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The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Behind the Game: Science, sport team up to improve athletes’ wellbeing 

UW sports-science research promotes new initiatives to better support student-athletes, greater community
Caitlin Thies

The roar of the crowd on a beautiful fall Saturday, the thumping of “Jump Around,” students counting Bucky’s pushups and Badger fans joining in arms to sing Varsity are all staples to a quintessential game day at Camp Randall.

The thrill of the game draws people from across the country to the University of Wisconsin, the home of Badger Athletics and the epitome of the Wisconsin Idea.

But, behind the scenes is a conglomeration of special people dedicating their lives to Bucky’s success.


School of Education professor Peter Miller has dedicated his career to the nuances of sportsmanship, wearing several hats within the athletics realm at UW. Miller understands the implications of athletics beyond the game itself.

“Athletics are a point of durable connections for kids and durable connections for families — even as maybe some other things are not always going as we want them,” Miller said.

Miller has served on the UW Athletics Board for almost 10 years and is currently the faculty director of the sports leadership masters program. Miller is also involved in a newer initiative at UW aimed at merging the worlds of sports and science entitled Badger Inquiry on Sport.

BIOS follows “the three C’s” — connect, catalyze and communicate. BIOS aims to connect with researchers on campus, conduct their own research and communicate UW research throughout Wisconsin, associate director of BIOS Maria Dehnert said.

BIOS associates researchers in areas such as nutrition, psychology, social sciences and medicine with the UW Athletics Department. The fruitful intersection of academics and athletics provides a rich body of data for research that allows for a better-informed athletic department.

“Our goal really is to bring together campus and athletics in meaningful and purposeful ways. So this has been a really great experience to tie in both my passion for higher education and athletics and being the connector between the two,” Dehnert said.

The unique status of world class academics and top-tier athletics empowers UW to be at the forefront of research in sports science. Researchers in kinesiology, sports psychology and various other scientific fields all collaborate with UW Athletics, serving the goal of improving physical and mental health for all.

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The Physical Game

From day one on the football team, sophomore Grover Bortolotti noticed the athletic staff’s emphasis on physical fitness. The football team works five days a week with strength trainers who tailor exercise routines for the athletes.

“Ever since I stepped foot on campus, the staff kind of ingrained [fitness] in your head,” Bortolottii said. “You need to get a routine and take care of your body so that you can perform at your highest level day in and day out.”

Concurrently, researchers at UW dedicate their time to understanding the science of the human body to serve the goal of universal physical activity. 

Director of Research in the UW Badger Athletic Performance Lab Bryan Heiderscheit uses his background in physical therapy and sports medicine to research how athletic performance is connected to injury.

BAP runs a battery of tests on athletes in the preseason. Heiderscheit said athletes sprint, jump and balance to measure running mechanics, joint motion, force outputs and body control. These tests provide both data for research and a benchmark for returning from injury.

Injury is a common occurrence in sports. In fact, 3.2 million Americans had sports related injuries treated in the emergency room in 2021 and more than 3.5 million injuries occur each year in youth sports. 

When a student-athlete gets injured, Heiderscheit said the lab will conduct tests more frequently to measure the pace of their recovery to their preseason status. In doing this, the lab supplies important data on the recovery process for a plethora of injuries and best practices for avoiding reinjury.

Some of this data gives researchers much-needed information regarding risk factors for injuries. One study found less steps per minute in cross country runners increased risk of bone stress injury, and other studies found that factors in the preseason such as lower aerobic capacity — the bodies capacity for oxygen — or decreased sleep can lead to a greater risk of in-season injury. 

Other studies look at progression of injury recovery, so researchers can determine the ideal time for an athlete to return to action — one study analyzed athletes running on a treadmill at four, six, eight and 12 months after ACL reconstruction surgeries to determine that running mechanics do not return to pre-injury levels within the first year.

“If you help somebody recover, that benchmark for recovering is dependent on what sport they play and what level they need to get back to,” Heiderscheit said. “So it makes a real interesting question and puzzle about how you go back to [preinjury status].”

Jennifer Sanfilippo is an athletic trainer and has worked in UW Athletics for 11 years. She works in BAP, where she aims to improve athletic health and welfare, both long- and short-term.

Sanfilippo said she has collaborated with Wisconsin Sleep, the Osteoporosis Research Center and many other research areas not traditionally linked to sports. These collaborations allow researchers to study more specific factors which might affect athletic performance or injury.

In this spirit, Heiderscheit continues to be amazed at how eager people at UW are to collaborate, even after spending over 20 years at the university.

