SMPL study on sport playing fields and athlete injuries gives GPS devices a new direction

Francesca Principe, MS student

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) have come a long way since they were first used for military operations in the 1950s. They appear in practically every device known to humans, from phones to vehicles to computers to aircraft. And now, in a joint study between the School of Kinesiology and the Department of Horticultural Science, they are being used to study the relationship between sports fields and athletic injuries, and may ultimately help to prevent them. 

Francesca Principe, MS student in the School of Kinesiology, was part of the Sports Medicine Psychology Lab in spring 2018 when Chase Straw, a postdoc in turfgrass science in the U of M’s Department of Horticultural Science, approached her adviser, Dr. Diane Wiese-Bjornstal. “Chase was studying sports field variation as an influence on athletes’ injuries,” says Principe, “and he wanted to add a sport psychology component to his study.” Dr. Wiese-Bjornstal, Kristin Wood (now a PhD graduate), and Principe joined Straw in working on the project, along with several undergraduate students.

Straw started the study when he was a student at the University of Georgia, gathering data from student-athletes’ self-reported experiences and injuries on the playing field. He mapped the fields for surface hardness, moisture, and other qualities, which revealed each field’s distinctive differences. He found that athletes who experienced injuries often believed that variations on the field could have precipitated the injuries. Straw wondered if he could get more accurate information if the athletes wore tracking devices. 

“We wanted to know athletes’ speed, direction, and location on the field,” says Principe, “so we had to have a device that could give us the raw data of latitude and longitude. We decided on Titan Sensors, which is a small device that can fit into a pocket on the back of a vest that athletes wear.” 

Working with members of the U of M Sport Club teams, the researchers were able to study the effects of both artificial turf and natural grass on injuries. “Artificial turf seems like a harder surface but it is more uniform,” says Principe. “Natural turf can have lots of variation.” The GPS devices allowed the researchers to discover exactly where on the field injuries occurred. The team worked together for a year, going to both practices and matches, interviewing athletes, taking measurements, and recording data on every on-field experience. 

“We noticed how athletes would modify their behavior based on their perceptions of the field,” Principe says. “In all kinds of surfaces and weather events—rain, mud, ice—it was very interesting to see how the players altered or accommodated their situation. They would play differently if they saw how the field would affect them—maybe play slower or run differently because of something they saw on the field.”

Do performance and psychological factors overlap, and can this information be used for athlete injury prediction and prevention under certain playing field conditions? “Yes!” says Principe. “It has to do with how thinking affects performance, and knowing that the athletes may play differently if they see how the field would affect them. Now that we have actual data and field measurements, we can back up what the athletes are saying, and it could mitigate injuries.”

The results of the group’s study were published in April in the online publication, SportsTurf. “This was such a collaborative project,” says Principe. “I never thought about a playing field before, and how many things can affect it. I feel like I’ve learned so much. It should be helpful to both coaches and athletes.”


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