Three-time Kinesiology alum on the frontier of analytics for MSU football
By Lauren Knapp
In July 2022, Bill Burghardt was named the director of sports sciences for Michigan State University. In the role, he’s helping leaders across coaching, strength and conditioning, and sports medicine to optimize athlete performance backed by cutting-edge data, technology and exercise science.
It is a title several years in the making for Burghardt, a three-time Kinesiology alum. He was previously the first person to hold the role of director of football sports science.
Here is the story of how that role catapulted him to new heights at MSU.
POWER OF NUMBERS
At the heart of Burghardt’s work is a small device that athletes wear during practices and games. The Catapult Vector, originally developed by the Australian Institute of Sport and the Cooperative Research Centres, measures how many times a person is tackled, how often they throw the ball, exact location (indoors or outdoors), acceleration, heart rate and more. According to the company website,* it provides “custom performance data and insights [to] empower critical decisions about athlete performance, injury risk assessment and return to play protocols.” The software was first developed ahead of the 2006 Sydney Olympics.
“The information we’re getting from Burghardt is incredible. Now, we have the data to tell us what we need to do to prepare our athletes for the game.”-Lorenzo Guess,
associate strength and conditioning coach
Michigan State University uses the most devices in the Big 10 conference, and Burghardt is in charge of all the data.
“What does it mean, in terms of data, to play football?” said Burghardt. “I break down, analyze and quantify what each position has to do. That information, and the intensity behind it all, helps dictate how we train, how vigorously we train and how we rehabilitate.”
Burghardt develops daily reports on the players—there were 116 on MSU’s roster in 2021—including data from practices, strength and conditioning sessions and games, and works with coaching staff to prepare the athletes to perform at their peak on game day.
“Burghardt can say, ‘As a team, this is what we’re doing. As an offense or defense, this is what we’re doing,’ all the way down to: ‘As an individual player, this is how much you will do today,’” said Jason Novak, head coach for strength and conditioning at MSU. “He can tell us what we should be doing during practice, how long we should do it and how many reps or plays we ought to do.”
“It was absolutely essential for me to get my degrees in Kinesiology,” said Burghardt. “Working in sport science, and previously strength and conditioning, knowledge of the human body and how it responds to physical training and sport is paramount.”
“Many football teams practice as long as they can and scrimmage at the end of the week. Turns out, that’s not the best way to get the best performance”– Bill Burghardt
Where this is particularly helpful, Novak says, is looking at position needs. A wide-receiver’s role during a game is different from a linebacker or a quarterback. If all players are doing the exact same thing during practice, running the same lengths or speeds, one role may be getting what they need—and the other isn’t. Burghardt defines the ideal exercises and goals for each position.
“Our athletes are really competitive,” said Lorenzo Guess, MSU associate strength and conditioning coach. “They want to see their stats all the time. They love it, and compete over everything. ‘I ran faster than you,’ ‘I lifted more than you,’ that kind of thing.”
The power of the brain is another crucial thing Burghardt learned from his studies at MSU.
“The Kinesiology programs taught me the psychological side of coaching, which comes up daily in my profession,” he said. “Effective communication with athletes and other coaches is a vital skill to know in the field.”
Communication helps identify what each player needs to do to push themselves that little bit further (or rest a little bit more) and works with coaches to align activities leading up to game day.
Not only does this ensure players feel their best as they hit the field, but it means they’re ready for it, physically and mentally.
“[Because of Burghardt] we have a better plan for what we need to do to prepare athletes. We used to just say ‘run this, do that,’” Guess said. “Now, we know what they need to do during the game, so we can better prepare during the week. Instead of conditioning our players to survive, we’re conditioning them to thrive.”
A SAFER SPORT
Burghardt’s role is fundamental in preventing injuries.
Prior to Burghardt’s mastery of Spartan football data, in many cases, guesswork was a large part of recovery. A physician may have given the okay to practice, but it was more or less a hope for the best that a player didn’t get injured again, explained Novak. Now, Burghardt is able to define at a granular level what a player was able to do before they got hurt, what is required for their role and where they are post-injury. As recovery progresses, coaching staff can say, with certainty, when a player is “back,” based on their numbers.
“We see the effect of his knowledge on a daily basis,” Novak continued. “We don’t look at a guy and say, ‘Wow, you look fast.’ We know if he is fast. When Bill makes recommendations, we can push them harder or lessen workloads—then look at the data and verify. Did we do the right thing, or miscalculate?”
TURNING UP THE HEAT
Burghardt was able to calculate correctly ahead of the game against the University of Miami in September 2021.
