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Finding the swing

Photos by Mark Stone / University of Washington

Sam Kolovson rowing on a lake

Former competitive rower Sam Kolovson has integrated her passions for sports and research through a project that aims to improve how college athletic programs use tracking technology.

In rowing, the feeling of being in nearly perfect synchronization is referred to as “swing” — everyone moves in unison, and the boat glides steadily, gracefully at top speed between the pulls of the oars. It requires determination and dedication for a team to achieve swing. It hinges on balance: If one rower pulls too hard or another falls out of rhythm, swing is broken.

Human Centered Design & Engineering (HCDE) doctoral student Samantha (Sam) Kolovson understands this well. As an undergraduate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she competed on the NCAA Division I Women’s Rowing Team while pursuing her bachelor’s degree in computer science. To do both well, she says, required balance.

Kolovson has maintained a focus on balance in her research at the UW, where she’s exploring how tracking technology and data are used in college sports. Increasingly, college athletic programs are using wearable devices like Fitbits and WHOOP bands that can monitor students’ steps, heart rates and sleep to keep their athletes competitive and healthy. However, Kolovson and her research team were concerned about the effect this could have on college athletes’ privacy. So they’ve been working with athletes and coaching staff to better understand the implications of relying on tracking data and identify how to design more equitable tracking systems.

The College of Engineering’s Chelsea Yates recently spoke with Kolovson about this research and how being a student-athlete helped set her up for success in it.

Sam Kolovson holding an oar on her shoulders

HCDE doctoral student Sam Kolovson

How did you balance being a computer science student and a competitive rower as an undergraduate?

In some ways, rowing and computer science were similar: Each presented me with difficult challenges, and overcoming them was so rewarding. The euphoria of finishing a race made me forget any pain I felt during it; similarly, the excitement of getting code to work made me forget spending an hour on it only to realize I was missing a semicolon.

But as a computer science major, I had tough classes. It was a lot to balance with 20 or so hours of rowing each week. Being a student-athlete provided structure and routine to otherwise loosely structured college life, which helped me plan time to work efficiently. I also spend time with my rowing teammates and friends, which gave me irreplaceable social, emotional and mental balance.

Tell us about your HCDE research. How did you get involved?

HCDE professors Kate Starbird, Sean Munson and David McDonald had begun exploring the use of tracking technology in college athletics before I arrived on campus. But they needed someone to lead it. Kate reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in working with them. Of course I was – I couldn’t believe that an opportunity so aligned with my background and interests could exist!

To build the project, I started by defining research questions. I conducted a literature review, then designed a study and submitted the required paperwork for doing research with human subjects. I set up interviews with coaches and trainers. I also led a directed research group in which HCDE undergraduates and student-athletes worked together to design, conduct and analyze athlete interviews about the use of tracking data. We analyzed and reported on interviews with 11 athletes and 11 staff members from three college athletics programs.

Sam holding two oars on her left shoulder while wearing a tracking device on her wrist

College athletic programs are using wearable devices like Fitbits and WHOOP bands to monitor students’ steps, heart rates and sleep to keep athletes competitive and healthy.

How has your experience as a student-athlete impacted this research?

I can really see both sides of it. I understand how this data can be beneficial, but I also see the potential pitfalls of collecting it. Giving trainers access to a student’s step count, sleep patterns or heart rate can be helpful when an athlete’s recovering from an injury. But it also might feel like an invasion of privacy. This raises questions about power dynamics; in some cases, students may not feel like they have a choice about sharing their data.

Athletic staff feel pressure to use tracker data to get a competitive edge, but this technology is so new that there aren’t any best practices to follow. What our research team hopes to do is help athletic programs and athletes develop ways to use these systems that work for everyone.

What are some of your team’s findings and recommendations so far?

We’ve learned that students aren’t always aware they’re providing data and that staff doesn’t always communicate how they use the data they’ve collected. Also, data alone doesn’t give a full picture of how athletes are feeling. We suggest that pitfalls may be avoided if staff review tracking data with athletes instead of using it privately or with other staff to make decisions, and if athletes have more say over how their data is tracked and used.

What’s one of the biggest challenge in this work?

Being able to communicate our research to academic audiences and college athletic communities alike. The research community is familiar with human-computer interaction, and coaches and athletes know how college sports work, but these groups don’t necessarily understand each other’s worlds. So a lot of what I’m trying to do is translate our findings in ways that makes sense to both.

Learn more

Read more about Sam’s research.

Originally published April 20, 2020