholder) won’t have the right information and he is going to end up making practices harder on them. Plus if we do it right, we won’t have as many injuries. I explain the purpose, what we’re looking for, that it is here to help them not to criticize their grip strength or things like that. It’s to help them maintain weight, it’s to help them hydrate, to help them improve performance.
We want them to be able to govern themselves. So they will know when they are tired and need some sort of recovery like an ice bath or foam roll.
Before we had CoachMePlus, the players would just say they were tired and complain the coach is skating them too hard. Now, instead of complaining, they try to do something about it. That’s what we wanted to create.
You know how it can be in college. Sometimes they don’t get enough sleep, they have finals for three days and they play Friday. It is not worth us beating them down. They know we are trying to help, so they have all bought in.
Another thing you want them to do as they go along in their college careers, I imagine, is get better and better as they go along. How do you track that progress?
Testing has been huge. We have the day where everyone runs the 60-yard dash and home-to-first and then we’ll wait until we have a shortened week to do that – we do it three times with baseball softball and lacrosse. With lacrosse, the conditioning is big. All those results go in there so coaches can look up tests whenever they want, they don’t have to contact me.
We also do a lot of rep maxing at the end of cycles and I enter that data into CoachMePlus and the coaches can look at that, too. They can look at progress, like, say a freshman was benching 45 pounds when she came in and she is now benching 85 pounds. That has been good for the athletes. The feedback and them seeing the numbers.
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