Duncan French wants to help Justin Yoon make a longer game-winning field goal. He wants to help Brianna Turner close out a three-point shooter more quickly. He wants to help DeShone Kizer get better sleep. He wants to help Ryder Garnsey improve his shot. He wants to help Sandra Yu give more in the 90th minute.
Basically, Notre Dame’s Director of Performance Sciences is tasked with making every athlete on every Irish roster better, from their first day on campus to their last. He wants to create more than 700 customized plans to not only improve performance but minimize injury too.
French – the focus of Irish Illustrated’s second installment in a four-part series on Irish athletics – came to Notre Dame over pursuits by NHL and NBA teams. His newly created position was funded by gifts, including one from former Notre Dame All-American defensive lineman Bryant Young.
“What makes the boat go faster?” French said. “Whatever we do in strength, student welfare and development, mental cognition, we’ve got to understand how what we do makes the boat go faster.”
The appeal of French for Notre Dame is his ability to drive innovation in a lab coat or a tracksuit.
French’s PhD in exercise physiology fits in the academic halls around campus. His academic background includes research in neuroendocrine responses to resistance training, strength diagnostics, muscle physiology and the mechanisms of recovery and regeneration. The hope is that background will open academic doors for the athletic department.
Yet French’s time as a strength and conditioning coach with Newcastle United and Great Britain’s Olympic teams make him a peer of Paul Longo too. And French’s connections at Under Armour make him a gateway to the technology boom Athletics Director Jack Swarbrick wants.
“We can’t get blinkered into certain scenarios where this is the way we’ve always done it and this is the way we think we should do it because it’s been a success in the past,” French said. “I try and bang the drum that if we do the things we’ve done in the past, we’re moving backwards.”
Since starting at Notre Dame in January, French has already watched spring practice and met with Brian Kelly. He’s briefed Muffet McGraw. Same goes for coaches of men’s lacrosse, tennis and softball. Ultimately he’ll sit down with every head coach and craft a custom training plan. It’s up to the coach. Then it’s on French to tie all the strength, training and cognitive information together.
For Kelly, the question was efficiency. Football wore GPS devices during spring practice that were fitted with accelerometers. Not only could Notre Dame track how far the players moved, they could measure the impact of hits. The next step is interpreting that data to alter training. French is charged with building that decoder ring.
“We’ll get into the more sophisticated things about recovery and rehabilitation that this will help us solve, but right now it’s simple things,” Swarbrick said. “We think we know what that practice looked like, but how much energy was really expended? What does that mean for the next day’s practice?”
Women’s basketball has worn GPS trackers for two years. Men’s soccer wears them paired with heart rate monitors, which give coach Bobby Clark data on fitness levels. He cares less about maximum heart rate and more about how quickly a player can get it down after maximum effort.
That means Clark can better track the fitness of reserves while also protecting starters against fatigue and injury. It’s not a new phenomenon for soccer coaches to monitor fitness levels, but the science has made that part of Clark’s job easier.
“When Sir Alex Ferguson visited us he said your eye is always first, but data is always very handy to support the eye,” Clark said. “Then you can make your adjustments.”
Beyond increasing practice efficiency, French is pushing Notre Dame forward in technology, from cold weather compression gear to sleep monitors to biomechanical mapping.
He’s explored better winter compression pants for Yoon, backed by the science that one degree of increased muscle temperature will increase peak power by 10 percent.
“That means if you increase it two degrees, you should increase peak power output 20 percent,” French said. “Let’s find thermal tights with fabric to help Justin on the sideline that lets him express more power on the ball in those November games. That can have a real influence on football’s opportunity to succeed.”
Last month French counseled with Rise Science, a tech company that helps train athletes to get better sleep by putting a device under an athlete’s mattress. The company believes athletes who consistently log eight hours (or more) of sleep nightly are 70 percent less likely to sustain injuries.
Swarbrick is at attention on sleep dynamics and said Notre Dame “learned a lot” last season when football travelled to Pittsburgh on Thursday for a noon kickoff on Saturday. Kelly staged a Friday practice on site. The Irish blew out the Panthers a day later.
Notre Dame is open to the Golden State Warriors model where they stay on site after road night games after conducting a sleep study. Assuming the night game falls on a Saturday, Notre Dame could cut those 5 a.m. returns to campus on Sunday mornings and let players get real rest (this wouldn’t apply to the Sunday night game at Texas because of classes on Monday).
“Sleep is our current single biggest problem,” Swarbrick said. “The Friday before the USC game last year I talked to a starter who said he was really tired. How come? He didn’t go to sleep the night before. He had a huge exam to study for.
“That’s part of the dynamic we need to understand.”
French also wants to electronically map the swings, pitches, shots and sprints of every Notre Dame athlete by mapping their motions upon arrival and tracking them through graduation. The process is like how EA Sports fits athletes in suits with glowing ping pong balls attached. The player shoots a basket. That motion shows up on a computer.
Except that version is old technology. That process might service four athletes per day. The version French wants – one hub fixed in the Gug and another remote device – could log the entire football team in a day.
For starters, the tracking hopes to identify muscle imbalances and efficiency of motion. Correcting imbalances through strength training could reduce risk of injury. Increasing the efficiency of motion could just make a player better. Achieving both means different training programs for every player on every roster.
“If we’re not assessing, we’re guessing,” French said. “We have to be objective about this. The good thing about Notre Dame, we’ve got educated kids, clever athletes who want to take ownership of this. We will build these systems around them.”
And around their schedules.
Unlike French’s work in professional and Olympic sports, there’s a strict schedule here. He knows there are fewer hours in the day at Notre Dame than Newcastle. He also understands there may be fewer hours available to athletes at Notre Dame than other universities.
In other words, French must revolutionize part of the athletic department while fitting into the University at large.
“We’re trying to succeed in academics, trying to succeed in personal growth, trying to succeed in athletics,” French said. “Doing all three things, it’s almost like playing football with an arm tied behind your back.
“I’m sure all stories are more exciting with a national championship. But we’re trying to run uphill in some ways. We’re trying to do something different here.”
June 2: How Derin McMains taps potential under the helmet
June 3: Why Notre Dame bets a well-rounded athlete will be a winning one