Nebraska volleyball has the perfect swing down to a science. Literally

Director of the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab Chris Bach stands among reflectors that help model the movements of Husker student-athletes.

LINCOLN — Mikaela Foecke is the gold standard for Nebraska volleyball.

Not just because she was a two-time All-American who helped lead the Huskers to four Final Fours and two national championships.

Foecke also has a perfect swing, according to research by the Nebraska Athletic Performance Lab.

Chris Bach, the director of NAPL, has worked with the volleyball program the past 18 months using physics, biology and science to figure out how to help athletes perform better. This includes analyzing players’ swings.

“We compare everything to Foecke,” coach John Cook said. “Here is how she looked. This is how she fired and rotated (her arm). She’s our standard and we compare everybody to how close to Foecke because Foecke is a great hitter.”

“We are using them a lot and I think it is huge for us. ... They have some incredible stuff in there.”

After Bach was named the lab’s director in May 2018, Cook was one of the first coaches to reach out to see how they could work together. What started as a way to figure out how to reduce ACL injuries evolved into examining how athletes sleep, a biomechanical swing analysis and more to provide an edge.

“We are fortunate to work with him because he’s extremely progressive,” Bach said about Cook. “He’s always looking for ways to get better.

“We’ve come to him with ideas that maybe don’t stick. We move on and we’ve clearly found an area that they find value in. From there, we come up with new ways and give our volleyball team an advantage that other programs don’t have.”

The first area of collaboration involved sleep and nighttime patterns. Each freshman was given a Readiband, which provides data on the length and quality of sleep. Based on the data, Bach and his team then provided suggestions on how to develop better sleep habits, like following a routine and decreasing use of electronics before bed.

Bach also worked with the team to prepare them for two trips — Hawaii in the spring and Japan/China during the summer — to help reduce jet lag.

“We know that sleep is the foundation for all performance,” Bach said. “We try to make sure that is a strong point for all of our athletes, particularly the deeper you get into the season.”

Sophomore setter Nicklin Hames said she enjoyed the data so much, she volunteered to continue participating in the study. She said she didn’t take sleep that seriously until she got to college and saw a correlation with her on-court performance.

“I knew if we were having a big game or a hard practice,” Hames said, “I could see what I needed to do the night before so I could be my best the next day.”

For the swing analysis, the hitters wear motion sensors and are filmed by slow-motion cameras while hitting a ball on top of a court equipped with force plates to measure their jumping strength.

Then Bach breaks down the swing into different components to measure position, pattern and power. They measure vertical jump, hip and shoulder separation and external rotation in the arm. They also measure the power generated by the hips, torso, shoulder and elbow.

The sequencing also shows where the athletes are putting undue stress on other body parts. Bach said they are not focused on preventing injuries, but can show which body parts — like a shoulder or elbow — are experiencing stress.

“Part of this is that it is not necessarily like ‘This is good and this is bad,’” Bach said. “We are looking at what is the profile of this athlete so we can better understand how they move, how they swing and how they do these things.”

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Bach gives the data to the coaches to incorporate into practices, whether that means stretches to help with shoulder rotation or better foot position to jump higher.

Junior middle blocker Lauren Stivrins said she might not open her shoulder up as much as other hitters, but her sequence was solid. While she hasn’t made any adjustments to her swing based on the data, it reinforces her strengths.

“I think it is really cool to sit down and see yourself and the things you can work on and things you do well,” she said. “That’s going to help us on the court.”

Bach doesn’t just perform the testing and wait until he sees the athletes again in six months. He attends practice once a week.

Bach said he is finding ways to innovate, whether it is finding a way to sequence for blockers or setters, and sees his role as a practical problem solver.

“Coach Cook knows how to drive that bus to success,” Bach said. “Our job is to look for the blind spots and be the side and rearview mirrors. We make sure we aren’t missing anything that could happen throughout the season.”

In addition, the NAPL works with dietician Nuwanee Kirihennedige, sports psychologist Brett Haskell, athletic trainer Jolene Emricson and strength and conditioning coach Brian Kmitta. As a group, Bach said they try to provide a holistic approach to enhance the student-athlete experience.

“With volleyball, they have such a strong high-performance team where everyone is one the same page and working toward the same goal,” Bach said, “and that it is really unique.”

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