Imagine going to work every day and one of the first things you come in contact with is a tablet mounted on the wall. Using facial recognition technology, the tablet welcomes you, then asks about your current stress levels, physical condition, sleep quality and energy that day. Based on your answers, your day’s workload is customized. If your energy levels are down, you might get easier responsibilities. If you’re more stressed than usual, you are flagged in the system and right away someone asks why and what they can do to alleviate it. All of this is done to maximize your performance not just that day, but for months to come.
It’d be nice, right? Sounds like a workplace from the future, possibly something out of the Jetsons. But the reality is this workplace does exist. It’s the Virginia Mason Athletic Center (VMAC), the training facility for the Seattle Seahawks, and it’s ripe with technologies like the aforementioned tablet that are geared toward maximizing the athletic performance of Seattle’s beloved football players.
We spoke with Sam Ramsden, Director of Player Health and Performance for the Seahawks, and he talked in-depth about the fascinating intersection between professional sports and technology. He also discusses how the everyday athlete can use similar tools to improve their own lives and physical performance.
Reflections magazine: How long have you been with the Seahawks in your current role, and what is your general philosophy about technology and professional sports?
Sam Ramsden: I’ve been in this position for four years going on five, but prior to that I was the Head Athletic Trainer for eight years. When I first started in this role I thought it was really important to have a lot of gadgets, a lot of tech. But with each piece of technology that has the ability to measure, track or monitor comes a big mountain of data, right? So we haven’t scaled down, but we really haven’t gone deep into adding more.
What I realized when I first started is that in terms of understanding professional athletes, they aren’t any different from anyone else: everyone has talents and abilities. Football players and professional athletes are movement geniuses. They have the ability and genetic makeup to move their bodies faster, more powerfully, stronger, quicker and more skillfully than anyone else. But everyone’s the same in that they do four to five things every day: sleep (recover), eat, move, think and sense (seeing, hearing, feeling, etc.).
RM: And those are the things you choose to monitor and assess? Can you give an example?
SR: Yes, so how do we understand a player’s movement? We use wearable GPS systems to monitor a ton of different metrics. But essentially what we’re looking at is body load—basically a player’s ability to change direction, run fast, jump, hit, twist, all those things. They are individually tracked and monitored, and it spits out a single metric we can work with.
RM: What do you do with that number?
SR: The everyday person who wears a Fitbit—they’re looking at their own daily expenditure. But what we’ll look at is a player’s body load compared to a position group—how did they exert themselves compared to all running backs? And then also how did they express or exert themselves relative to themselves? We have the ability to monitor these things over time. We can tell whether they had a practice that was below, above normal or normal for them. We like to keep our players with a body load that’s normal for them. There’s a threshold that if a player exceeds in a day or two, or four days, we have mechanisms in place that try to lessen their load and get them back to normal. We do this because we know that exposing players to loads higher than what they’re used to can be a precursor to injury.
RM: That makes sense. What about sleep? I know you’re a big proponent of sleep monitoring.
SR: Sleep is one of the first things I felt compelled to address with our team because it provides the most bang for the buck—probably one of the more important areas that an athlete can improve in. Athletes need quality and quantity when it comes to sleep. It is during the different phases of sleep that our bodies repair the musculoskeletal system and reboot the central nervous system. There are tons of different sleep monitoring apps, but I didn’t have a team-wide assessment tool. I wanted them all to be using the same device or system, where the data goes to the same place and we’re able to look at the entire team at once, not get 30 to 50 different reads.
RM: What tool did you find?
SR: We work with a company that makes sleep bands. It’s called Fatigue Science, and it’s based out of Canada.
RM: What did you find out about the Seahawks’ sleeping habits?
SR: I would say when we first introduced the sleep monitoring, it wasn’t surprising to me that some of our best players were our best sleepers. And it still holds to be true.
What else is interesting is that with most young players, the 22-, 23-year-olds, there’s a lot of introduction to sleep habits and sleep hygiene. A lot of it is being patient with them, but also supplying them with feedback as to how they can improve their situation. Some of the data we’ve collected has helped us dive deep into sleep disorders. We have a handful of players with obstructive sleep apnea, and so we’re able to understand they might have an issue. It’s for long-term health as well.
RM: What do you do with all that sleep data?
SR: What I really like about the GPS technology, or the Fatigue Science Readiband, is it is a bridge to the athlete, to help form an athlete. It’s not so much tracking and watching an experiment in a lab; it’s more about saying, ‘Hey, I’m interested in helping you with your sleep. Are you interested in better habits?’ If they say yes, I say, ‘OK, here is a piece of tech, this is what it does, this is what it can tell me and this is what I can share with you, and these are the action items you can use as a result from the data we collect.’
RM: So players aren’t required to track their sleep?
SR: Everything we do for our players from a technology and sports science standpoint is not mandatory.
RM: What percentage of players participates?
SR: Over half, more in the 60 percent range, but it’s not the entire team. And that really comes from the philosophy of the organization. When you ask an individual, any employee, to do something that they’re not comfortable doing, it becomes toxic and poisonous to their daily equation. It actually has a negative impact on performance.