“We do have an amazing sports program here with our student athletes, but on the other side of the road, we have an incredible group of academic minds, scientific minds, who can really take on just about any questions we put to them and come up with some unique solutions to it,” Heiderscheit said.

BAP and UW Athletics collect their data from Division I athletes at peak performance, but the data can be used for anyone engaging in physical activity.

Heiderscheit said other programs like BAP translate sports research to high school athletics programs, community athletes and just about anyone in the general public so they can minimize risk of injury across all sports and maximize recovery from injuries.

“By making sure that we can help individuals at [the D-I level] return to that high-end sport performance, we can definitely do better for the general population in their daily lives,” Heiderscheit said. “So it’s almost like we’re trying to study the best of the best with a goal of applying that information to everyone.”

Similarly, master’s students in the Athletic Training program are able to obtain field experience at all levels, from D-I athletes to youth sports and medical clinics, according to associate professor in the Department of Kinesiology David Bell. Bell teaches in the Athletic Training program and is the director of the Wisconsin Injury in Sport Laboratory.

A key point of interest in the Wisconsin Injury in Sport Laboratory is the link between injury and sports specialization, or selecting one sport to play year-round.

Bell said the current landscape of youth sports is different than it was 20 to 30 years ago. Today, more athletes are being forced to specialize in one sport at younger ages, leading to greater risk of injury and burnout. And injury at a young age could affect them down the line.

“We see injuries that occurred when kids were younger and in older populations and [we see] how that affects their long-term health and well-being,” Bell said. “They just want to lay on the ground and play with their grandkids, and they can’t do that because they have this injury.”

Bell said more athletes are arriving at college programs “broken” because of their injury history — a cause of concern for college coaches.

To address this, Wisconsin Injury in Sport provides guidelines to support the health and wellbeing of children in youth sports. They recommend delaying specializing in a sport as long as possible, dedicating no more hours per week than one’s age in years and spending no more than eight months per year in one sport among others.

Both Wisconsin Injury in Sport and BAP apply various fields of sciences to conduct sports research, and it’s all rooted in the same goal — protecting healthy physical activity for everybody.

“I personally like to see people be active throughout their life,” Sanfilippo said. “But, inevitably, things do still happen in sport, and I don’t think we’re going to be able to prevent everything. So I also like to help make sure that their long term health outcomes go well for them.”

Athletes of all sorts know the importance of training the body. But when the stress of competition settles in, even the best athletes struggle to remain focused and resilient.

The Mental Game

Junior soccer player Rachel Dallet reminds herself of the mental game every day in practice, focusing on the game and not letting mistakes phase her.

“I think a lot of people need to think about the physical aspect, but a lot of it is mental,” Dallet said. “If you make a mistake, you’ve got to be able to just get over it quickly. Otherwise, the next play will go on and you’ll be far behind.”

UW has dedicated staff to research and training in sports psychology — a field that trains athletes’ minds to improve performance and ensure mental wellbeing. 

Dr. David Lacoque has served as the director of Mental Health & Sport Psychology in UW Athletics for six years.

“I am somebody who truly finds his job meaningful… I look forward to it,” Lacoque said. “These are individuals who are trying to be excellent, and they’re trying very hard in a difficult context. And so to be a part of helping them along that journey is an opportunity that I feel grateful for.” 

Because of the unique challenges, stressors and opportunities in the life of a student-athlete, Lacoque is using his role to destigmatize mental health conversations and make mental health resources more accessible and understandable for student athletes.

Lacoque runs a team of six mental health professionals serving as team liaisons who attend training and meetings and interact with student-athletes daily. 

Sports psychology plays a huge role in athletic performance by training athletes with mental skills like self-talk — one’s inner voice — or controlling mental imagery, which is mental perceptions not triggered by sensory input, Lacoque said. These skills are valuable in all facets of life but can be particularly useful to an athlete in competitive settings.

Lacoque said a basketball player at the free throw line must not focus on their thoughts as it can be distracting to their routine. But, a tennis player in between points might want to focus on their thoughts and give themself positive self-talk.

Lacoque relies on decades of psychology research to ensure the best outcomes.

“You could call [working with an individual] an art in terms of the application, but it’s also very much a science because a conversation with a mental health professional should be guided by things that have been shown to work,” Lacoque said.

Another facet of sports psychology is meditation, an emerging field in athletics. Chad McGehee is the director of meditation training at UW Athletics, a unique position UW spearheaded about three years ago. UW is the first major collegiate sports program to dedicate a position to applying meditation to athletics.

