According to a leading sports physician, the Sixers could benefit greatly by rethinking how they train.
With the amount of lip service paid to the gestalt of team sports—the way units mesh, the interactions, the granular “how this piece complements this one” analysis—it’s easy to lose sight of a plain fact: basketball teams are comprised of players. And when your five are better than the other guy’s five…well, the other guys better have a powerful gestalt working in their favor.
“People are always looking for the next hot thing,” exercise scientist Dr. Philip Skiba told me at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference earlier this month. “But they’re neglecting the most basic thing, which is the athlete. This is the machine that’s going to perform for you. Optimize that.”
Skiba says he can optimize it. 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.
But despite these remarkable benefits, Skiba says professional sports organizations have been slow to embrace smarter practice. Practice schedules are determined largely by intuition, and given that most coaches don’t have exercise physiology degrees, it’s not even particularly well-informed intuition.
“Intuition is important.” Skiba admitted. “But, in something like this, using real analytics you can get above intuition. You can inform your intuition as a coach. ‘We probably need to rest him for two or three days.’ Well, is it two or three or four or five? We can tell you exactly.”
Smarter practice can reduce injury risk as well.
“[This predicts injury] very well. When you watch these curves.”—he referenced a power point that showed the ebb and flow of an endurance athlete’s performance based on exhaustion—“They’re very powerful when you look at past performance or past injuries. We can direct training so we don’t push athletes past a problematic point.”
Imagine if you were a mid-tier team considering rolling the dice on a center with a history of crippling knee injuries. Something like that might be useful, right?