The WVU Women’s Soccer team is a powerhouse. Since the program’s inception in 1996,
the Mountaineers have blown away the competition, making an appearance in the last
17 straight NCAA tournaments — the country’s seventh-longest active streak. In
2016 this elite team advanced to the NCAA College Cup for the first time in program
history and finished as the National Championship Runner-Up. They work hard. They
play smart. And today, they have a few secret weapons in their arsenal — smart
tech. Coach and program founder Nikki Izzo-Brown says junior forward and rising
star Sh’Nia Gordon is a great example of what happens when you mix a player
in top-form with this cutting-edge technology.
A WINNING FORMULA
The key components of a great soccer player? “You have to be very competitive,
with a great first touch, have to be physically fit and have a thorough understanding
of the game and its tactics,” Coach Izzo-Brown says. Gordon’s strengths include
all of these things, and she’s wicked fast. “With Nia, one of the things you’re
going to see is her speed on and off the ball. She has the ability to create space
and then to penetrate that space with her pace,” she says.
Every athlete has her or his own rituals and traditions for getting in the right
mental space before a game. Gordon’s? A little prayer, some imagination and
YouTube videos on her favorite players. “I think about who my opponent is and all
the moves I want to make. I try to recreate the field in my head and all the things
I want to do. That gets me in the zone,” she says.
The average soccer field is about 360 feet long and nearly 240 feet wide. That’s
a lot of distance to communicate your intentions to other team members. But, Gordon
says, the Mountaineers have developed mostly non-verbal cues. “We have a special
connection. We don’t really need to talk a lot to each other. That’s just from
us practicing together every day. I know exactly where my teammate wants the ball
based on their strengths and weaknesses,” she says.
KNOW THY OPPONENT
With the aid of technology, Gordon is able to review and analyze her opponents’ movements
on the field before and after a game. As a right forward, Gordon is particularly
interested in exploiting any weaknesses in the left back line of the opposing team
— defenders whose role is to keep Gordon and her fellow forwards from scoring.
Coach Izzo-Brown says the key to a successful, cohesive team — other than
work ethic and intensity — is to make sure the players know their jobs inside
and out and fulfill their responsibilities. As a right forward, Gordon plays nearest
to the opposing team’s goal and is more likely to be responsible for scoring.
The Mountaineers are more than great players. They’re equipped to know
their own bodies, their natural strengths and weaknesses, how much they can
push themselves and what makes them stronger players. And they have the tools to
amass similar data on their opponents.
Monitors each athlete individually and shows how hard they are working down
to the heart beat and mile-per-minute achieved on the field. Helps the coach (and
the player) know when an athlete is recovering, if they can push her to work
harder and if she’s staying healthy.
Primarily serves the athlete on the field, allowing players to track their max heart rates and if they are performing in practice at the same level they would perform in a game. Also allows the staff to monitor the athletes’ sleep and recovery.
An iPad, loaded with footage of each game, allows the athletes to see how they practice and perform in games. The staff can turn a 90-minute game into 20 minutes of “touches” — moments when the athlete comes into contact with the ball. Allows the athlete to see what she’s doing on the field and recognize the areas she needs to improve.