Published April 30, 2015
Technology is transforming the way athletes and sports organizations approach their game. At UB, tech in athletics has been a game changer, but marrying these two fast-paced worlds is hardly a simple task.
It's a task that falls to Katherine Aiken and her team in Technology Services and Performance Technology for UB Athletics. Having a dedicated IT support team for athletics might seem like a foregone conclusion, but Katherine says UB’s commitment to technology in athletics has always been ahead of the curve.
"At one time, we were one of probably four programs that I know of in Division I with an IT support unit just devoted to athletics," Katherine said. "Since then, schools like Ohio State and Notre Dame have developed programs like mine that they didn't have years ago."
UB’s sports profile is on the rise. The men’s basketball team’s historic trip to the NCAA tournament is just the latest in a series of historic achievements for UB athletics, which includes an invitation to the NIT for the women’s basketball team, recent MAC championship wins for women’s soccer and high placements in men’s swimming and diving. The heat is on, and the stakes are higher than ever before, and Katherine is well aware of that.
Fortunately, having a dedicated IT support team means a level playing field (so to speak) across all athletics programs. It also means each program can get the customized support it needs. Depending on what a coach wants or needs, clever "hacks" are often put into place, like the underwater camera and video playback system used by diving coach Karla Helder, who actually worked with Katherine Aiken to devise the system.
"It’s an underwater bullet camera connected to television screens, run through a Tivo with a delay," Karla said. "With the delay, the divers do their dive, they get to hear the coach’s corrections and suggestions, and then they review their performance with that information."
In a tech-heavy landscape, the newest generation of athletes are already using the technology around them to their advantage.
Kelly Truppo is a senior pole vaulter on the women’s track and field team, and she meets with me in one of Alumni Arena’s empty classrooms to talk about how technology has changed her approach to her sport.
"One thing we can do is watch other people’s videos," Kelly said. "So you can take a video of an Olympic performance from YouTube and slow it down, and compare it to what you’re doing." Watching video of past performances has been essential to many sports for decades, but with access to more video than ever before and everywhere you go, athletes have more ways to study their game, more ways to become better.
As Katherine is quick to point out, coaches and athletes are only part of the overall picture. The world of UB athletics also encompasses fans, vendors, broadcasters, recruiters and more…all with their own specific technology needs. Staying responsive to those needs is the work that Katherine and her team do every day.
On this particular day, Katherine is in her office reviewing softball plays on Dartfish, the industry standard video capture, playback and analysis software available to all UB sports programs. She watches as a player takes a graceful, slow-motion swing. "We can break it down hit by hit, watch the performances and then zoom in, measure angles, calculate bat speed, whatever we need."
Katherine says technology has created new expectations about when and how people in athletics work.
"Our biggest challenge in the last two years has been mobile," Katherine told UBIT News. "In the MAC, we travel to Michigan, Ohio," she said. "If the athletes are on a bus trip, how can they get onto UBlearns? How can they submit a paper that’s due by midnight when they’re on a bus in another state?"
"We all typically do assignments on a laptop," Kelly added. "It’s a lot easier to submit assignments that way when you're on the road." Kelly says it’s more common for student athletes to need certain pieces of mobile gear, like mobile wireless hotspots, that others might not.
And when UB’s athletes are at home working on their game? "We have a lab just for student athletes in Alumni, complete with walkup workstations," Katherine said. "We worked with the central side of IT (VPCIO area) to make sure there was wireless available in all quiet areas for tutoring or work."
Katherine notes with pride that efforts to bolster educational opportunities for their athletes are appearing to pay off; UB women’s basketball, for example, lead their division in academics with a GPA above 3.0.
And for coaches, the need to be "always on" can be intense. As a coach herself, Katherine is well aware of the pressure put on coaches, who are often given a small window to build a winning team and expected to flourish or flounder based on their record.
"Coaches should be coaches first...and never IT support!" Katherine said, laughing. "If you only have so many hours per week to work with the athletes, you don't want to spend 20 minutes setting up your video feed."
This means giving coaches space to find out which methods work best for them. But at the same time, Katherine notes that the trickiest part of her job might be acting as a "go-between" for the coaches and the newest technology. "People just don’t know what they don’t know, so it’s up to us to show them what’s out there. I like to tell the coaches, 'we’re going to show you these tools, how to use them and their potential, but it’s up to you to see if it fits in with your coaching philosophy.'"
At UB, these tools include recently purchased Microsoft Surface tablets for coaching staff, which Katherine hopes will come to replace the multiple laptops, tablets and cameras coaches need to carry in order to keep up with their work.
With athletes and coaches taken care of, there are still recruiters, ticket sales, concessions, gameday video projection and stats, media production and ESPN broadcasts, which can be scheduled with less than 48 hours’ notice.
No matter which aspect of athletics Katherine’s team is supporting, one rule reigns supreme: things need to be up and running 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.
"This is something I try and stress--while you're at home watching football on New Year’s Day, you have to understand that those teams and the departments that support them are working," Katherine said. "So yes, I’ll get a call on Thanksgiving or Christmas." Katherine noted that Network and Classroom Services, part of UB Information Technology, has been particularly responsive to the need to support the athletics programs wherever and whenever. "They get it," she said.
In many ways, Katherine's approach to IT support is not unlike an athlete’s approach to the game: always seeking to make gains in performance, to be better, faster and more efficient.
"We’re like the electric company," Katherine said. "We just want things to run. You shouldn’t have to worry about it."