The position includes leading meditation training with teams, coaches and individuals as well as conducting research on successful meditation practices from existing datasets collected by the Athletics Department.

Meditation training is similar to strength conditioning for the mind, McGehee said. Rather than waiting for problems to arise, he equips athletes with mental skills through the practice of meditation. If an athlete does not engage in meditation training, they are leaving gains on the table, McGehee said.

“No athlete would ever take the field of competition without training their bodies, yet they do it all the time without training their mind,” McGehee said. “They talk about the importance of the mental game, but they don’t set aside time to train for high quality mental games.”

As someone who has experience leading meditation with FBI SWAT teams, Tier 1 tactical teams and C suite executives, McGehee brings a vibrant background of practical experience to his training sessions.

Amishi Jha from the University of Miami conducted a study that showed military personnel who engaged in a four-week training improved their attention and working memory over time compared to those who didn’t partake in any training.

When training the athletes, McGehee first discusses with them what skills they would like to develop. Once he shares the science behind his meditation techniques, he leads meditation sessions to help develop those skills and creates at-home training plans.

Bortolotti had weekly training sessions with McGehee last year. He learned about the importance of mindfulness and how he can implement it in his life and football career. In his sessions with McGehee, Bortolotti started practicing Qigong — a martial art consisting of coordinated movements and breathing — which he found very useful in his performance.

In his first-ever game at Camp Randall, Bortolotti recalled being overwhelmed by the immense crowd. He employed a breathing technique he learned from McGehee to focus his mind and get through the play.

“I was standing right in the middle of the field and kind of just looked around [and] was like ‘woah, there’s a lot of people watching,’” Bortolotti said.

Besides training athletes, McGehee’s position aims to see how measurable outcomes such as performance and injuries are affected by meditation training. McGehee said he can apply his research findings to the athletes he trains within minutes.

“It’s not just science in the ivory tower,” McGehee said. “It’s science in the training room, on the practice field.”

Still in its early years, McGehee hopes the position will lead to discovery in how meditation contributes to and complements the field of sports psychology as well as pave the way for other universities to implement meditation training into their athletics programs.

Just as weightlifting became embedded in athletics over the last 50 to 60 years, meditation and mindfulness training could become an imperative part to a successful athlete’s training regimen in the future, McGehee said.

“I do feel with a lot of confidence that this work is just at the very beginning stages, and we’re going to see tremendous growth in the coming years,” McGehee said. “We have an opportunity here at the UW to really impact the way sport is trained for future generations.”

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The Good of the Game

The abundance of sports-science initiatives come from the unique connection between UW’s athletics and academics. Whether it be fitness or mental health, research projects support the broader goal of improving sport and physical activity for people everywhere, not just Badger athletes.

BIOS emerged from a recognition of this special collaboration and its potential impacts.

“In concert with the Wisconsin Idea, we take what we’ve learned about sport research and innovation, and we share it out with everybody,” Dehnert said. “People should know about it.”

BIOS has spent a lot of time over the past year focusing on youth sports. According to Dehnert, over 43 million young people participate in organized athletics in America. As a result, researchers want to use their data to ensure positive experiences at a young age which can lead to a brighter future — Project Play is one initiative aimed at furthering this goal. 

Project Play hopes to ensure physical literacy for every child in America by age 12. Whether they go on to play college sports or recreational sports, young athletes will be equipped with good life skills for staying physically active and healthy.

Project Play details that participation in youth sports like baseball, basketball, football and softball are all trending down and, as a result, children are less physically active. The playbook advises families to encourage children to sample other sports, allow children to play on their own terms and encourage fun in their physical activity.

Hundreds of organizations across the country have used the project to structure their youth sports programs. Information from the program is available to coaches, children and parents alike.

BIOS translates sports science data, publishes commentary and provides resources, such as Project Play, for coaches, parents and everyone to access. These communication efforts are imperative to making the research at groups such as WIS, BAP and BIOS strive toward a brighter, healthier future.

Planting the seeds of healthy physical activity through youth sports is important for ensuring long-term health outcomes, but the positive impacts of sports, young or old, extends far beyond the game.

“The lessons that [sports] give kids and adults alike haven’t changed,” Dehnert said. “What it means to be a part of a team, what it means to be competitive, to exhibit skills of grit and resilience … [Sports] do good. It’s not only a health thing, but what it does for you mentally and physically, I think is unmatched.”

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