In January 2016, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish made a significant addition to their athletic department by hiring Duncan French as Director of Performance Sciences. Prior to signing on with the Fighting Irish, French was a technical lead for strength and conditioning at the English Institute of Sport. Amongst working with many sports, French worked as the Strength & Conditioning National Lead to Great Britain’s taekwondo and basketball Olympic programs, and served as head strength and conditioning coach for Newcastle United FC of the English Premier league.
At Notre Dame, he is working to support the coaches and performance staff from Strength & Conditioning, Sports Medicine, Nutrition, and High Performance Lifestyle Advisors to apply scientific research and analytics in search of a competitive advantage.
French, who has a PhD in Kinesiology/Exercise Physiology from the University of Connecticut, chatted with Matthew Coller about his philosophy and how the staff from each of the performance services are using CoachMePlus to accomplish Notre Dame’s sports performance goals.
It’s great to meet you, Duncan. Let’s start off with the CoachMePlus dashboard. At Notre Dame there are hundreds of athletes and coaches who are playing very different types of sports. What has been your approach to building a dashboard that not only stores the data but makes it understandable and accessible to everyone?
The critical thing is: Data that is not used is data that doesn’t exist. The thing our staff has tried to do with the CoachMePlus platform is look at data visualizations that can enhance our awareness and support to the coaches. What I mean by that is: Ultimately it is the single lens to look through, which is fantastic for all the service providers, the coaches, and the athletes themselves. By utilizing a platform like CoachMePlus we are all able to look through the same lens at the same data. The way we’ve tried to build out dashboards is by having really positive discussions with the key partners of that dashboard. For example, your strength and conditioning coaches, the athletic trainers, the nutrition staff, myself as Director of Performance Sciences and the coaches. We refer to the coaches because we want them logging in and looking through that lens as well. Fundamental for building out our dashboards is capturing the critical pieces of information and insight that those respective staffs want to see. It’s a multi-disciplinary, inter-disciplinary approach to athlete insights.
That’s kind of Step 1. Step 2 is to work with (CoachMePlus staff) to build out our dashboards, be creative with data visualizations and work back and forth between the respective shareholders to make sure everyone’s comfortable with the way it’s visualized and presented and the frequency in which it’s uploaded. We really use CoachMePlus as a single lens for everyone and our philosophy is that we need to empower people with data. It shouldn’t be held away and kept in a vault somewhere. We have to allow people to see it and create good discussions and make sure everyone has a voice.
You are working with so many coaches, I imagine some are on different levels than others when it comes to understanding how to apply some of the data to practices and games. What has the process been like for you in terms of working together to reach goals?
This is where we view my role to be the technical interface between coaches and the technology, as well as Matt Howley, our Director of Sports Science and our strength coaches. We are the technical interface between the data and the coaches to really try to educate as to what the data means and how it can be of value to helping the coaches make more informed decisions. Some of it can be rudimental and simple like capturing hours of sleep exposure, but some data requires more in-depth conversation around what it means if we are starting to see negative trends in the data. For me this is where we have to demonstrate the value of the ‘science informing the art’.
So you are basically asking them: “What are you looking for?” Then working together toward finding data that will help them do their job?
It comes back to a needs analysis. The way we’re developing our structure here at Notre Dame is very much modeled on performance and a strategic approach to answering the critical questions that impact performance. A rowing coach might have a very different set of metrics that he is looking at as opposed to a swim coach, or what our ice hockey coach is looking for. This is where I try to bridge that gap in my role – to work with the coaches to understand what they are trying to get after. For each sport it’s going to have a unique look. That’s where CoachMePlus is a great tool for us. That individuality per sport and where we can house the specific information the coaches are looking for.
With an elite program like Notre Dame, I could see some athletes already having certain ideas about data and training programs. Do you run into that a lot? And what has been your approach to educating athletes on how to understand the use of data?
Our athletes are educated and very aware. As support staff we value their compliance and they are certainly involved in the process. We have to share the data with the athletes and let them look through the lens too, so that they can take ownership of their own development and metrics. We are comfortable with our athletes being able to handle that and do that effectively. We try to use the technical skills of our respective experts in nutrition, high performance lifestyles, strength and conditioning and training to say, ‘we need a uniform message of metrics that are going to be valuable to us.’ Most of the time our student athletes engage because there is faith and we educate them on what we are measuring, why we are measuring it, why it is going to be valuable to the coaches and yourself. We have compliant athletes and the power of the data is longitudinal monitoring and longitudinal study of trends and baseline shifts. What we’re trying to get at is: It’s easy to collect data, but we have to get to a point where we can act on that data.
One of the things that comes up often in conversations about sports performance is: How should sports science professionals decide on which new technology they should invest in. Do you have a philosophy or approach that you take?
The sports science landscape is ever changing. Technology is moving so fast that 90% of the world’s data has been generated in the last three years or so. That being said, my job is to turn over every single stone on the sports science landscape to make sure we are aware of what is going on and how we can look at competitive advantage. Even if we turn over every stone and say, ‘We’re not going with any of these things,’ I have done my job because we are still aware of the situation. At Notre Dame, we try to align our investment and our sports science initiative around specific priorities. We are drilling down on detail because if we try to do a lot of things we will end up doing nothing very well, but if we can have priorities, we feel we are going to get a lot of return from that.
One last thing: You have a very unique and new challenge in your career when it comes to working with college athletes. How have you managed things like NCAA rules, schedules, even homework etc.? What have you learned?
It’s an interesting challenge in collegiate sports because of the logistics you’re dealing with, and because of the large number of personnel and players. These athletes are also not full time professionals. They are pursuing their academic interests, they are investing themselves in service to the community, and they are doing a lot of other things that bring enjoyment and help them grow as people as part of their student experience at Notre Dame. That is the great thing about the collegiate athletics environment – trying to solve all of those problems and find solutions. If used efficiently and effectively, sport science can be used to support our awareness and build the best approaches to supporting elite level student-athletes as possible.
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