Alabama's New Sports Science Center is all about the Pursuit of High Performance

With the additions of David Ballou and Dr. Matt Rhea, and the new sports science center, Alabama is aiming to stand out from everyone else with the latest innovations
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One was a kicker. The other played fullback.

So yeah, if they would have ever met on a football field, things would not have been equal.

Only that’s not what David Ballou and Dr. Matt Rhea are all about in terms of Alabama’s new approach in embracing sports science. In a more traditional setting Ballou would be known as the strength and conditioning coach, and almost never leave the weight room. Rhea's role would be confined to crunching numbers, probably as an analyst.

But that’s why they’re at Alabama, because those oversimplified and traditional labels no longer exist in Tuscaloosa. Granted, they might give fans a good starting point for understanding what they do, they’re actually way beyond them. It’s like still calling Rhea a kicker, or Ballou a fullback after all this time.

Formally, Ballou is the Crimson Tide’s director of sports performance, while Dr. Rhea is the director of performance science. Brought in together this spring, they’ve helped Alabama embrace a new approach, and are trying to take the Crimson Tide to a level that’s unmatched.

“When they came in and we interviewed them, there was no question that from a sports science standpoint and from a conditioning standpoint they were light-years in advance of what a lot of people have done in their programs for a long, long time, which we’ve done the same thing for a long, long time, too,” Nick Saban said. “And we’d actually brought some NFL people at the end of the season because we wondering if there was something that we could do to improve performance and injury prevention because we seemed like we’d gotten a lot of guys hurt this past season.

“So, we were already going down this path.”

Thus, the building of the new sports science center as part of the Mal More Athletic Facility, Rhea’s new base of operations. Construction began before he was hired. 

For a job comparison outside of football, he’s sort of like an orchestra conductor, although that isn't quite right. Rhea’s not out front, dictating the tempo while weaving harmonies between the different musical groups on stage. In his own estimation probably 90 percent of what he does is behind the scenes.

“For five years we’ve tried to explain how we really operate” he said. “If I’m the conductor that doesn’t give Dave his due justice in terms of what he does.”

More accurate is a modern music producer, who uses the technology of the board to bring all the different elements and components of a song together in ways that aren’t always obvious.

Instead of melodies, he’s piecing together all of the moving parts, including sports medicine, sports psychology and so on, which ties in well with Rhea’s diverse background.

He earned his bachelor of science degree in physical education from Southern Utah in 1998, followed by his master of science in exercise science and physical education from Arizona State in 2001 (later adding a master in science degree in sports management from American Public University in 2016). He went on to earn his PhD in 2004 from Arizona State with an exercise and sport science academic focus and an athletic performance enhancement research focus.

It’s a lot easier to say that Rhea loves data and sports.

He’s worked with firefighters, military personnel and police about ways to enhance performance, but the passion has always been with athletes. It got Rhea thinking in areas that had never really been explored, and once he got going it all just kept leading to more discoveries.

The first time he crossed paths with his future strength partner was when Ballou was earning his master’s degree in human movement from A.T. Still University in 2009. The program was being run by Rhea, who as a full professor of kinesiology taught courses in sports conditioning and exercise physiology. He's also published nearly 100 studies in sports performance enhancement.

“We just really have similar views in human performance and how aggressive we are in sort of outside-the-box thinking, and analytics — the sports science and data part of it,” Ballou said. “We just really meshed well right off the bat.”

That was at IMG Academy in Florida, where current Crimson Tide players like Evan Neal, Trey Saunders, Thomas Fletcher, Stephon Wynn Jr. and Dylan Moses all suited up before signing on to Alabama. Moses even gave Saban a recommendation during the hiring process because during his time there he got stronger, leaner and faster, and also avoided any significant injuries. 

“We had the resources, we had the athletes, we had the different levels of athletes because from a football perspective we had NFL guys who were there all year, in-and-out,” Ballou said. “We had college guys who came for the combine training that we have three months there. Obviously we had our high school team there.

“It was almost like we had a huge research lab.”

They were able to dive in and really start to tailor the system to what they wanted, to not only measure progress, but make sure that what they were applying was transferring to the athletes and benefiting them both short- and long-term. Ballou left to be Notre Dame’s co-director of football strength and conditioning in 2017, and then they reunited at Indiana.

The chance to see what they could do at Alabama, and to take what they had learned to the highest level, was simply too good to pass up.

“It allows us, and it allows this program to have the most well-rounded, high-performance model you’ve seen in college football, period,” Ballou said.

“I keep using that term high-performance because it’s a big deal, because to me a high-performance environment has a bunch of really good people at their job, who come into work every day trying to optimize every second it is in their field. That’s what you see and what we wanted to be around.”

When an athlete first works with Alabama’s sports performance coaches approximately 15 different assessments are made, including a single-leg test. One part of it is to take the power production being exerted and compare it to the other leg, forming a ratio.

If the ratio isn’t even, and it almost never is, it might translate to something like the athlete being 13 percent weaker in one leg. There’s similar tests for hamstrings, and so on down the line. Workouts are then tailored to even things out.

“The closer you get to that [even] ratio the healthier you stay, and the faster you can get,” Ballou said. “And it’s held up 100 percent of the time over the course of our time doing this.”

Those 15 different assessments aren’t just a baseline, they’re done each and every month. In addition to strength there’s everything from velocity training to measuring explosive movements. Everything is done with a purpose and tracked.

The data is compiled, and compiled, and then analyzed, and analyzed some more. One of the things Rhea and Ballou have discovered is that being so thorough eliminates guesswork — which is always better.  

“The way we break athletes down is every athlete, every football player and really every athlete in general, they all have weaknesses, flaws, issues, limitations that are holding them back from high performance,” Ballou said. “Every single one of them, the best of the best have it. So it’s our job to go find out what that is, and finding out what it is is one thing but attacking it and fixing it through training, through what we do on a day-to-day developmental process, that’s the hard part. That’s the really hard part.

“That’s the fun part for us.”

A good example was with standout wide receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, who were already considered top-end players. Through speed testing Rhea felt that Waddle’s acceleration was essentially off the charts, but his top speed could be improved. Smith was the opposite. His top speed was already there, yet his acceleration had some potential to be better.

So their individual programs were designed accordingly. Eight weeks later, the data showed that both had improved in the areas focused.

“My acceleration has gotten better,” Smith said. “I kind of get to my top speed kind of quick so we’ve been working on my acceleration a lot.”

Take the assessments (there’s actually more than 15), and multiply that by the number of athletes, and one starts to get a feel for how vast this undertaking has been on a daily, weekly, monthly and season basis.

There are also numerous layers to what they’re doing. Strength and conditioning are the most obvious components, but so are nutrition, recovery and sleep. Not taking care of each only increases the odds of something negative occurring and limiting one’s own potential.

Think of it like this. If the best college football players are like Ferraris, how much better do they run when finely tuned and all four wheels are perfectly balanced and aligned?

That’s what’s at the heart of the new sports science center, and why Alabama considers it such an important addition, especially when no one in college football has anything like it.

“It’s sort of the centerpiece that tries and bring data points from all those different areas together, to make sure that we’re really all on the same page when it comes to getting the most out of our athletes,” Rhea said.

“What I think we’ve done in five years is true innovation. Once you really know who the system works and how athletes respond to certain things, what signs to look for, then you really get busy with innovation. You start seeing things that maybe we never even considered before, let alone knew how to address.”