From their stadium seats, fans of the Blue Hens are laser focused on the action on the field.
They probably don’t notice the student interns off to the side and up in the press box. But this dedicated cohort, most of them from the Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, are doing their best to help the athletes perform at their peak.
How exactly do interns from a business college boost athletes? It’s all part of an innovative Sports Science and Analytics program at Delaware Athletics, Community and Campus Recreation (DACCR) that other schools are trying to emulate.
Christina Rasnake, director of Sports Science and Analytics for the department, runs the program, which has grown quickly. In 2019, Rasnake was working with one intern. Coming back from COVID, the program grew to four interns, then only a semester later shot up to around 15. This spring, 36 interns signed on (27 of them from Lerner). Others came from Health Sciences, Agriculture and Natural Resources, Engineering and Arts and Sciences.
“Word of mouth is huge,” Rasnake said.
Tanner Elliott, a senior in sport management, has worked with the UD women’s basketball, field hockey and football teams, and says he’s learned a lot from the experience.
“Coach Ras herself is probably one of the best bosses I’ve ever worked for,” he said. “She’s not really a micromanager … she’s just someone that lets you do your job. And if you have any questions, you go to her.”
The interns help deploy sophisticated GPS devices worn by the athletes, collecting detailed data on how fast players are running, how intensely they are practicing, and even the G-force when football players collide. Other devices gather information on activities like workouts in the weight room, for example tracking the speed of the barbell. Rasnake and her crew also gather other statistics that go far beyond the usual numbers you might read in a box score, like how many times the quarterback threw to the left in the 6 to 10 yard range, or how fast the pocket collapsed around him.
Coaches have always kept a sharp eye on player performance, but these statistics give them way more information. For example, the GPS can track when players are running more intensely than usual, over a baseline speed, or when they accelerate or come to a hard stop, giving coaches exact figures to compare the athlete’s play early and later on in the game or practice.
For example, Rasnake said, the data might show that a short break before halftime allows a player to perform better late in the game. Or coaches might decide that a player coming back from injury should be limited to a certain amount of running or high-intensity play, and get a heads up from Rasnake or her team when the player hits that limit.
It’s about helping the players be available to compete at a high level, Rasnake said, while making them more resilient when returning from injury, so “they are feeling more refreshed, they are feeling stronger at the right time of the season.”
“Just making sure that we’re not overworking or under-training … I’d say the No. 1 thing is injury prevention and player maintenance,” Altig said.
UD football head coach Ryan Carty, a fan of the statistics program, agrees.
“It’s huge during spring ball, it’s huge during summer workouts … probably the biggest time that we use our data is fall camp,” he said. “… We need to make sure that in September (when the season starts) we’re all healthy.”
It’s working. “For the first time in a really long time, especially in our sport, we don’t have any soft tissue injuries like hamstring pulls or those sorts of injuries,” Altig said. “… We’ve really seen a decline in our injuries that are, in our opinion, preventable.”
“I want to make sure that we’re not overusing student-athletes, and I think this is one of those things that really helps gauge that,” Carty said. The hard facts like how many yards a players has run help with decisions on when to slow a player down to prevent injury, he said.
The coaches also say players are motivated by the numbers.
“They can check up their own individual analysis per day, and per week, and on gameday, and they compete about who ran the fastest,” Carty said.
Other schools are embracing similar technology. Altig said Penn State was using the GPS devices when she was with that program, and she really valued the input. But even much bigger Division I schools have not made use of advanced statistics to the extent UD has, Rasnake said.
She knows this partly because they reach out to her to try to get advice on how the Blue Hens are doing it. She gets queries from conference rivals and national powerhouses alike.
“It is a competitive advantage,” Rasnake said.
Altig agrees, saying of the data, “We can see it live, which will give us a competitive edge over opponents who might not have the same technology.”
Not being endowed with magical powers, or at least any that she admits to, Rasnake can’t be at practices for all 21 teams — even though they’re split into spring and fall seasons. And she also needs help sorting the mountains of data and highlighting the important takeaways for the coaches. So she relies on interns, most of them studying sport management at Lerner.
“It’s a little army out there,” Carty said. “… They’re intense, focused, diligent.”
The interns do a really great job of communicating with coaches and helping them monitor athletes, Altig said.
“They’re (a) huge asset. And I let them know all the time,” Rasnake said, adding, “It’s the opportunity that I’ve had to collaborate with Lerner that has made this internship program grow.”
Rasnake credits the high interest to the rising profile of statistical analysis. That can be seen in the movie “Moneyball,” which told the story of how Billy Beane upended baseball tradition and turned the Oakland A’s into a winning team (for a while) by using advanced metrics. There’s also the rise of legal sports betting, and the prominent discussion on sports broadcasts of spin rates, catch probabilities and more.
The most eager to participate have been students in sport management, but interns come from other majors too like statistics, economics, computer science, sports health, accounting and marketing, to name only a few.
Some of the interns work on the sidelines, and others up in the press box, but they’re all taking on some of the hectic life of an athlete, Rasnake noted – they’re up early for practice, or on duty until late evening. But they love sports and get caught up in being part of the team’s success.
They also get the chance for a wide range of experience. It’s not just shadowing someone, Rasnake stressed. They build relationships with the coaches, athletes and staff, and are a key part of the work at a level they might not get with another internship.
Interns also get the chance to return multiple semesters and even take on leadership roles. Going into the workforce already having years of experience like this, Rasnake said, “is (a) huge opportunity for these students.”
Elliot has learned a lot about leadership from watching how Rasnake puts people in a position to succeed while running a large team, he said.
Oh yeah, and there’s Excel. Lots of Excel. That, too, will come in handy in the business world, Elliot said.
Bradly Anyanwu, a current member of the football team, said part of the experience is getting better at using spreadsheets and presenting the data to coaches.
“I didn’t know much about sport analytics before starting this internship,” Anyanwu, also a senior in sport management, said. “But it’s something, definitely, that I’m more interested in now.”
Other athletes have also gotten involved – past interns included former quarterback Nolan Henderson.
Even if the interns don’t end up pursuing sports analytics specifically (Henderson, for example, recently signed with the Baltimore Ravens) the experience can help clarify direction.
Analytics might not be her exact focus in the future, said Emilee Lydon, a junior in sport management with a minor in event management. She had never considered herself a statistics person. “But it definitely solidified that I want to work closely with teams, and not just in the office,” she said.
Her internship could help her get that chance. “I’ve learned a lot just about the sports field in general,” she said. In the interview process with companies, “I have so much more knowledge of the industry now than I did before I started this internship.”
She’s ready to return next semester, too.
“I love my boss. I love the people I work with … pretty much all of us are doing it again. And it’s a great experience.”