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Bionic Ballplayers

How sports science is helping professional athletes raise their performance

Author Joe DeLessio Illustration Greg Mably

tech copy “Gentlemen, we can rebuild him. … Better, stronger, faster.” These words famously introduced the 1970s TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man,” but they could just as easily be the motto for a field that is becoming increasingly influential in the world of athletics: sports science. Take the case of Kyle Korver. In 2008, the 27-year-old member of the NBA’s Utah Jazz was fighting injuries that he worried might cut his career short. The Jazz sent him, along with several other players, to the P3 training facility in Santa Barbara, California. Using a system of cameras, along with force plates built into the floor to measure pressure, P3—which has worked with nearly 150 NBA players, including All-Star Dwight Howard, and now evaluates all incoming rookies—showed Korver that he had serious flaws in his body mechanics that were wearing down his left knee and in turn causing problems with his hip and back. Korver’s trainers designed a program to correct these issues. Suddenly, he found himself able to move equally well in either direction and better able to create separation between himself and defenders. From 2012 to 2014, as a member of the Atlanta Hawks, Korver set a record with 127 straight games with a three-pointer. “I feel way better at 33 than I did at 23,” Korver says now. “Sports science has grown dramatically the last few years. There’s a huge advantage for you. As a player, if you can add three or four years to your career, that is a ton of money.” That certainly proved true for Korver. In July 2013, the Hawks signed him to a four-year contract for $24 million—making him a Six Million Dollar (per year) Man. Korver is just one of the many athletes who are using science to better their games. Thanks to advances in technology, players and teams all over the sports world now have access to mounds of real-time data that measure everything from heart rate to brain activity to the force of each step they take. The goal is not just to improve performance but to avoid injuries. In particular, P3’s 3-D motion analysis lab—where Korver got his diagnosis—aims to catch health issues before they surface. “It takes all the guesswork out of whether a player is going to wear down his body,” says Dr. Marcus Elliott, P3’s founder. Teams understand the benefits as well. “If you’ve just invested $70 million in this player, and it’s guaranteed money, wouldn’t you want to know everything about him?” Elliott says. P3 can collect some 2,500 data points on an athlete during a training session and can even study the electrical activity in a player’s brain to see how it changes in the face of failure, success or pressure. P3 has fostered relationships with teams in various sports, from MLB’s Seattle Mariners to the NFL’s New England Patriots. And some pro organizations have invested heavily in sports science studies of their own. The NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles, who are secretive about how they use the data they collect, are known to use a number of technologies to study things like heart rate, weight-lifting form and hydration. Among the companies the Eagles have partnered with is Catapult, an Australian business that produces wearable sensors that track athletes’ health and performance in real time. Catapult’s sensor, a device the size of a beeper worn in a compression shirt under the player’s equipment during practice, can track things like orientation, direction and acceleration, and by looking at the data in conjunction with the player’s heart rate can tell how hard he’s working and if he needs a breather. “By building up this data, you’re finding benchmarks and patterns, so you get a better understanding of the individual athlete,” says Boden Westover, the media and marketing manager for Catapult, which counts almost half the NFL, more than a third of the NBA and 19 NCAA programs among its clients. “From there, you can understand when an athlete is approaching risk of injury.” For the past two seasons, D.C. United of Major League Soccer has used a similar system developed by Adidas called miCoach, which was also used by the World Cup champion German national team during training. “It’s hugely important, in terms of giving us immediate feedback as to where a player stands and how he’s recovering from exercise, to make sure we’re not pushing him too hard,” says Adam Rotchstein, D.C. United’s physical preparation coach. Many of the technologies now available to teams didn’t exist a decade ago, but even now, the field remains fluid. “I think we have to be very humble about it, because it’s just the beginning,” says Dr. Leslie Saxon, the executive director of the USC Center for Body Computing. Saxon says that the “holy grail” is being able to accurately predict problems with an individual’s body, much as a car can diagnose its own problems. Saxon says she’s intrigued by tiny devices that can be injected under the skin to monitor someone 24 hours a day, tracking sleep, EKG and respiratory rate. Already in use for heart patients, these could be a boon to pro athletes. She also points to body tattoos made of ultrathin flexible electronics that adhere to the skin and can monitor hydration. And some NBA teams are becoming increasingly interested in devices that can monitor the sleep patterns of players. This all may sound a bit creepy, and there are privacy concerns with so much personal data being collected—especially as more invasive biometric technologies are developed and teams become more interested in tracking athletes’ bodies around the clock. But at this point, proponents are focusing on the benefits. “If I were a player,” says Saxon, “I’d look at it as a way to make me better and keep me out there longer. I’m very aspirational about it. If you approach it that way, good things will happen.” Joe Delessio covers sports for New York magazine’s website. He’d totally wear an electronic tattoo if it would improve his softball game.

One Response to “Bionic Ballplayers”

  1. Sandy Says:
    January 24th, 2015 at 10:30 am

    Nice read on Kyle Korver!

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