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Nov. 15, 2023

Spartans advance the science behind sports

MSU researchers, staff and students are making the sports world safer, healthier and more competitive

Reading time: 11 minutes

Michigan State University’s athletic prowess extends beyond courts and playing fields to classroom and research spaces where Spartans are changing the way sports are played and how athletes perform under a host of conditions. Members of MSU’s sports science community are advancing their field — from a communication professor studying mental health in student-athletes to a researcher examining heat exhaustion through a first-of-its-kind NASCAR grant to a medical student interning with the Detroit Lions.

To Bill Burghardt, the director of sports science for MSU Athletics, the field of sports science is vast. It means helping leaders across coaching, strength and conditioning, and sports medicine to optimize athlete performance backed by data, technology and exercise science. “We are leveraging groups all around campus to get better data, better insights and a better environment for our student-athletes and coaches,” Burghardt says.

Jaden Akins runs the court in a basketball game at the Breslin Center in 2023
Jaden Akins runs the court during a game at the Breslin Center in 2023. Photo by Nick Schrader

Benjamin Klein, a second-year sports science graduate assistant for the men’s basketball team, is part of Burghardt’s sports science team. Before practices in the Breslin Center, Klein hands each player a small vest to wear under their practice gear. In those vests, which fit snugly over a player’s chest and back, are devices that track player movement and report data in real time on athlete workload that is relayed to an iPad Klein carries at practice.

If he notices anything out of the ordinary — say, a player reaching the levels coaches and trainers wanted them to hit that day — he will notify a strength and conditioning coach. This is especially important to the team when a player returns from an injury.

Klein chose to pursue a master’s degree in kinesiology from the College of Education — whose kinesiology department is over 100 years old — and he’s excited about the opportunity to be a part of MSU. “We’re trying to be ahead of the curve when it comes to preparing our student-athletes,” he says.

When it comes to sports science, Spartans are doing just that. 

Students in the Izzone hold up newspapers that read Go State
Photo by Nick Schrader

The technology behind the wins

When Burghardt first began working with MSU Athletics as a graduate assistant while earning his master’s in kinesiology from 2009 to 2011, he worked as a member of the strength and conditioning teams for football and a variety of other sports at MSU. He loved the work and was eager to learn as much about the craft as possible — which, to him, meant looking at the science and technology behind it.

Bill Burghardt, wearing a Spartan hat, sunglasses and a black MSU football shirt
Bill Burghardt watches over MSU football practice. Photo by MSU Athletics

“I was looking at stressors for our athletes,” Burghardt says, “and I wanted to find solutions that would make it easier for us to understand what a student-athlete is going through.” After earning his master’s, he was hired as a strength and conditioning coach for the football team, and he continued searching for technology that would help him do his job better, which would in turn help the team on the gridiron. 

In 2016, Burghardt and the football staff came across a device from Catapult Sports called the Catapult Vector — the same one the MSU men’s basketball team uses today. At that point, it was being used mostly by European soccer clubs, but for Burghardt, it was “the perfect marriage of sport, exercise physiology, strength and conditioning and technology.” By measuring things like how many times a player is tackled, how often they throw the ball, playing location (indoors or outdoors), acceleration, heart rate and more, athletics staff could learn so much about how a student-athlete was performing. 

By 2018, Burghardt and the football team felt they were seeing a measurable benefit in using the technology and the data it returned. At the same time, Burghardt saw an opportunity to earn a doctorate in the Department of Kinesiology, which he achieved in 2021, in part thanks to the data from the tracking device. It was his third degree from MSU.

MSU football player Ade Willie lifts weights while training in the catapult tracking device
Ade Willie trains in a Catapult tracking device. Photo by MSU Athletics

After taking on the role of director of football sports science in 2020, he was elevated to director of sports science for all MSU Athletics the next year. Today, he’s building a team that’s working with devices like Catapult for teams across Spartan sports. In fact, eight teams now wear the tracking devices in preparation for competition. Football, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, ice hockey, field hockey, men’s soccer and women’s soccer — which just won its second consecutive Big Ten Championship this fall — are all working with the MSU sports science team to reach the top of their game. 

Work in sports science is not limited to the athletics department. Burghardt is happy to partner with departments and researchers across campus, including with his colleague Albert Cohen, who leads the sports analytics graduate certificate program at MSU. There’s more to sports science at MSU than analytics and exercise physiology — the mental side of the sport is critical, too.

Researchers in the College of Communications Arts and Sciences, for example, are working with the NCAA to address the stigma surrounding mental health in student athletics.

Taking care of athletes’ minds

Bree Holtz, an associate professor in the Department of Advertising and Public Relations, has a background in information communication technologies and health communication and studies how they can improve health. Holtz believes there is an opportunity to find ways to reach young people struggling with mental health via an app.

Bree Holtz poses and smiles, wearing a blazer over a white shirt
Bree Holtz. Courtesy photo

So, when a researcher from the University of Alabama reached out to Holtz about the impact of mental health on student-athletes, she was interested in learning more. “They’re young adults going through the same issues and problems that their peers are,” Holtz says, “but it can sometimes seem more heightened because they have more stress on their day with practice and competitions.” Together, Holtz and the Alabama team applied for and received a grant from the NCAA to understand the mental health pressures student-athletes face and the barriers they encounter when trying to access support. 

Their project, “Interactive Narratives for Mental Health: Sharing Stories of Success,” was awarded a $25,000 grant from the NCAA for its annual NCAA Innovations in Research and Practice Grant Program, which aims to fund research teams who conduct studies that enhance student-athletes' psychosocial well-being. Research began in June 2023, and come next June, Holtz is hoping to have a finished product. 

