Tech gadgets a game changer for UBC Thunderbirds coach Shawn Olson

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      As far as Xs and Os go, not a whole lot has changed in football since Shawn Olson was the big man on campus, quarterbacking the UBC Thunderbirds from 1996 through 2000. But now, as he gets set to begin his fourth season as the program’s head coach, Olson marvels at how technology has altered the way the game is taught.

      Back in his playing days, Olson spent hours each week poring over grainy game film on VHS machines, the only option available to him being to pause the tape if he saw something he wanted to have a closer look at.

      That seems so primitive now.

      Today, Olson and his T-Bird quarterbacks still fill their time studying film, but they do so aided by all the modern trappings.

      “There have definitely been advancements—the high-definition cameras, the amount of film, the editing programs that can break down not only games, but practice film, too,” Olson tells the Straight in a telephone interview from his office on the Point Grey campus, days before the Thunderbirds were to open training camp for the 2013 season. “There are so many different editing programs, which are the keys to showing players what we want from them. The quality of film is better and the amount of film is way more, but the way you can work with the film once you have it in your computer is probably the area that coaching has advanced the most.”

      With a staff of two year-round assistants and two others who are full-time during football season, plus a number of part-time helpers, Olson has plenty of eyes and ears to help him prepare his players. But he also leans heavily on the high-tech side of the game and the gadgets available to him.

      For example, Olson is able to watch and edit game film on his laptop. And with a couple of keystrokes and the click of a mouse, he can deliver individual critiques or game plans—complete with accompanying video—directly to a player’s inbox. If he’s got something he thinks the whole team needs to view, he can quickly get it into the hands of his entire roster.

      “We will routinely prepare cutups for our players—basically, snippets of what we want them to see and do,” he explains. “And now, as a coach, you can draw on the film itself, so you can highlight things and point out the things that are important.”

      By using digital technology in this manner, Olson is able to provide his players with a better understanding of what the coach is looking for when they step onto the practice field. That, in turn, allows Olson to use his teaching time more effectively each week to get players ready for their next opponent.

      While the games are still won or lost on the field, Olson believes that effectively harnessing the knowledge available to him and employing it as a teaching aide makes him a better coach and that, in turn, will improve his football team.

      This is the information age, and it’s a far cry from the limited resources Olson had during his playing days.

      “Today we have sideline and end-zone views of every single play, we have data on the screen telling us the down and distance, we’re able to sort and cut things and create a story line with all of our film equipment,” he says. “Back when I was playing, really all you could do with VHS tape was to watch it in its entirety.”

      Mobile devices have had a revolutionary impact by enabling coaches to take all of the equipment being used today on the road. In the past, coaches and players had access to resources during the weeks they were at home, but had almost none of those toys when they travelled.

      Now, all of the work can be stored on laptops, tablets, and even smartphones. And instead of wasting time in airports and on team flights, coaches like Olson can get work done wherever they are.

      “Football is a stop-and-start sport; it lends itself to being broken down the way it is today,” Olson says of the need to be on the cutting edge. “It’s cool and it’s a neat thing to be a part of. It’s one of the reasons I love football and one of the main reasons I love coaching is that real strategic element from the sidelines and from the people organizing the team.”

      Coming off a 2-6 season a year ago, Olson and his Thunderbirds have their work cut out for them heading into the new Canada West Universities Athletic Association season, which kicks off August 31 at home against Calgary.

      But the coach is optimistic that his program is headed in the right direction.

      “I think we’ll be competitive,” Olson says. “We had a young team last year that went through some lumps and have come out on the other side better for it. We added some guys at key spots that should be able to help us right now. I think we’ll be a solid team.”

      The T-Birds expect to get a sense of where they stand once the season gets under way. However, Olson wants to make sure that no team is more ready for each game this year than his UBC Thunderbirds. Olson has come a long way since his playing days at UBC, and so have the tools of the trade.