RM: How do good sleep habits show up in athletic performance?
SR: Sleep is critical for physical recovery. It releases important hormones that, when your body is dormant, take over and repair and regenerate injured or strained tissues. It helps with inflammation too. Your body is constantly seeking a balance, and if you balance activity with recovery, then you’re able to maintain consistency and normal levels of activity.
There’s also a huge cognitive element in terms of learning, processing and storing information. The guys spend a lot of time in the classroom, watching film and taking notes, learning about opponents and their tendencies. Also remembering plays and formations and adjustments—there’s a lot of cognitive stress, so getting the right amount of sleep helps them learn, store that information, retain it better.
Lastly, getting sleep helps player immunity. It helps with illnesses, common colds, upper respiratory infections and things like that.
RM: What else are you using technology to monitor?
SR: I’m a big believer in readiness. And there’s a difference in being ready and being prepared. For example, in football, if you take every rep you’re supposed to take and go to every meeting and write down every note you’re supposed to do. And during the game you don’t have any errors, you played well physically, but you just didn’t have the best game. It’s not because you weren’t prepared. It’s because you didn’t have a readiness level to meet your preparedness. Sometimes players, whether it be on the field or off the field, have something that’s stressing them out. Or maybe they’re not getting the right sleep, or they’re sore, or they don’t have energy. Those four areas can be deterrents or supportive things for a player’s ability to express themselves at a high level. It’s the difference in being amazing or good.
RM: How exactly do you monitor those things?
SR: We ask our players on a daily basis to rank their soreness levels, energy levels, how they slept and their stress levels. Imagine if you had all your employees come into the office and on a daily basis enter in how those areas are in the morning. You’d be like, ‘OK, this guy’s up for a good day.’ Or you’d be like, ‘I’m not surprised that guy didn’t have a great meeting, he’s stressed about something.’
So we’ll compare that positionally. We can tell this group is really sore from yesterday, so we need to make a change. We’ll modify recovery to create that balance. Or it could be just one individual who is super stressed and has a standard deviation from what they normally answered. It creates an opportunity for us to be like, ‘Hey, guy, what do you have going on? You’re a little more stressed than normal.’ And then we get answers. ‘My son or daughter is sick and I stayed up all night caring for him or her.’ So we’ll just check in and say, ‘Do you need any help with that? Is there anything we can do?’
RM: What platform do you use to manage that?
SR: A player will come up to a tablet mounted on a wall, and it has facial recognition. So he’ll walk up to it and his name pops up with a grid to put in numbers, and then he’s done. That feeds into a data management platform that we’ve written code for, so then we are able to see whether that player is good, or better than normal, or slightly less than normal or really less than normal.
The more the players are engaged over the course of the season, the more sensitive it is to them. It’s really been helpful in communicating that information in real time to the coaches: saying this player is struggling today, this player is doing great, this particular group is hurting today, and maybe we can change the intensity.
We’re getting into some really cool stuff in terms of from one day to the next and practice. We understand certain practices have higher body loads on the team and certain practices have less. What the players wear matters; if they wear cleats, shoulder pads. We have collected enough data, enough good information to communicate smart recommendations.
RM: What about the nutrition piece?
SR: Nutrition is probably the hardest thing to do in terms of providing a team-wide solution, but it’s also one of the more emerging and growing areas on our team right now. The challenge is so much of it’s individualized; and people are finicky in what they eat. We do have a nutrition consultant, but it’s very difficult for just a few people to customize high-level, elite nutritional guidance for a team. It’s easy to do one player, but a team is difficult.
RM: The last area of concern for you is sensing. Can you talk about that?
SR: We do have biofeedback tech in the building for vision training, but the area of sensing and thinking has a lot of untapped potential. We have to be careful about how we integrate technology. Whatever we do needs to be done in a very streamlined, thoughtful way. It can't cause disruption to the players' day. So we're still working on implementing team-wide solutions. But the potential is great.
RM: What do you hope is coming down the pipeline in terms of technology?
SR: One big hole right now is that we don’t understand what is happening to our players on game day. We can’t monitor them and what data we do get from a monitoring standpoint, the NFL has control over. There is always concern about competitive advantage. If a team has resources in place that could use the information better than anybody else that puts the rest of the teams at a disadvantage. So my hope is that we can understand what happens to our players in terms of body load and acceleration and deceleration on game day so we can get smarter in how we practice.
Ultimately, as much as teams travel, I think it’d be fascinating to have a traveling treatment room, where on a plane you can have atmosphere and climate control to minimize the effects of phase shifting. Traveling back from the East Coast we could treat a player for five or six hours. Also to be able to create more comfortable lounging and resting. These are big guys sitting in small airplane seats, jammed and cramped. If you could create a cool environment for them that could be a big boost.
RM: Any last thoughts on technology or sports science?
SR: Tech has to be easy and simple. Most of the stuff, if you’re not intentional and consistent with it, just turns into a gimmick. But I think that speaks more to human nature than technology.