That finished product would be a serious game that could be accessed through an app that would enable student-athletes to seek help. A serious game is similar to a choose-your-own-adventure book, but in this case, it would simulate situations or problems a student-athlete may face. With the creation of these serious games, the research team hopes to see an improvement in the ways conversations and behaviors around mental health are approached in sports communities, reducing pressures student-athletes deal with on a day-to-day basis.

To help craft the games, Holtz gathered student-athletes from both MSU and Alabama in focus groups. Together, the groups worked on storyboards and drawings that worked through the situations that might affect student-athletes.

Spartans are busy at work on youth sports and the mental health side of sport, too. Professor Emeritus Dan Gould, who served as the former director of the Institute for the Study of Youth Sports, which is over 40 years old, was inducted to the International Society for Sports Psychology Hall of Fame in 2023. MSU Athletics has a staff devoted to student-athlete wellness, as well.

One thing Holtz noted was that there are resources at MSU and in the athletics department for student-athletes, but the stigma of asking for help can remain a barrier. As she continues working with her colleagues at the University of Alabama during the year-long grant to develop a serious game, she has been grateful for the support from MSU Athletics. 

“Without the collaboration, guidance, and resources provided by Ashton Henderson (executive associate athletic director), Alan Haller (athletic director) and Ebony Clark (deputy athletic director), this achievement would not have been possible,” Holtz says. “Their commitment to the well-being of student-athletes has been instrumental in shaping our project and ensuring its success.”

Collaboration between departments is not new at MSU. In fact, that willingness to work together is having a national impact in sports beyond the collegiate playing field.

Fans cheer on the infield as cars pass by at the Daytona 500. Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash
Photo by Tim Trad on Unsplash

A need for speed and safety

Before the MSU football team played against the University of Miami in the Florida heat in 2021, Burghardt reached out to David Ferguson, an associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology. Ferguson studies heat exhaustion in motor sports athletes. In this case, he helped guide and execute Burghardt’s plan to prepare the Spartans for the Miami game, which included heat training and use of ice — lots of ice — to cool off athletes. It worked; MSU won 38-17 in the heat. 

A group of MSU researchers pose at a NASCAR race, on the infield
David Ferguson (green polo shirt) poses with members of his research team at a NASCAR event, summer 2023. Courtesy photo

Ferguson is still finding ways to beat the heat, only now it’s thanks to a grant from NASCAR, the first ever related to exercise physiology. The grant, awarded in January 2023, is expected to address the growing concerns of heat exhaustion a race car driver may experience during competition.

Ferguson and his team of researchers spent the NASCAR season following drivers along the circuit. About three hours before each race, Ferguson or a team member would meet each driver for approximately three minutes — a frantic three minutes — giving the drivers patches, vests and pills to measure things like sodium content, heart rate and body temperature.

From there, the researchers — often students from MSU who Ferguson says were essential to the work — would enter a NASCAR engineering trailer and log activities from the race. They took notes on moments in the race that might impact someone’s pulse or body temperature — say a crash or a caution lap.

For Ferguson, it was an exhausting but rewarding experience.

The hope is to eventually be able to receive this tracking data in real time. So, should a driver be on the verge of dehydration or overheating, someone on his or her team would be able to help prevent oncoming danger. While the year of work under the grant will conclude in December, Ferguson is hopeful he will continue working with NASCAR in the future. “If we can find ways to detect what’s going to happen and prevent it,” says Ferguson, “that’s the win for NASCAR.”

NASCAR isn’t the only professional sports league where Spartans are looking for wins. Alumni can be found in the NBA, NHL and NFL — many of whom are doing critical behind-the-scenes work.

The NFL is for Spartans off the field, too

Walking through the Detroit Lions practice facility this summer in her team-issued polo shirt, Tamarandobra “Dobra” Ogeh approached head coach Dan Campbell as he held out his fist for her to bump.

Tamarandobra “Dobra” Ogeh poses with two men on the sidelines at Ford Field, wearing a blue Detroit Lions polo shirt
Tamarandobra “Dobra” Ogeh poses with Detroit Lions staff members on the sideline of a preseason game at Ford Field. Courtesy photo

Ogeh, a fourth-year medical student in the MSU College of Human Medicine, was completing a one-month clinical rotation with the Lions and Henry Ford Health sports medicine physicians as part of the NFL Diversity in Sports Medicine Pipeline Initiative. According to Ogeh, Campbell and everyone else on the Lions’ staff treated her as part of the team. Hence, the fist bump. 

“I really valued the experience,” Ogeh says. “It was really, really immersive. I felt included.”

Originally from Nigeria, Ogeh and her family emigrated to Toronto, Canada, when she was 5 years old. She moved to the U.S. for her college career, and now at MSU, is thrilled she was able to use her own experience as an athlete — she played rugby during her undergraduate years — to help with the NFL team nearby as she prepares for what she hopes is a career in orthopedic surgery. 

With the Lions, she worked long days with the team, speaking to players following up on injuries and learning from team doctors throughout summer camp. She even had the opportunity to attend a preseason game, where she was welcomed on the sideline. She jokes that she has a lot to do with the Lions’ success this season.

Excited about her experience with the NFL and eager to apply sports science in her career, Ogeh aims to keep the general population healthy, just as she did with the Lions roster.

“We can take it for granted,” Ogeh says, “but when we can’t move like we want to, say a sore knee or something, it’s a big deal. I want to help people have a better quality of life.”

That’s the goal for all Spartans involved in sports science: improving quality of life — on and off the field of play.

Whether it is working on the sidelines of an NFL football field or helping student-athletes battle the stigma of mental health, members of the MSU community are eager to make a difference. As the role of science and technology in sports grows, Spartans are ready to stay at the forefront of their field.

By: Liam Boylan-Pett and Kelsie Lane

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