Paschall Spearheading Duke’s Dive into Sports Science

Paschall Spearheading Duke’s Dive into Sports Science

It is nine o’clock on a steamy morning and the Duke field hockey team is wrapping up a busy preseason and preparing for its action-packed weekend of games.  The Blue Devils, always a high-energy bunch, chatter their way through the warm-up and stretching in preparation of getting down to business.

Meanwhile, the team’s sports science specialist Karlie Paschall is on the sideline in a low squat peering intently at her laptop resting on a blue folding chair under a tent to make sure she sees every step each player is taking.

With each player wearing a Catapult tracking device, Paschall is able to see how far and how fast each player runs as well as the amount of times the athletes must decelerate and accelerate. Using this Catapult system, which has been at the forefront of sports science since 2006, Paschall’s focus is utilizing science and formulas to assure each player’s weekly activity level or load have them primed for peak performance for the weekend’s games.

A four-year member of the Duke women’s soccer team, Paschall is keenly aware of the important balance of building and maintaining fitness, while making sure not to overtrain.

“The biggest thing we monitor is their overall volume,” said Paschall. “So we base our trainings off of game percentages. We know a game is a certain load so we will say ‘We want today to be half of a game load or tomorrow a quarter of a game load et cetera et cetera.”

During the spring of her junior year, Paschall began to investigate what her post-soccer career might look like. As a psychology major, Paschall intended to pursue a career in therapy because she enjoyed talking with people and learning about them.

However, after doing due diligence with some already in the field, she decided that wasn’t the path for her and she deftly pivoted. Paschall leaned on a friendship she had developed with one of Duke’s physical therapists, Ciara Burgi. In addition to working with current Blue Devil athletes as a physical therapist, Burgi also managed all of the fitness and training data for the Duke women’s soccer team, which also used

Catapult.

Then the world came to a halt in March of 2020 as students were sent home from college campuses, sports were suspended and life was spent predominantly at home. Paschall, someone who admittedly does not sit still well, found herself bored so she had Burgi send her all of the her Catapult data from the past season thinking she could do a research project with the goal of publishing a paper.

“We worked together all summer and she taught me everything she knew,” Paschall said. “We ended up publishing a paper in terms of readiness scores after you play a game. So essentially how quickly are athletes back to baseline and back to normal after a game.”

Paschall voraciously consumed books and articles about sports science, learning everything she could on her own. Then came the time in November of 2020 when she felt she needed to decide between continuing her career on the soccer field as Duke was set to compete in the spring due to the adjusted COVID-19 sports calendar or pursuing this new passion. 

“In November, I came to a point in my life where I had to pick between finishing my sporting career or kind of starting something new in terms of taking a risk and seeing if I could create some type of intern position to be a sports scientist,” Paschall said. “So after the ACC Tournament in November with women’s soccer, I ended up making the decision I didn’t want to play in the spring and instead I wanted to a lot that time to diving super deep into data.”

The pieces started to fall into place. Burgi departed for a new position with the NFL’s Houston Texans, leaving a hole to fill with a few of the Duke teams she worked with closely in terms of sports science data. Paschall dove in head first like she has with everything else in her life and ended up working closely with the field hockey team throughout its spring campaign.

Head coach Pam Bustin was thrilled with Paschall’s expertise and enthusiasm for sports science and knew she needed to find a way to keep Paschall on staff after she graduated in May. Working through the process of hiring a new staff member, Bustin officially welcomed the self-starter on staff over the summer.

“She has such a knack for it and an interest in it and a passion for I said we need to find a way to keep her on staff and make that something she provides to us,” said Bustin. “[Her contributions in the spring] were amazing. I think [with Karlie] it becomes more individualized process for each kid, yet overall as a team it makes us stronger. It’s been awesome.”

Now Paschall, who also is pursuing her master’s degree, finds herself on the sidelines watching the drills on her computer screen rather than being a part of them. The team takes a break for water and Paschall uses the time to clip the drill and compile the data to check in on the team’s load for the day.

