Many Husker fans saw the expansion of Memorial Stadium’s East Stadium as an opportunity to enhance its capacity and move up the ladder of college football’s intimidating backyards. Others saw it as a hidden treasure buried under the genuine vision Tom Osborne set forth many years ago.
Slowly but surely, his vision came to be the 23,000 square-foot Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab on the second and third floors of East Stadium that is slowly gaining world recognition.
Osborne was responsible for establishing Nebraska’s original strength and conditioning program as well as the Training Table, the first in the country. His inspiration for the program came from football players who went to work on the family farm all summer and came to fall camp in peak condition.
The motivation behind the athlete’s own food complex came after the creation of the fast food restaurant McDonald’s in the 1970s because it created a habit of poor nutrition for many of the athletes. As universities nationwide followed that revolutionizing path, Osborne saw far more potential in enhancing sports performance as the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Director of Athletics in 2013. He wanted the university to put a focus on biomechanics while maximizing training efficiency. This desire eventually led to the nation’s first on-campus research facility, the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab.
Since the athletic lab was started, sports performance research played an intricate role in helping athletes at all levels become stronger and quicker in today’s era, where records are harder to break. Combining science and sports in the lab has given an explanation for the purpose of practice workouts. It also ensures the safety of the athletes ranging from the design of football helmets to foot gear.
Dr. Jack Ransone, the current director of NAPL, stated the lab’s goal is to identify all the weaknesses each athlete may have and establish a proactive approach. The performance lab encourages all coaches and athletes to be more engaged in how to perform at the next level.
“Not only are they called student-athletes but students of the game,” Ransone said. “The best athletes are the ones who are able to learn all the intricacies of the sport.”
A few of the notable tests conducted by the research team include the salivary biomarker test, movement assessments and cardiovascular testing.
The saliva test has drawn the most curiosity on how it affects athletes. The participating athlete gives a saliva sample before and after competition. The purpose is to analyze how long it takes them to recover in order to maximize their training time outside of competition. The more work the body does results in a quicker adaption response in the body. The other tests such as motion sensing and biomechanics help indicate inflexibilities, control acceleration and correct balance using expensive force plates.
Ransone said one of the significant impacts of the tests is reducing the amount of soft tissue, muscle and tendon injuries for the athletes, especially for the football players.
Not only have the coaches and the athletes benefited from the research, but so has the research team. The lab’s research team consists of a director, assistant director, research scientist, two postdoctorals, a research analyst and two graduate research assistants. Each of the staff members come from diverse backgrounds with emphases ranging from biological systems engineering to neuroscience, physiology and exercise science. The various staff perspectives have allowed the team to spark scientific ideas and create immediate results that would take years to do elsewhere.
Dr. Scott Crawford, a postdoctoral research associate, said the experience he’s gained at the NAPL is rewarding and valuable.
“My appointment at the NAPL has been very fruitful,” Crawford said. “This is an opportunity I might not have had elsewhere and [it] allowed me to expand my knowledge beyond my own graduate studies.”
Even though the research lab may have cutting-edge, innovative technology, it still faces its fair share of challenges.
“The science is easy to work with, but the greatest challenge is creating relationships with the athletes and coaches,” Ransone said. “Also, being able to deliver that information to where they can understand it.”
Many of the athletes were conditioned to train a certain way most of their early life before coming to college. The willingness to change technique or style can be difficult for a collegiate athlete.
What makes the NAPL so special is its uniqueness. No one else in the country has done anything similar, putting it in the nation’s top three for best sports labs.
In terms of future research, the staff will look into stress levels outside of training life, such as academics, to find out what significant impacts it has on performance. As sports continue to evolve in a life-cycle approach, it is essential for sports science to be a major building block across the globe.
“We want to put the athletes in the position to do their best and continue to serve as a resource to the staff,” Ransone said.