How Auburn Football Uses Sparta Science Data and AI Force Plate System

By Guest Blogger-Connor Mielke, Assistant Athletic Performance Coach

January 31, 2019

This month, The Auburn University Football Team steps off the field and into the weight room to begin offseason training. For the third year in a row, our Athletic Performance Staff will incorporate Sparta Science force plate technology into the offseason programming. Quick and efficient testing, along with user-friendly software, allows the data for more than one hundred Auburn athletes to be collected and analyzed with just four jumps on the force plate! The Sparta Movement Signature, along with Sparta Score allows us to compare athletes and see where injury risks may arise. By knowing where the athlete is at risk for injury, we are able to program additional athlete-specific exercises to build resilience and strength.

Data from each athlete will be collected and analyzed once during each three-week training block so that we can track changes in the jump scans, and determine additional, and sometimes different needs. Unlike some of the organizations Sparta has partnerships with, we do not design completely individualized training programs based off force plate data. As a program, we have had continued success in developing athletes by progressing them through different stages each year. We have established training criteria for each stage, and players move through accordingly as they meet these criteria.

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Our mission as a staff is to be relentless in our pursuit of player development, to help athletes become the best version of themselves, and to be built for life. We believe that the partnership, and incorporation of Sparta force plate technology has been a positive addition to the development of our players over the past few years.

The bulk of training time involves high energy, high intensity, and loud music. The athletes are moving fast and so are the weights. Athletes are coached in a large group, working on developing power, strength, and speed. Within each training group there are multiple programs in play dependent on the stage they are in, so not everyone is doing the same workout. This is why organization and detail are so important. Each week we have a set amount of time to work with. This means it is extremely important to get the most out of that time, as every second is a precious opportunity to make improvements in athletic performance.

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As a staff, we coach our team to train with an industrious vibe. Our aim is to get a great amount of work done in a short period of time. We have to be organized and detailed to accomplish this, but the players have to have a sense of urgency at the same time. This unique combination allows us to consistently train at a highly intense level.

The incorporation of individualized force plate data comes during a time that we call “Overtime LED Work.” This Overtime Load, Explode, and Drive Work (LED) time is an extra five-to-ten-minute window we have added to the end of each training session. In contrast to the majority of the training session, Overtime LED Work is a time where we turn down the music, slow down the pace, and break into three smaller groups. Coaches are able to work one-on-one with athletes to address any areas of weakness shown by their force plate jump scan. We program 1-2 exercises for each group, making sure that they complement the rest of the training session.

The Load Group

​ Our football program is fortunate to have access to some great training equipment that many training facilities do not. One piece of equipment we like to utilize for the Load group is the Keiser Air Squat. Players wear a padding across their shoulders, and perform a fast, explosive squat movement. Keiser uses air resistance and gives a power output number for each squat repetition. This is great for improving Load because it improves the athlete’s Rate of Force Development (RFD). The power output number after each rep provides great feedback during the set, and creates a competitive environment for the athletes. Even though the air squat is not a three-dimensional free weight exercise, we still utilize it because of how simplistic and beneficial it has been at developing explosive power, specific to the vertical jump.

Another piece of Keiser equipment the Load group utilizes is the Keiser Belt Squat, as well as the Pit Shark belt squat. The belt squat movement is joint-friendly, and the focus is on loading the lower body. Our Athletic Performance Staff has found this as an effective way to add volume to the lower body without over stimulating the nervous system and joints. Since the Sparta Load variable is about how the individual prepares the body to jump, in other words how he loads his body into the first part of the jump, we have seen that loading the squat pattern with the belt squat and air squat to show improvements in the athlete’s Load score.

The Explode Group

Explode interprets how well, or quickly the athlete transitions from loading of the jump into the upward movement by using the force applied to the ground. The majority of our quick athletes: running backs, slot receivers, and some defensive backs show very high explode numbers. In contrast some of our larger positions often have a lower explode number and end up in this group because they are great at creating force, but don’t transition it as quickly as the speed positions. Because we have found it to be extremely effective in raising Explode numbers, the focus of this group is on stability of the spine and core. Some of the specific exercises we use are weighted front and side elbow bridges, dead bugs, bird-dogs, rollouts, variations of single arm kettlebell walks, bear crawls, stability ball stir-the-pots, and breathing exercises that focus on bracing the torso. We also incorporate anti-rotation movements using resistance bands and Keiser Functional Trainers, and power rotation movements like dynamic medicine ball throws against a wall. With the exception of the dynamic medicine ball throws, all of the exercises mentioned above are performed in slow, controlled motions. We place a lot of emphasis on the breath, specifically on the exhale, where actively bracing the core creates the most tension and activation of the surrounding musculature.

These are just a few of our favorite movements to perform in the Explode group. All these movements involve bracing of the torso and a co-contraction of musculature around the hip/low back.

Flexion at the lumbar spine is one movement we do not train, and we make sure to educate the athletes on why we perform torso-bracing movements for the core rather than the traditional sit-ups and crunches many of them have learned growing up. This is based on the research performed by Stuart McGill that showed repetitive lumbar flexion movements resulting in disk injuries. Along with the addition of the national sitting and posture epidemic from the rise of social media and cell phone use, we want to get our athletes out of the flexed posture and help the athlete develop a stronger, more stable spine. This stronger, stable spine will translate to force expression on the field.

