There are many skills and traits utilized for evaluating athletes, but they have never been reliable indicators. That is why unrecruited players like JJ Watt can become All-Pro’s in the NFL and why, just yesterday, Trent Brown, four years after a 7th round pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, became the highest paid offensive lineman ever. While exceptions like this will occur, one athletic trait -- an athlete’s ability to stay healthy on the field or court -- can often make the difference between a successful season as well as a productive professional career.
Former NFL safety Brian Dawkins phrased it best and most efficiently when he stated "The best ability is availability" in 2014. While many advancements had occurred prior to 2014, there has been an avalanche of new technology over the past five years and many professional and collegiate teams are now more accepting of data-driven models focused on preventing injuries.
In just the past two weeks, the San Diego Padres and the Philadelphia Phillies have awarded contracts for $300 million and $330 million, respectively, for 10 years and 13 years apiece to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper. The 2020s decade hasn’t even begun, but the Phillies will be paying Harper over $25 million per year through 2032, no matter if he plays 162 games each year or 0. While Harper is a generational talent and certainly worthy of a significant commitment, it is easy to see why the Phillies. and teams in similar situations, with high-priced stars, are putting greater focus on their players’ health, as it will significantly impact their ability to field a competitive team.
In response, a few companies have been able to enter the space. One of the most successful has been Menlo Park, Calif. based Sparta Science. Sparta has raised $9.7 million in funding and has worked with the NBA’s Cleveland Cavaliers and MLB’s Colorado Rockies on injury prevention efforts. Sparta has also worked with the 49ers and the Detroit Lions and began working with the Steelers last summer. The Steelers utilized Sparta’s software throughout the season, garnering good reviews from Garrett Giemont and the Steelers’ strength and conditioning coaching staff.
“Our partnership with Sparta Science will help us toward our ultimate goal of better achieving and monitoring performance as well as prescribing and tracking rehabilitation to help keep our athletes on the field,” Garrett Giemont, strength and conditioning coordinator for the Steelers, said in a prepared statement.
The goal for any team using Sparta Science is injury prevention. Using a force-plate system that records 3,000 data points per second, the recorded information is processed to create a Movement Signature. Depending on the sport and the position the athlete plays, this produces a specialized training program that can be tailored to their specific needs and skill set to keep them healthy and in peak condition.
The force plate system accounts for three subsections of the test; a jump test, a balance test, and a plank test, which collectively provides data points for a full accounting of a player’s current condition and risk for injury. Sparta uses an artificial intelligence and machine learning system that allows its software to search its database of over 850,000 athletes’ assessments and player examination readings in order to provide exercises that can assist in preventing injuries that might otherwise have manifested.
"I think the biggest value of the Spart Science system is being able to identify the risk of injury and then identify the best way to address it," Sparta Science CEO Phil Wagner told me. "Whether it is more rest or more of a workload is something that needs to be addressed for each player individually as well as best practices in terms of talent evaluation. Every team in their evaluation process will factor in these potential issues in the selection process."
Sparta has begun to shift into the general fitness market, but its core business remains working with elite athletes, as well as with the military on injury prevention in combat settings. In addition to the teams already mentioned the 10-year old company is also working with Stoke City of the English Premier League and NCAA athletic departments.
Technology is making an undeniable difference in how every component of a professional or collegiate team operates. In our interview, Wagner also mentioned the occasional push back from training staffs, often motivated by concerns that deploying systems like Sparta could eventually replace them. But no matter how good the software is, Sparta views itself as a complementary component to the trainers who know how to use and implement it for training regiments. With world-class athletes having access to world-class technology-driven injury prevention techniques, the Phillies might just be able to count on 40-year Bryce Harper to have a productive 2032 season, at the end of his contract!