During a Tuesday morning breakfast in a South Philly diner with a handful of bloggers, Sam Hinkie was asked if the Sixers had become a client of Catapult Sports—the biometric data measuring company forward thinking teams like the Mavericks, Spurs, and, of course, the Rockets have been using to measure workload on individual players with an eye on reducing injuries and improving fitness. He was unequivocal.
“Every player has worn it in our gym every day since I’ve been here,” he said.
The company—founded in 2006 by scientists from the heralded Australian Institute of Sport (where, by tremendous coincidence, coach Brett Brown cut his teeth)—uses small sensors (small enough to fit unobtrusively under a jersey) to track player movement during practices and scrimmages. Over time, using Catapult, an NBA team can collect enough data on each individual player to build a tailor-made training program for him. For example: if James Andersen usually accelerates at 2.5 m/s/s, but today is only at 2.0 m/s/s, the 76ers could interpret this as a sign that he’s overworked and—rather than keep him out there, exposing him to injury—rest him.
“You get a lot of data back on player’s particular workload that day,” Hinkie explained. “How efficiently they move. You get some sense of their conditioning. An objective look at their conditioning level. The amount of load on their body. The amount of load on the team overall. It can allow you to sort of dial up or down practice intensity and dial up or down conditioning for each player. You can even segment and go dial up or down each drill.”
Dr. Philip Skiba, an exercise scientist, touted the benefits of programs like Catapult at the 2013 Sloan Sports and Analytics Conference. He said that for endurance athletes, like basketball players, the potential impact is vast:
The doctor claims—with bales of data at his back—that with a few tweaks to individual training schedules, teams can radically improve the performances of their players.
Here’s how. Basketball players are complex individual physical systems. Each has his own distinct biology, blood chemistry, eating habits, etc And each, accordingly, has his own natural exercise/rest/recovery cycle. Jrue Holiday might play his best basketball when he practices on Monday and Tuesday, takes Wednesday and Thursday off, then resumes work on Friday and Saturday. Thad Young might be from heartier physiological stock, and actually benefit from a more rigorous schedule. The point is, they’re each unique, and to treat them as some monolith in the ostensible interest of the team only dims their individual abilities, and in doing so handicaps the group.
Skiba says the answer is a more individualized practice schedule. While players are wildly different from one other, each has a relatively consistent individual exercise/rest/recovery response. If Dorell Wright plays his best basketball 21 days after peak training, and reaches this peak by working hard for three days, then cycling off for two, he will tend to continue this. Like speed, or leaping ability, this cycle is a relatively stable feature of Dorell Wright. It’s easy to identify too. Skiba says that if he can measure various performance markers over a couple months of training and at least six performances—basically slap some stickers on Wright and record his readings—he can get a very accurate beat on what a player’s exercise schedule should be.
According to Skiba, the results of an optimized schedule are tremendous and endurance athletes, like NBA players, are generally the most responsive. The doc says the archetypal example of the efficacy of his program is Joanna Zeiger, a triathlete who bettered her time by 20 to 25 percent and set a world record at age 38 after embracing his methods
While Hinkie said that Catapult has not yet had a major effect on the training schedule the team imposes on its players—just four weeks in, the Sixers are mostly “squirreling away data” and, using both Catapult’s data management tools and its own, studying it—the GM was quick to paint a picture of how he plans to integrate exercise science into his program.
“[Let’s say] we do that drill. It’s the equivalent of a 10k. That’s really a lot of pounding. It’s a hardwood floor, it’s a lot of pounding on our guys. So you would do that, but you would say, let’s not do that if we just played the Knicks last night. Or, if we did that Monday and Wednesday, let’s not do that on Friday.”
So Sam Hinkie is using the best available science to make decisions about his basketball team–to build not just a better roster but a better athlete. Things really have changed in Philadelphia, huh?