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Ben Peterson: Sports science for the 49ers

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A 2015 talk he gave on hockey gives a hint of how he might change things.

Injuries have been a huge problem for the 49ers; that’s not a new flash. Football Outsiders hasn’t released its 2018 Adjusted Games Lost statistics yet, but the Niners were 23rd in 2017 and 24th the year before. (Both years, the LA Rams were No. 1 in the NFL, meaning the fewest games lost.)

So, the Niners fired their Strength and Conditioning coach and also their Medical Director. Monday evening, Matt Barrows reported the team hired Ben Peterson to serve as the head of a now combined medical and training unit. Peterson joins the 49ers after spending the past two and a half years serving as Sports Science director for the Philadelphia Flyers.

Peterson is a Minnesota kid, so the hockey makes sense. But what he really is a super smart analytics guy, with a PhD in Kinesiology and Exercise Science. Before the Flyers he was the Director of Research and Analytics at Catapult, a leading sports science company that makes high-tech positioning monitors for elite athletes.

Catapult devices use precision GPS, accelerometers and gyroscopes to track complicated data about movement, force and impact, and their staff helps clients (such as the Flyers) interpret that data. They liked his work so much that they hired him away.

Back in 2015, he gave a presentation on using Catapult devices in the NHL. You can view it above, or click here. It’s very interesting if you’re as big a geek as I am. If not, I watched it so you don’t have to. Here are the highlights.

You can tell why the Niners hired him from the title of his talk: “Keeping Your Players On The Ice.” He notes that hockey has a higher games-lost rate (50% of rosters) than even football (37%). Some of that might be because football has larger rosters of players to sub in.

He has a great statistic about the value of avoiding injury: as of 2015, the last six Stanley Cups had been won by teams with the fewest man-games lost. And when you think about it, postseason success in football has a lot to do with avoiding injuries, too. Maybe you noticed that there was not a single player on the injury report for either team in the Super Bowl.

He is very focused on “total player load,” which is basically the amount of exertion and impact a player has. “Total player load is No. 1 predictor of injury in all sports including football,” he noted.

Load doesn’t come only from games, though. Practices pile on the load too; not as much but there are a lot more practices than games, and it all adds up. The Catapult device can track load numerically, and it makes a big difference.

He shared some data from the Minnesota Golden Gophers college hockey team. When their weekly practice load was over 900 whatever-units, they won 48% of their games. But when it was under 900, they won 80%.

There are other interesting applications, too. Data showed that Gopher forwards were dropping off sharply in the third period, so they backed off on intensity of practices, especially late in the week, and saw an improvement.

Since they measure every player at the beginning of the season when healthy, you can also use precise data to see how much power something like a sprained ankle has recovered. In football terms, you could track the force as a wide receiver plants a foot and cuts; if the number is a lot less than their healthy value, you might need to slow down their return or order more intense therapy on it.

So what does it add up to? Expect lighter practices, more rotation of subs, and maybe an effort to find players with fewer “miles on them” in the draft.