Cal teams make strides through High Performance

Mar 11 2012 - 3:41pm

BERKELEY, Calif. -- First-year California women's basketball coach Lindsay Gottlieb gathers her staff in a conference room for a weekly "High Performance" meeting and welcomes the team's athletic trainer, strength coach, academic adviser and media relations representative.

The philosophy bred by athletic director Sandy Barbour is quite basic: Bring everybody who works with the Golden Bears' student-athletes into one place to maximize communication and ensure the players are getting the most out of their experience, and that Cal is reaping the benefits in performance, too.

During this particular session, Gottlieb is reminded that one of her players has a grueling academic week ahead, will probably be studying late and could very well be tired on the court or in workouts -- and might not even have time to sit down for regular meals. Gottlieb finds out who is thriving away from basketball and who might need a little extra support.

"At the center of things is the coach and student-athlete, then everyone is there to support them and work collaboratively to maximize their performance," said Keith Power, the school's High Performance director, who has an extensive background in sports psychology, sports science, coaching and human performance enhancement.

Barbour hired Power, the former Great Britain Olympic bobsled coach, in July 2009 and gave him the challenge of discovering the "best practices" for success and how to pull it all off -- with the aid of a sprawling new $150 million on-campus High Performance Center that boasts the latest equipment used in sports science and physiological testing.

"It's my vision. I think it will have, as it continues to grow and evolve, a huge impact on our ability to be successful. We're a very good athletic program," Barbour said. "But that margin of what's going to take volleyball from second to the championship? What's going to take women's basketball back to the NCAAs? What's going to put men's basketball over the hump? What's going to put football over the hump? What's going to help men's and women's swimming win the national championship every year? That's that competitive advantage I think the High Performance Initiative is going to provide for us."

Both basketball teams have a strong chance to play in the NCAA tournament this month.

Even lower-profile programs are already making strides through the implementation of the High Performance principles.

Last fall, California field hockey coach Shellie Onstead had a major first: She told two of her players to stay home from practice the next day and take a much-needed break from training.

The High Performance initiative and increased resources such as heart-rate recovery testing helped Onstead make that tough call.

"One of my concerns as a coach was trying to understand that line of where you need to back off on training and push them through -- the big magic thing that we're all looking for," Onstead said. "After doing this for 30 years, you have an idea."

In the October case, she had the sports science data to back up her decision. The women were fatigued, slow to recover and just plain needed rest.

"They hated it," Onstead recalled. "All I can say is in the end we were so healthy. We didn't have people out, we didn't have our usual bout of flu and bronchitis -- always in the end of October and November. I think because we managed it better during the course of the year and then when it hit midterms and the stress is high and they're fatigued, I got to say, 'Don't come to practice and we're going to be better for it.' It's awesome."

Sophomore forward Andrea Earle is grateful now. She realizes how important that step was to her staying healthy and in top form.

"At the time I was experiencing some shortness of breath and fatigue, dramatically changing my heart-rate scores. While I naturally have a high heart rate -- it is present in all my tests -- I was not recovering as quickly," Earle said. "The day off definitely helped improve my current condition, but I was still experiencing a shortness of breath. The doctor gave me an inhaler, diagnosing me with athletic asthma."

Her scores had returned to normal within a couple of days, in time for Cal's game with UC Davis on Oct. 14.

Power doesn't know of another school integrating its resources quite this way and with the facility to boot, and he has done his research at colleges around the country. Power knows Cal could become an example nationally for such an integrated approach.

"There's a culture around as far as a higher level of communication all centered around how to provide for the student-athlete," Bears baseball coach Dave Esquer said. "So he is trained better and paid attention to on the academic side so that any issues that come up are kind of interlocked."

Barbour told Power she had long been frustrated about strength and conditioning coaches and athletic trainers or others in sports medicine not talking to each other.

"When you think they're having to collaborate every single day through the coaches and student-athletes, that made no sense to her," Power said. "Originally she brought in a couple of consultants and started to talk about different ways things are done in the rest of the world. It snowballed out of that, and what was born was the High Performance Initiative -- which was really to be on the cutting edge of thinking on an organizational level, an individual level, and how do we maximize strength and conditioning and sports science and medicine? And at the same time how do you embrace what's sort of great about the culture?"

The enormous High Performance Center features everything from a section of artificial turf for indoor workouts, offices for sports psychology, training rooms, a cafeteria and study area to locker rooms for a handful of sports that never had their own spaces before.

"The meeting is a tiny little piece of the whole picture," said Onstead, who coached with the U.S. Olympic team in Beijing and will do so again at this summer's London Games. "I give Sandy a lot of credit. It was her vision. Early on everybody thought she was kind of crazy. It's easy in an institution like this to say, 'You're going to create another position?' But it became Keith, who filled the position, and the building, which helps execute it. It's more about an ethos. She saw the vision developed, and in a nutshell it's everybody doing their jobs a lot better and everybody searching out best practices."


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