WVU hopes wireless tech vaults program to new heights
Editor's note: Coaches and players constantly search for an edge through the most modern ways. More and more teams focus on technology as a key to success.
What's happening at West Virginia University is a good example of what's happening across the country. This is the third part of a 5-part series.
MORGANTOWN, W.Va. -- Inside the Cary Gym are the most important tools West Virginia University's gymnastics team uses to reach special levels of success, like back-to-back NCAA Regional appearances in the first two years with Coach Jason Butts.
But it's not the handful of balance beams or bars the Mountaineers use to rehearse routines. It's not the runway to the vaults or the full and half-size floor exercise space.
There are four flat screen televisions, one mounted on a wall near each of the four apparatuses, and four tri-pods with an iPad mounted to each. The iPads record gymnasts as they practice their routines. The mobile setups send the footage to the televisions. There are no wires or messes or potential pitfalls for gymnasts.
"I would say we were definitely the first college program that made use of the wireless technology and using iPads and being mobile," Butts said. "It's still kind of in the beginning stage."
Many of the Mountaineers are accustomed to a similar arrangement from the years they spent competing for a club. Others weren't so fortunate and hadn't experienced the feature before making it to college.
When they're at WVU's practice facility, though, they're all alike.
"The first thing they do now that they've gotten used to it is the second they hit the mat, they turn right around to watch what they've just done," Butts said. "It's actually kind of eliminated us in some situations."
By and large, gymnasts know when they've hit a routine or messed up something by the time they snap their feet together and fire their arms into the air. The video system allows them to review their routines immediately after they finish. There's no waiting until after practice or for a calm moment at home after homework.
The performance is fresh in their minds and the opportunity to approve or improve is right there.
"They still want the correction from us as well," Butts said. "But it's been a valuable addition for them - a supplement."
Video has become a significant part of WVU's entire operation, covering everything from how the student-athletes work in meets and practices to how they actually arrive on campus. For the past few years, recruits and college coaches have given more time and attention to YouTube. Prospective gymnasts can market and promote themselves and coaches can search for and evaluate all the possibilities.
"It's let us get to know a lot of kids," Butts said. "It's opened doors to kids not at the level we recruit and it's made it easier for the ones we try to find. We get numerous emails from kids not at the level we recruit, but it's just as easy for them to get that information in front of us"
Combing through prospects
That's replaced the task of sorting through stacks of DVDs and hours of footage and it's made recruiting far more efficient and effective. Gone are the days when Butts used to spend two or three hours just watching videos and ranking them.
Assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Travis Doak's desk is next to five filing cabinets stuffed with DVDs and information on gymnasts. His desktop has a computer that can help the Mountaineers do so much more.
"Kids can seek you out and that helps us pick the kids that we think can help our program," he said. "It's not just the kids who send us videos. Somebody doesn't have to send you something for you to notice them, which is what makes it an easier way for us to be competitive."
Recruiting is still a business about people and relationships. Video doesn't replace the value of going to a meet to watch a competitor or visiting a gym to witness practice. It's one thing to observe a 9.85 performance on the balance beam and understand a prospect is skilled. That's no more significant, though, than getting an idea about the same gymnast's personality when a group of little kids who belong to the same club root for that prospect during her performance and celebrate with her after it.
Yet the Mountaineers can learn a lot about someone before ever making a visit. Sometimes they're even discouraged from visiting. That's a redeeming value of video.
"When something is too professional, that turns me off sometimes," Doak said. "I'd like them to just put up a routine that shows it off and doesn't hide anything. Anytime when people crop little routines together of individual skills, they're hiding something."
Even that is useful for WVU.
"If the video is professionally done or the website is over the top or done through a recruiting service, a lot of times that's a red flag and maybe they're not the most talented athlete or they're trying to do some salesmanship," Butts said.
Full videos give the coaches a full view of the gymnast. What happens during the routine is as important as what happens after. Doak said a gymnast's "demeanor" before or after a performance comes across on video. Attitude can bind or divide a gym.
"There have been reactions they had that completely tuned me away from recruiting kids," Butts said.
Getting to what's important
Amateur antics can be difficult to navigate, too. Many videos start with an introduction or an interview that allows the gymnast to offer a brief biography before the video moves on to the routines.
"Those can be kind of awkward," Butts said. "They're sitting in front of the fireplace telling us about her life. It's kind of weird."
There are many who understand the competition for attention. There are countless videos available for coaches to peruse and sometimes a gymnast will go to an extreme to get a coach's attention. Doak remembers one video where a gymnast introduced herself and then performed a five-minute handstand.
"I just remember sitting there thinking, 'What is going on?'" Doak said.
That gymnast ended up competing for a pretty good school, though.
"The really weird ones to me are the ones that show themselves completely crashing and burning, which I don't know why you'd want that info out there, or the ones who are trying to learn a new skill and they're very much in the beginning stage and you can tell they're never going to be able to do it," Butts said. "But they still send it to you. Those are the ones that make you go, 'Why are you showing me this?'"
Trampoline isn't a college event, which would suggest WVU's coaches wouldn't have need for videos of a prospect on that apparatus. Yet Butts said those are valuable clips because coaches can observe the ability needed for trampoline and project it to vault or floor exercise.
"You see a kid on a trampoline who can twist forward or backward or do multiple flips or twist into flips and everything and it's a good example of someone who is spatially aware in the air," Butts said. "That's huge for us. We know, if you have good spatial awareness, we can vastly increase the number of skills and options we have for them at our level."
'Ground work' still essential
The coaches still use contacts to find recruits. They search for scores at competitive meets and track a prospect's progress. Eventually, the Mountaineers find about 20 names they'll focus on that year. Doak and assistant Bridget Boyd do a lot of that "ground work," as Butts calls it, before they start forwarding names and videos to Butts.
"I trust them completely," Butts said. "About 99 percent of the time they send me a video, I like the kid. Then we just go to the gyms to see them."
While WVU spends less time sorting and evaluating footage now, Butts said WVU spends more money on recruiting. The Mountaineers find themselves more educated about prospects and then more invested in visiting them in gym settings. It's hard to argue with the tactic, though.
Butts said the Mountaineers have had unexpected success the past few years by getting to know a gymnast's video before they got to know her at a club WVU didn't have a relationship with before.
"We're able to go out and actively pursue people we did not know about in the past," Butts said.
There are other tales of validation. Jaida Lawrence, who was a freshman this past season, competed in Connecticut, but Doak discovered her at a national competition. He came back to the office and showed the video to Linda Burdette, the head coach at the time, and Butts, who was an assistant.
"The first time I watched her vault on YouTube, it was amazing," Butts said. "I was like, 'OK, we need that.'"
Other success stories involve more luck than travel. Rising senior Amanda Carpenter was the Pennsylvania all-around champion as a high school sophomore in 2008, but didn't have a lot of attention after that.
"We didn't know anything about her," Doak said. "Turns out she was injured and hadn't competed in a year. We went back and found video of her and all of a sudden it was, 'Wow, who is this kid?'"
Contact sportswriter Mike Casazza at firstname.lastname@example.org or 304-319-1142. His blog is at blogs.dailymail.com/wvu.