While the numbers and science behind them fascinates Paschall, the importance to make it relatable on a human level is paramount to success. Therefore, she needs to develop a certain level of trust with the players to get them to buy in. So she puts it in terms they can visualize.

“How I explain it to the team is each of them is a bucket and every single week we want their bucket to be filled based on whatever prescriptions we allocate to them,” Paschall said. “It’s essentially making sure each individual fills their bucket while our team also fills our bucket. We don’t want to be underfilled because then we’re de-training. We don’t want them to be over filled because then we’re pushing them too hard. So it’s all about making sure their needs are met so we can increase their loading throughout the season so we can get them fitter, but in a safe way.”

Paschall and the coaching staff also ensure each player knows she is not a robot or just a number on a graph on a computer screen. That is where the Fit for 90 evaluation comes in. A subjective wellness questionnaire the players submit in the morning to let the coaches know how they are feeling – under a lot of stress, sore, didn’t sleep well or whatever it might be.   

“That’s the part of sports science that might be the most important – to make sure we realize that the players aren’t just numbers, they are humans and there are so many factors that go into why their numbers say what they are,” Paschall said. “That’s my favorite part of my job is that it’s a big puzzle to me. I can see Player X runs a 1,000 meters in a game and she only runs 50, probably unlikely, but that gives me insight into not ‘Hey she’s lazy or she doesn’t care’. Rather you ask ‘Is there something going on behind the scenes?’ Did she eat enough, is she hydrated, is there something going on with her family, her friends or her classes?

Paschall also puts a huge emphasis assuring the athletes that her data will never be used as punishment. Everything she does is for the good of the student-athlete and thus far the players have been incredibly receptive.

“A lot of my piece of relationship building is getting people to trust me and realize I deeply care for them and want them to feel loved and to feel seen and for them to know that we know that they’re working hard,” Paschall said “We’re not here to punish them or to say they are lazy. We know they are working hard and we’re here to affirm that and bring more out of them.”

“It’s been an educational process for everybody, including the [players],” Bustin said. “We did it for a year without a person like Karlie and that was hard because we’re trying to use what we can and explain it to the team, but course they make judgements on it right away, not good or bad, just the natural process of development. So I think with Karlie coming on board she was able to present what we’re doing with [the data] in a non-coaching voice, in a scientific voice that also has compassion and understanding having been a student-athlete herself.”

The energy and enthusiasm for all of this data is transferring to the players as they start to ask Paschall a lot more questions. Most of the time they want to know how far and how fast they ran, which Paschall knows is to be expected. With that in mind, Paschall also likes to keep it fun and will give the players feedback such as they ran as fast as an e-scooter for 50 yards or you ran to Chapel Hill and back in that game. In fact, over the course of the 10 days of preseason, Paschall said the Blue Devils amassed 615 miles of running – a mere run to the White House and back – and reached a top speed of 17.5 mph.

“They normally care about how fast they ran and how far they ran, which is to be expected,” Paschall said. “The girls love it. They’ve really bought into it so much and have asked me a ton of questions and are super interested, which is really cool.”

While the basic how far and how fast is interesting and still very useful, currently Paschall’s biggest interest is focusing on something much more nuanced – deceleration load.

“The one thing I am starting to really get into is looking at deceleration load because that’s where a lot of [the non-contact] injuries happen,” Paschall said. “We can measure total deceleration efforts at practice and even divide it by time to find their actual load in a practice. We can also look at decel duration so we can see how long it takes to slow your body down. That’s a big one for recovery. So it’s a good indicator of fatigue and how they’re coping with the load.”

The amount of information churned out by Catapult is nearly endless and you hear the excitement in her voice and you see the glimmer in Paschall’s eyes as she eagerly talks about how she is going to approach solving this puzzle.

So as the players and coaching staff run through practice making the figurative strides forward on the hockey field, Paschall dives deeply into the analytics behind those literal steps popping up across her screen with hopes she can do her part in pushing the Blue Devils to success this season.

 

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