For more than 25 years, the nation’s top college football players have trekked to Indianapolis each February to put their NFL dreams on the line.
The event is known as the NFL Scouting Combine, a week-long tryout for more than 300 NFL-hopefuls that kicked off this week ahead of April’s NFL Draft. The players meet with team executives, take intelligence tests and, most importantly, show off their physical talents, the portion of the tryout that began on Friday.
This year, some players are relying on wearable technology — and the data that comes along with it — to give them an edge.
Ahead of the annual showcase, Re/code examined how football’s future stars incorporated wearables into their training regimen. We visited some of the athletes at the StubHub Center, a sprawling sports complex located 15 miles south of downtown Los Angeles that features dozens of tennis courts, a velodrome for indoor cycling, and a 27,000-seat stadium that’s home to Major League Soccer’s LA Galaxy.
It was here in early February, under a massive white tent on a strip of turf no larger than a football field, that a group of NFL hopefuls lifted weights to Young Jeezy and Lil’ Wayne blasting over the speaker system. Another group ran agility drills nearby.
These athletes came to California to work with EXOS, a company that trains athletes of various sports and levels. EXOS, which was called Athletes’ Performance until last January, has been training Combine athletes for 14 years. The trainers know, for the most part, which drills work and which drills don’t for preparing the athletes. To weaponize its methods, EXOS turned to Adidas for help.
For the first time, the Combine athletes are using the Adidas miCoach, an oval-shaped device that straps into the athlete’s training shirt during every workout. The device captures dozens of measurements, like speed, acceleration and power, and sends the data immediately to the trainers’ iPads.
The device is similar to what Adidas sells in stores. But the version used by EXOS is more elaborate; the amount and accuracy of data collected is well beyond consumer quality, says Scott Piri, a performance specialist with EXOS leading the Combine training.
The consumer version of miCoach collects general training times and distances using a GPS, but the miCoach elite system — which costs more than $100,000 — can capture things like acceleration and power measurements calculated for each athlete based on his size.
This helps coaches track how much energy and work each player is putting out while the drills are in progress. Using the iPad, a coach or trainer can watch athletes’ numbers fluctuate in real time from a single screen.
One of the limitations of the device is that it’s most useful when athletes are moving, making the tracking of activities like weight lifting difficult. Still, coaches can monitor energy levels before and after weight training sessions to see how quickly players recover, or if they need to ramp up their lifting for a better challenge.
This data is used to fine-tune player workouts. For example, if trainers see an athlete is fatigued, they may pull them from practice early to avoid injury. If they’re accelerating too slowly out of their stance, trainers can now see that in real time and build workouts to target that weakness.
At most, EXOS will work with athletes for six weeks between the end of the college season and the Combine. That means that every little bit of data helps.
“We want to overload them sometimes, but we don’t want to overtrain them,” says Piri, 46, a former professional soccer player himself. “So it’s being able to understand where we can push and where we need to dial back a little bit in that really nice balance so that guys keep progressing.”
Technology like this is not unique to football. Catapult Sports, which offers a similar tracking device for teams, lists more than 30 different sports on its website; it also mentions the Philadelphia Flyers (NHL) and the New York Knicks (NBA) as clients alongside more than a dozen NFL teams.
Vert, a device used for measuring an athlete’s jumping data (think basketball and volleyball) made an appearance at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
Piri has been using miCoach for three years now, but the previous two years were with soccer clubs. The German national soccer team, which won the 2014 World Cup, used the same system. The device was actually created for soccer players — the skin-tight shirts don’t even go above size XL, so some of the bigger football players have to cut them in half.
But Piri believes the data is ready — and necessary — for American football, especially given the money that’s at stake for both EXOS and the athletes.
College players will pay anywhere from $9,500 to $17,500 for up to six weeks of workouts, and EXOS has more than 100 athletes training with them around the country.
The market for tech-enhanced athletic training is burgeoning, and EXOS faces competition from similar programs including IMG Academy in Florida and the Fischer Institute in Arizona. Personal trainers have also created similar training programs for athletes.
The excitement around using technology in training is easy to understand. Shaving a few tenths of a second off your 40-yard dash time can mean big bucks, especially for skill players like wide receivers or defensive backs, says Daniel Jeremiah, an analyst with the NFL Network and a former NFL scout.
Piri says it’s common for players to shave two or three tenths of a second off their 40-time after working with EXOS.
“The 40-time is huge,” says Jeremiah. “It can take a guy from a first round pick, and drop him to a fourth round pick [depending on the position].” That’s a difference of millions of dollars.
Every spot a player moves up in the draft, which comes right after the Combine, helps players rake in more money.
The data collected by miCoach isn’t just valuable to the trainers, however. It’s also serving a psychological purpose for the athletes, many of whom are preparing for the most important job interview they’ll ever have.
Cody Fajardo, a four-year starting quarterback for the University of Nevada, is projected to be a late round pick at best; at worst, he’ll go undrafted.
He never used technology like this in college (although some universities like Minnesota and UCLA are already using it), but says that bringing the tech to practice every day has provided a mental boost as well as a physical one.
“If your numbers stay steady for five weeks, it just shows you didn’t really put everything that you had [into it].” he says. “You want to put everything that you have on the line and see those numbers grow. With the tech stuff, you see that and it gives you confidence.”
EXOS has five facilities across the country with NFL Combine athletes, and the Los Angeles facility is the first and only location using miCoach. Piri plans to expand the program to EXOS’s other facilities next year, and is using the L.A. group to help build out the training.
“It’s not going anywhere,” says Jeremiah. “We’re going to see a lot more of it.”
This article originally appeared on Recode.net.