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’
”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.”