Putting elite athletes under the microscope
I am happy to report that there is one current National Basketball Association player whose vertical leap is less inspiring than my own. I had just finished a physical assessment at Peak Performance Project, a training center and sports science lab in Santa Barbara, California, that has studied the biomechanics of nearly half of all current NBA players as well as many other professional athletes, and I was hunting for the smallest of silver linings. Under the glare of several 3-D motion cameras, I stood on a pair of force plates and exploded toward an imaginary rim.
The results were humbling. I’ve never dunked on a regulation rim, so I had no illusions about my vertical. Still, my 18 inches were half of what Minnesota Timberwolves forward Andrew Wiggins recorded — 36 inches — at the center. As an ex–college tennis player who still plays competitively, albeit at 41 years of age, I thought I’d perform better at lateral jumps. Victória Azárenka, the 27-year-old who is the number-12-ranked women’s tennis player in the world, generated about 25 percent more force than I did when the center calibrated her jumps.
Simply measuring athletic performance is not the purpose of Peak Performance Project (commonly known as P3). “A bunch of Harvard scientists can’t just ask LeBron James or Chris Paul to come in for some tests and they’ll somehow show up,” said founder Marcus Elliott. “Pro athletes need something in return. We study their biomechanics and generate individualized training programs, not only to help them perform better but to prevent injuries.”
Elliott is tall and lean, with wavy brown hair and a chiseled jaw. At 51, he looks more like a Patagonia model than the Harvard Medical School graduate he is. Elliott founded the company in 2006 after a peripatetic few years when he preached his innovative ideas about training to various professional organizations. His medical school classmates snickered, and sports trainers were initially unreceptive. “An early presentation was at the annual meeting of Major League Baseball’s strength coaches,” he told me in his spare office above the workout area. “I shared all my data, just giving it to them for free, and demonstrated better ways to train rotational athletes, which is what baseball players are. As I looked into the eyes of the audience, I could tell a number of the old guard just hated me.”
This was the dawn of the sports analytics movement, popularized by the Michael Lewis baseball book (and movie) Moneyball, when only a few team executives had figured out there were other metrics, better metrics, than those offered up in newspaper box scores to evaluate players being paid many millions of dollars to get to first base or snag a rebound. It only made sense to pour the same analytical resources into player health. Elliott’s data-driven approach to training eventually piqued the curiosity of the New England Patriots and the Seattle Mariners, who signed him as baseball’s first sports science director. By the time he started P3, Elliott had forged relationships with teams, agents, and players, who would train during the off-season in Santa Barbara.
So how does it work? I performed just three exercises in ten minutes in a small corner of the gym, which doesn’t look like most gyms. There’s no row of Nautilus machines that isolate your pectorals or inner thighs, no semicircle of stationary bikes or even a single bench press. Yes, there are weights, Olympic bars, squat racks, and plyometric boxes, but there are even more industrial rubber bands, and most of all an empty floor to allow bodies to move freely under close inspection.
The athletes who come to P3 typically undergo two-hour assessments and, unlike me, wear nodes all over their bodies to better track their skeletal movements. The staff often uncovers surprising results. Take New York Knicks All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony. Like many NBA players, he can soar upwards of 12 feet. “But really, how often do the few players who can jump that high do it in a game anyway?” asked P3’s director of operations, Adam Hewitt. “Once or twice?” Anthony’s remarkable feat is how fast he can jump to 10 feet 6 inches. Of the hundreds of NBA athletes the center has tested, Anthony is in the top ten for this category, which helps explain the ease with which he gets off contested jump shots.
Even though my assessment was cursory, when I joined P3’s Eric Leidersdorf, a Stanford biomechanics grad, behind the computer, he had a lot to show me. When I jumped, I generated more force from my right leg, which made sense to me; I had a history of left knee and heel pain and was compensating by overloading on my sturdier limb. “It’s not so exaggerated that it’s likely to lead to serious injury, but it’s something to watch,” Leidersdorf said, pointing to a graph that tracked each leg’s power output. Also, my leaping posture was not ideal. My shoulders and chest were hunched — “not uncommon for people who spend a lot of time in front of computers,” Leidersdorf said.
Professional athletes pay as much as $5,000 per week to receive a more rigorous assessment, which involves many hours of number crunching and personal training. Leidersdorf pulled up footage of Azárenka, who came to the center in 2015 after missing much of the previous two seasons with leg and foot injuries. Watching slow-motion footage of Azárenka jumping and an accompanying skeletal simulation, Leidersdorf pointed out that her knees buckled inward to an alarming degree upon landing. “We worked on that and some other bad tendencies,” he said.
Of course, no series of exercises can bulletproof the body. Azárenka, for instance, withdrew from Wimbledon last year with a knee injury. In contact sports like football, the physics of collisions guarantees that there will be no end to dislocated shoulders, ruptured knees, and worse. But pro sports have bought into P3’s preventative and rehabilitative philosophy. The NBA has invited the firm to its pre-draft combine for the past few years — the data it collects is given to the players, who can then share it with their team’s training staff. Next year, the company will open a second location alongside the Atlanta Hawks’ practice facility in partnership with Emory University, and it’s forging partnerships with top European soccer clubs. Meanwhile, more teams have hired sports science specialists and invested in force plates and other analytic technologies, and several competitors to P3 have emerged, such as Kansas-based Dynamic Athletics Research Institute and even sport-specific ones like Driveline Baseball near Seattle.
Despite the early hostility of old-timer strength coaches, Elliott said his field is largely collegial and pointed out that a few days before my visit Driveline staffers had dropped by to compare notes. He also would like to see sports science reach everyday athletes, many of whom are stuck in Jersey Shore–style gyms and the one-size-fits-all cult of CrossFit. P3 has a research space that’s being used to develop affordable video and analytics technology that could provide basic corrective instruction along the lines of what I received. Still, transparency has its limits. The staff wouldn’t tell me the identity of the NBA player who couldn’t match my 18-inch vertical. They divulged only that he was a 7-footer, reminding me that when it comes to sports, genetics often prevails.