For the noon kickoff in Florida, the temperature was 87 degrees Fahrenheit; the heat index made it feel like 97. According to ESPN**, the game was the “warmest for the Spartans since … Arizona State in 2018.”
Rewind the clock to five months before kickoff: Burghardt and MSU staff were preparing to play in East Lansing the week prior and after, with the sweltering Florida game in between.
Burghardt turned to Kinesiology Associate Professor David Ferguson, who was on Burghardt’s Ph.D. committee. Ferguson has experience training athletes to better perform in motor sport races, where drivers can experience in-car temperatures above 130 degrees F.
Heat can be dangerous to athletes who aren’t prepared for the conditions. During heat stroke, the body loses its ability to control temperature, with potentially lethal consequences. In 2001, Korey Stringer, an offensive tackle for the Minnesota Vikings, died suddenly during training camp after an exertional heat stroke. The Korey Stringer Institute (KSI) was later developed as a nonprofit dedicated to “preventing sudden death in sport.”***
Burghardt developed a plan—adjusted and confirmed by Ferguson and KSI, and in coordination with other MSU staff, like dietitian Amber Rhinestine—to prepare the Spartans for the heat.
The three-week plan included practicing in increasingly hot conditions indoors and outdoors on “Hot Days.” As the body is exposed to the heat over time, it begins to build resilience. They balanced with practicing at normal heat levels on alternating days.
On game day: Staff held up sunshades, cool towels were available. And ice. Lots of ice.
“We had over 1,000 pounds of ice,” Burghardt recalled. “Five minutes into the game, I was throwing 20-pound bags of ice onto their bodies to keep their core body temperatures down.”
The Spartans won 38-17.
Burghardt’s plan made him a key staff member credited for the win, ending Miami’s then 19-consecutive weeks in the Top 25 AP poll, and bringing MSU into the mix, at #20, for the first time since September 2019.
A CATAPULT TO THE FUTURE
Novak thinks Burghardt has somehow figured out how to have more than 24 hours in his day, for all the work he has done and continues to do.
Burghardt earned his Ph.D. at Kinesiology in three years (a task that typically takes four) while also working full-time on the MSU football sport and conditioning staff, adding on responsibilities as the analytics coordinator, instructing a Kinesiology course, and his family with wife, Alaina, grew from one to three children (Annabelle, Liam and Emilia). His dissertation, “Modeling the Relationship Between Workload and Non-Contact Injuries in American College Football Players,” explored molecules and proteins in athletes who experienced muscle damage.
“He is one impressive human,” said Karin Pfeiffer, professor of Kinesiology and Burghardt’s doctoral advisor. “He’s a machine. His efforts were herculean.”
He started as the director of football sport science in 2020, when Mel Tucker joined MSU as the head coach. It started, Burghardt says, the “next evolution of personnel on our team.” That evolution continues with even more on Burghardt’s plate—in research and on the field.
He is in the beginning phases of work with Pfeiffer and fellow Kinesiology alum Alex Montoye (Ph.D. ’14) to use data, like that gathered from the Catapult Vector, to better understand and quantify injury risk and the potential for machine learning systems to guide training and sport performance.
Burghardt is also part of a collaborative effort to dream up new ways to use data—possibly combining the power of the Catapult Vector’s analytics with video.
Whatever the future holds, Spartans will be at the forefront of what Ferguson calls the next “frontier in athletics.”
“In exercise physiology, you have people who are hands-on, developing strength and conditioning practices,” said Ferguson. “Then you have people doing in-depth genetic molecular analysis. Those people, generally, have very little in common. Bill spans the gap. He’s a huge asset to MSU.”
Burghardt’s Spartan Timeline
- 2011 Earns M.S. in Kinesiology
- 2012 Serves as assistant strength and conditioning coach at U.S. Military Academy (West Point, NY) before returning to MSU as assistant strength and conditioning coach
- 2018 Named associate strength and conditioning coach, adds analytics to role
- 2020 Begins as inaugural director of football sport science
- 2021 Earns Ph.D. in Exercise Science
- 2022 Begins as director of sports science
KIN Alumni on MSU Football Staff
Tyler Beachnau, strength and conditioning intern, B.S. ’20
Cody Cox, assistant director for football administration, B.S. ’14 and M.S. ’16
Bo Els, grad assistant (defense), current student, M.S. in Sport Coaching & Leadership
Andrew Kolpacki, head football equipment manager, B.S. ’14
Simone Proulx, director of football administration, M.S. ’11
Nick Ruffing, offensive analyst, B.S. ‘08 and M.S. ’12