San Francisco hoops players using heart monitors

The laptop screen showed that Cody Doolin’s heart rate had

reached the red zone, meaning he was giving his maximum effort

during a recent basketball practice at the University of San


The freshman guard is one of the team’s hardest workers and

among its fittest players, typically burning 1,700 calories over

the course of a 40-minute game. These days, the coaches know this

not just based on a hunch but because they have scientific evidence

to prove it.

San Francisco’s men’s basketball program invested $10,000 this

season for its athletes to wear heart rate monitors in both

practices and games, and even for workouts in the weight room.

Dons director of strength and conditioning Evan Nielsen and

director of basketball operations Jack Kennedy watch and monitor

each player’s exertion every day.

When a grid on the laptop reveals a player has reached his max

heart rate, signaled by a red number in the color-coded software

program, coach Rex Walters is told it’s time to sit him down for a


”It’s automatic, for the most part,” Kennedy said. ”As soon

as we see somebody getting in the red, we’re telling coach they’ve

got to come out.”

In fact, Nielsen provides the coaching staff with nightly

reports breaking down the players’ outputs and how hard they worked

down to a given drill, and even a chart showing how long it will

take for an athlete to recover after a game.

Doolin, for example, played 37 minutes in a 68-62 victory over

rival Santa Clara on Feb. 5. Nielsen determined – from the

monitoring program developed by Polar USA – that the point guard

needed from that Saturday night until Tuesday to be full strength

again. Doolin was given Sunday and Monday off, returning to the

court for Tuesday’s practice last week.

Walters is able to pull players out for a rest based on what the

data tells him, making it hard to argue such a move.

”It’s something different but it’s pretty useful,” Doolin

said. ”Sometimes as a player you don’t want to come out. Everybody

wants to play the whole game. I think it’s good because we stay

fresh and I think we close out the end of games pretty well.”

Wearing the monitors is a health and safety precaution but also

a strategic move by the Dons, who have begun the West Coast

Conference season at 8-3 for their best league start since


”Statistics show more turnovers happen, there’s worse shot

selection and decision-making when you’re in the red – the

anaerobic threshold,” Kennedy said.

The NFL’s Atlanta Falcons began using the heart rate technology

this past season. Polar has approximately 200 systems across the

country from the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, U.S. Soccer,

some Olympic teams and in collegiate athletics. In addition, heart

rate monitors have become a presence in some public school

districts to monitor students in physical education classes.

Heart issues hit close to home in the WCC – and in San

Francisco. Loyola Marymount star Hank Gathers collapsed and died on

the court in 1990. More recently, top California women’s basketball

recruit Tierra Rogers was diagnosed with a rare heart condition

after a Sept. 21, 2009, workout in which she had trouble breathing

and later collapsed at Haas Pavilion outside the training room. The

prep star from San Francisco saw her college career end before it


In Seattle, there was also former University of Washington

women’s basketball player Kayla Burt, whose heart stopped on New

Year’s Eve 2002. She has her teammates to thank for performing CPR

that kept her alive. Burt had a defibrillator implanted and

returned to basketball, but the device went off during a game in

her senior season of 2006 and her career ended.

”We all want to win, but these guys’ lives are our

responsibility,” said Nielsen, the USF strength coordinator.

”First and foremost, my primary concern for every one of these

athletes is their health.”

So, are the Dons setting a trend nationally?

”It could be,” said Dr. Ken Akizuki, a team doctor for both

USF and the World Series champion San Francisco Giants. ”It’s an

added piece of information. It could help in safety and

performance, but I would emphasize the safety factor.”

Polar estimates about 15 Division I college basketball programs

are using the monitors, though a number of schools utilize them in

other sports, too.

Considering this is USF’s first season doing it, Walters isn’t

ready to say for sure that the monitors have contributed to his

team’s success – but he is pretty sure it hasn’t hurt the Dons’

fortunes, either.

”This type of conditioning is absolutely leading edge,” Polar

president Jeff Padovan said. ”Not just at the pro level or the

collegiate level but also at the high school. At least once a year

in the summer or the dead of heat, you hear about a player who dies

– whether it’s exhaustion, dehydration or a heart issue. Every time

I hear of that, I shudder. There are technologies out there that

provide real-time data on how they’re being stressed in what

they’re being asked to do.”

USF has won all three of its overtime games, including a

thrilling 96-91 victory over perennial conference powerhouse

Gonzaga on Jan. 22.

”You’re always trying to find the fine line between hard work

and overwork, training and overtraining,” Walters said. ”We just

wanted to be as smart as we could with how we work our guys, and

it’s really been helpful to understand our guys’ bodies. When

they’re going too hard, that’s how fatigue and injuries occur. As a

coach, it gives you peace of mind knowing your guys are giving you

all they’ve got and I’m not pushing them beyond their


In a 94-88 loss at Pepperdine on Jan. 29, Walters gave his

players the choice to not wear the monitors for a change. They all

removed them and the staff is certain fatigue late in the game

contributed to the loss. By Monday’s practice, the monitors were

back on. Players wear a black strap around their lower chest under

a jersey. The monitors are two-inch plastic devices comparable in

shape and size to a keyless car entry remote. They send a wireless

signal to the computer.

The Dons are going to take the heart monitoring to a new level

this spring, when they will put players through a VO2max test to

determine an individual’s maximum capacity to transport and use

oxygen to make muscles function. Having that information on each

young man will make the statistics from the heart monitors even

more meaningful and useful.

Walters also plans to wear a heart rate monitor next season,

with everyone knowing full well it will spike when he is in a

heated discussion with the officials.

”If our guys are working at peak performance, there’s no

question in a two-point game we have an advantage,” Walters said.

”We want to make sure we’re taking the right steps with this. It

has paid off, I think, because we’ve won a lot of close games. I

feel like we are fresh and confident.”