The Drive Group

Drive refers to how the athlete sustains force. When muscles and joints are not flexible/mobile enough to go through a full range of motion (ROM), then force is no longer sustained. Most of the athletes in the Drive group show signs of tight and/or weakened hamstrings, glutes, and hip flexors. Others may have strong musculature, but limited mobility in the hip, ankles, and shoulder joints. The exercises we program for this group involve mostly unilateral movements with a focus on full ROM. Due to previous lower body injuries, many of these players’ ability to move with full ROM has been impeded. By decreasing the resistance and performing exercises such as the overhead barbell squat, and single leg squat variations through full ROM, we have seen an improvement in Drive scores. We have also found that having players roll out on a foam roller (or PVC pipe), followed by stretching, or even attending a modified short yoga session with us has had a positive effect on Drive scores. These additional exercises and stretches at the end of training help to improve our drive numbers, but it’s important for the athletes to understand the intent and detail with each movement, and why it impacts their Drive score. In other words, it is not just one thing that is helping the Drive athlete, but rather a combination of everything when done right.

Initially, the majority of our athletes were showing weaknesses in the Drive category. By placing a large focus on improving each athlete’s individual deficiency with Overtime LED Work, we have been able to decrease our team’s percentage of athletes in this group. Our goal is not necessarily to push these athletes into a different group, but rather to improve their most deficient score to create a balanced overall scan.

Sparta’s data and research team has shown that a balanced screen, without significant outliers in any LED category, translates to lower risk of injury. Our goal is for the players to achieve a well-balanced screen, while continuing to improve each LED score so that they can be the best version of themselves, while also staying on the field.

Additional Programming Considerations

​ Olympic Lifts such as the clean and snatch are movements we believe in as a staff. Football is a contact sport where athletes generate force to engage with a member of the opposing team. They then have to redirect this new force (opposing athlete) in order to win the battle that is blocking or tackling. This is an analogy we use when coaching Olympic Lifts with our athletes. At its core, an Olympic lift is about applying force, accepting force, and finally redirecting it.

For an athlete that is attempting to improve their Load score, Olympic Lifting makes a lot of sense to us because of the high rate of force development required to move the weight. Speed of the bar is important when trying to generate these large forces. As for the Explode group, one additional change to our coaching of the Olympic Lifts has been to catch it in a higher athletic position compared to the other athletes that catch the bar at the bottom of the squat. When you think about this explosive exercise, you will realize that when the athlete catches higher it forces him to brace really hard at the top rather than meeting the bar on the way down like a traditional Olympic movement. That being said, we only coach a few of our Explode-deficient athletes to catch the bar like this. We believe that the additional bracing of the torso at the top has helped them to improve their Explode scores on the force plate. The rest of our team, specifically the Drive deficient athletes are coached to catch in a full squat. By performing the lift in a fluid athletic full ROM, it teaches the body to prolong force for a longer duration.img

It is also good for the Load and Explode group athletes to use self- myofascial release because it can help get them into a rest and recovery state quickly after training, as well as help them to make lasting changes in muscle flexibility and joint mobility. However, it is not enough just to stretch and roll out. It is important to continue coaching this part of the training session. Just sitting on a roller or passively stretching the hamstrings will not make a lasting change that will improve the athlete’s scores. However, when they are extremely intentional about their development they will start to see a change in their mobility/flexibility, and reap the rewards with an improved scan on the force plate. This consistent detail may be the difference in preventing a soft tissue injury on the field.

Educating the Athletes

Ultimately, we know that the basics both in the weight room, and on the field work most effectively when coached properly. We are striving to be brilliant at the basics before progressing to more advanced training methods. Coaching each athlete to have great technique during every single repetition – no matter what the exercise - is going to improve the Sparta force plate movement signatures much more than any one specific exercise. Detail, intent, and deliberate practice while training is what separates good athletes from great athletes. In other words, our experience tells us that how you do things is much more important than what you do during training.

As coaches, we take the time to educate athletes on how to perform each exercise to our standard during every stage of development. For example: when coaching a split squat, we might explain that if you are not going through full ROM, you will not achieve the goal the exercise is intended for. We would then explain that we are trying to improve hip mobility in the back leg by lengthening the hip flexors and stretching the quad, all while loading the front leg at the same time. By moving through full ROM, more muscle fibers are recruited, and single leg strength improves. All these training adaptations contribute directly to an improved force plate scan. Because we are educating our athletes how the exercise will help them, they “buy in.”

With education being so important, we take the necessary time to discuss movement with each and every athlete. By doing this, it creates a fun and engaging atmosphere where it’s not just about Load, Explode, and Drive, but really about the “how” and the “why.” If the exercise is not trained with intent, purpose, and detail then we are just wasting our time. When there is consistent, deliberate practice and intention behind the training, a compound effect goes to work for the athlete. When the talent equals out, this slight edge habit can be the difference-maker.

Working with Sparta has sparked new ideas, and has helped us to educate the players even more on the way they move and how to optimize their movement. The addition of the Sparta force plates and software system, along with support from Sparta’s educated staff, has given our Auburn coaching staff another way to achieve our mission of helping our players increase their athletic abilities and health.

At the elite level of collegiate football, the competition is extreme, and the talent level is high. For us, it is all about doing whatever we can to improve each day. As the saying goes, elite performance requires elite preparation. Our partnership with Sparta is one of the ways we believe we are building an EDGE at Auburn Football.

Find out more about Connor @coach_mielke on Instagram.

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Current Sparta Scan: 69 - 60 - 58

Sparta Score: 94

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