Optimising athletic programs in the absence of wearables & bespoke hardware

Sports science on a budget

By Blake Bender – Assistant Athletic Performance Coach, University of California, Berkeley

After working in all levels of collegiate basketball, I’m comfortable to say I know how to ball on a budget.

In the last decade, with the emergence of wearable technology and training specific software, the field of high performance has expanded exponentially into the field of sport science.

Today, coaching - both sport and performance, has evolved to be somewhat synonymous with sport science.

In fact, ESPN even jumped on the bandwagon and developed its own show ‘Sport Science’ to breakdown the physics of sport.

But what happens when you don’t have 3D biomechanical markers, force plates or wearable player-load-tracking technology?

For one, you can feel left behind.

But even that doesn’t stop sport coaches and administrators piling pressure on performance personnel to incorporate sport science in their program.

So, if resources don’t allow, how can one achieve this?

Here are two ways to leverage sports science on a budget.


Internal Player Load via RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion)

Player load is one of the most significant and tracked performance metrics.

In the basketball world, the San Antonio Spurs infamously brought it to the public’s attention by resting their all-stars in the middle of a season.

There are two main aspects of player load: external and internal.

To put it simply, external player load is what is demanded of players: practice duration, number of repetitions and distance covered. In response, the body’s internal load is the physiological reaction to the imposed demand – for example the fluctuation of heart rate.

If you lack a wearable resource, you can still get a reliable internal load metric by using Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE). This is a ‘perceived’ rating on how hard (or not) an athlete has worked.

In my experience, I have shifted from the traditional scale ranging from 1-10, and instead use an RPE scale of 6-20. This roughly correlates to average heart rates, with a score of 6 equating to an average heart rate of 60 beats per minutes, a 13 equating to 130 beats per minute, etc.

While you could stop there and get a subjective heart rate score for a session, I prefer to add a time component, such as practice duration, to paint a better picture. By doing so, you can generate a quasi Training Impulse, or TRIMP, score.

I use the following equation to generate an internal load:

Internal Load = RPE (6-20) x Practice Duration (minutes)


Wellness Questionnaires

The other data I like to collect is purely subjective, in the form of a wellness questionnaire.

Questions I include are: sleep, fatigue, soreness, stress and mood related.

However, the number and nature of the questions can be adapted to whatever suits your situation the best. Questions are assigned values 1 to 5 and are totalled to formulate a score.

I prefer to look and track total scores over time, team averages, as well as total individual scores versus team averages. These seem to give great insight into how players adapt to demands, how the team is feeling, and how players are feeling about their current respective situations.

In my opinion, there is significant value in having athletes complete questionnaires multiple times a week, if not daily. Not only does it establish a better baseline, it also reduces the chances of outliers, such as an athlete being in an unusually bad mood or having a terrible night’s sleep.

Furthermore, I believe this gives the performance coach ample opportunity to assess, open conversations, and build relationships.


What’s next?

We live in an athletic culture that encourages a ‘Keeping Up With the Jones’ mentality and takes-up technology at a rapid pace.

The use of technology should enhance athletic performance, but data is only good if insights are learnt and behaviour is modified. I believe that coaches who don’t embrace modern sport science (even just the methods above) will not be as valued as those who do.

Technology can’t replace coaches, but they can certainly make them better. Both the wellness & RPE suggestions above can be achieved on a budget with a simple google forms questionnaire, or an inexpensive athlete management system that’s friendly on the wallet and improves athlete buy-in.

It can also be true that the playing field is uneven when it comes to adopting sport science technologies. So, by being creative, performance coaches can still manage and integrate sport science without the use of wearable technology.


As far as trying out an RPE and wellbeing tool that suits any budget, you can download a free 7-day Lumin Sports demo.