A space-age device was tucked into a pocket hidden in his jersey, and Chris Van Zeyl, a six-foot-six offensive lineman, invited an interviewer to fish it out. Without specific directions, it would have been undetectable: “I’m 300 pounds, and this is a couple of ounces.”
It was the size of an old pager. Most of Van Zeyl’s teammates have been wearing the little gadgets since training camp, largely because the Toronto Argonauts believe they offer a significant promise — the potential reduction of soft tissue injuries.
The team is believed to be among the first in the CFL to adopt GPS technology, a satellite-assisted tool for tracking the workload coaches place on players at practice. It can track how fast and how far players run, relaying data 10 times a second to a program coaches can access in real time.
A number of high-level soccer and rugby teams already have adopted similar technology, along with several NFL and NBA franchises. The Argos and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats are the first CFL teams to officially give it a try, according to the league office.
“People don’t put enough emphasis on the skill of staying healthy,” said Argos general manager Jim Barker. “Just like film helps them run routes better and helps them be a better receiver . . . the GPS helps them understand their body better.”
With an investment from its new ownership group — Bell Canada and Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment chair Larry Tanenbaum — Toronto hired Matt Barr this past winter as its strength and conditioning coach. Barker said Barr is the first person to hold that title on a full-time basis with the Argos.
The team does not force players to wear the GPS devices, but Barr said a “vast majority” have volunteered. Those volunteers have a pocket sewn into the back of their jerseys, by their name plates, and the devices are slipped into place before every practice session.
Part of the idea is that, over time, a player will establish averages for how fast and how far they run. Those averages can be used as a measuring stick. If a player began posting unusually slow times over a few days, for example, it could be an indication of fatigue.
Rather than risk a tired player pulling a hamstring or a groin, or injuring a hip flexor, the coach could reduce the workload. The data would be an objective second set of eyes.
Richard Moffett is director of U.S. operations for STATSports, the company contracted to help guide the Argos into their new technological frontier. The company has contracts with some of the most recognizable names in sports, with English Premier League teams such as Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool on its client list.
“Sport science philosophies often now lean more toward the ‘less is more’ type of thing — recovery and getting yourself in the best shape for game day,” Moffett said. “It doesn’t necessarily mean that you work absolutely as hard as you can all week.”
The company, based about an hour north of Dublin, Ireland, also lists the Cincinnati Bengals, the Carolina Panthers, the Chicago Bulls and the Washington Wizards on its roster.
The Argos, Moffett said, are their first CFL client.
“We haven’t made any changes to practice or anything like that, because of that information,” said Barr. “Right now, we’re collecting data. We’re identifying workloads.”
The CFL has not yet developed a policy to govern the use of GPS technology. The league has asked both the Argos and Ticats not to wear the devices during regular-season games, pending a review from its competition committee.
Barker and Barr said information gathered from the GPS will not be used to judge how players perform on the field. A player with slower numbers in a particular drill will not face reprimand from his coaches, for instance.
“The one thing we highlighted to them is, it’s an indicator of workload, it’s not an indicator of effort,” Barr said. “Anything that would be an indicator of effort, it would show up on film during practice.”
Matt Black, the veteran defensive back, said the numbers became the source of friendly competition among players during training camp. Results were posted inside the locker room, he said, and players would compare their fastest times.
“Every day,” he said, “guys were over there like, ‘Oh man, my top speed was up today.’ ”
The technology’s primary value, he said, will be in giving coaches an idea of when their players are wearing down to the point of injury. It can track how whole segments of the team are performing. If the defensive backs are moving slower as a whole, it could lead to a reduction in how much they are asked to do in practice.
“That’s when a lot of stuff happens, when guys are fatigued,” Black said. “They’ve been working hard that day and they have to burst, and then the hamstring goes, or you hurt a hip flexor.”
The Argos, he noted, have stretches where they will have to play three games in 14 days.
“It’s going to be important, then, that we’re fresh on game day,” Black said. “As opposed to busting our tail all week and then we’re flat, or guys are fatigued.”