Earlier this year, at a football stadium in Orange County, fifteen NFL hopefuls were suited up in pads, helmets, and yards of athletic tape.
They also had on some less familiar gear that day: several body sensors and the Zephyr BioHarness, a chest-strap that monitors heart and breathing rate, posture, and GPS. The players were being watched carefully by researchers from USC’s Center for Body Computing and by reps from a California startup called Proactive Sports Performance. The purpose of the sensors was to measure strength, speed, and conditioning, and then find ways to improve them.
The ultimate goal was to assess the most important metric of the NFL combine: the 40-yard dash, and specifically the g-force attained in the first 10 yards. Proactive founder Ryan Capretta calls the first two steps of the dash the most valuable stat in the league.
By studying player mechanics with the aim of improving flexibility and better activating the right muscles, experts like Capretta, formerly a strength and speed coach for the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals, and before that Stanford University, will advise them on what exercises to focus on in the weight room, and which parts of the body to hone. From there, he says, “genetics take over.” Getting better results on the field determines just how big a payday players can expect. When a tenth of a second can decide a player’s draft status, that makes for a multi-million-dollar difference. So far, Capretta’s gotten good results. His clients are a who’s who of past and present stars: Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, Emmitt Smith, Kurt Warner. (And also, it must be said, Nick Swisher.)
Capretta admits it’s tough to get athletes to feel comfortable wearing sensors, but once they realize the advantage, they’re hooked. “If we can show them this is why your time was good, this is why your time was bad, that gets the buy in.”
After six weeks of training, all 15 athletes in the combine program improved their first and second step g-force by a factor of nearly 1.5. One of the 2010 program’s most notable participants, C.J. Spiller, was later selected in the first round of the draft, and became a starter as a rookie.
With a market cap of $46 billion, the NFL is a huge business. Despite a stormy season that resulted in abysmal PR, the league remains the goliath of American sports. And yet, the average career of an NFL player is a meager three seasons. That forces many of them to look for myriad ways to boost their longevity and hype their stock. Human growth hormones, deer antler spray, and steroids, are routinely taken to reduce pain or improve production. All those are banned substances, and their long term impact on the body is questionable. So the new methods are welcome, potent, and, perhaps best of all, legal.
The Illinois-based sports data company Stats works with the NBA to measure every movement players make on-court. The gathered “event data” includes dribbling, passing, and shooting. Those skills are then mapped in reports displaying the moving dots of players. The reports are owned by the NBA and Stats The goal is to make players better, more durable, and healthier by allowing coaches and trainers to track their movements and monitor workloads.
Beyond team sports, Fortune 500 companies like Red Bull and Skullcandy have built similar programs to train military personnel, Olympians, and extreme athletes. These companies face the same problem as Proactive: convincing set-in-their-ways top performers–be they QBs or CEOs–of their effectiveness. The way to do that lies in turning numbers into easy-to-digest ideas, then tailoring them to team routines. When he was Nike Digital Sport’s general manager, current Skullcandy CEO Hoby Darling was part of a team that installed pressure sensors in shoes, in order to evaluate knee and ankle pressure, and to see how fast a player can pivot.
“The first thing Kobe Bryant said was ‘hey it’s cool you can tell me how high I can jump, but this could change my career if you could tell me the load on my knees,’” recalls Darling.
Paul Robbins, Stats’s director of elite performance, echoes that it’s all about helping athletes find the best training. Robbins’ company fits players with sensors to track how much they sleep, what they eat, and how that affects their game. It can feel quite intrusive to sleep with a sensor on, but monitoring heart rate helps determine the impact of high-level activity over time. Robbins says this data lets organizations grasp a player’s movement over an entire season, which can also help avoid injuries.
“We’re not trying to focus on one game,” Robbins says. “We’re trying to focus on the whole season, and how do we peak. There were some things San Antonio did last year that you can tell they were peaking at the end of the season.”
But some players can be difficult to convince. Robbins says there are three types of NBA athletes: “Older guys trying to stay in [the league], younger guys trying to get in”–those two are easier to convince, because they’re more concerned with money–and third, the players in the middle, the tough sells. “They think that they know everything, so it’s more of a team buy in.”
In that last case, what can these companies do to convince stubborn stars?
“It’s like having millions of pairs of eyes on every single game,” says Rajiv Maheswaran, the cofounder and CEO of Second Spectrum, a company that maps game analytics for the NBA. “If you can convince coaches your dots are as good as their eyes, you can make a really big difference.”