Connor Orr – Utopia, as Phil Wagner sees it, is a world where those who play sports professionally can take their broken bones, tweaked muscles and recovering bodies to a place resembling a pharmacy specializing in ailing athletes.
There, they’ll be prescribed something far more specific than the series of general preventative movements, ice and rest. It will be an action plan down to the effort, time and frequency of the stretches. It will be free of guesswork, able to save seasons, prolong careers and free players from days needlessly lost to injury.
You can dream like this when you have millions of impressions’ worth of data logged in a cloud that stores injury-risk assessment scores from athletes, military members and other hobbyists from around the country, as well as their own personal data and treatment plans. Wagner works with dozens of NCAA programs across multiple sports. He has his Sparta force plate technology in at least a handful of NFL training rooms—the Steelers, Ravens, Lions and Washington among them. They are also a mainstay at the NFL scouting combine during centralized medical testing. High school and youth sports programs are beginning to popularize the use of his technology.
Players jump on square plates connected to a centralized data hub and are instantly provided with scores that measure their load force (bending down to begin the jump), explode force (converting from the bended-knee stage into the jump) and their drive (the force with which they can come through the jump and into the air). From those scores, it can be determined if the user is exerting too much of a certain muscle, is weak at another or, inevitably, if they are at a heightened risk of injury in a certain area. The data provides a risk assessment score to trainers as well.
“We need to find the heart rate of movement,” Wagner, the company’s founder and CEO, a former collegiate football player who struggled with nagging injuries himself, says. “Something we can base decisions off. We want to establish that. Be the hub of all the different spokes. What exercises do you do? How much sleep should you get? How hard do you need to practice?”
While Wagner is not the first person in the world of health and injury prevention to catch the critical eyes of both cash-armed venture capitalists (Forbes reported in January that Sparta raised almost $16 million before the pandemic, bringing their total to over $25 million) and teams hoping to gain an edge on the field, he may be one of the best positioned to corner the market. His clients range from team trainers who use it as a complementary tool to absolute evangelists who believe that Sparta is the future of sports science and medicine, a salve for an industry constantly searching for better ways to protect and lengthen the careers of athletes who have become multimillion-dollar investments.
While he did not mention Sparta specifically, Texans general manager Nick Caserio said at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference this year that force plate technology, like the kind Wagner’s company wields, represents the most significant room for organizational growth on the analytical front over the next five years. Wagner says that one of their clients, the Colorado Rockies, once hid their Sparta system from a camera crew working on an all-access documentary in fear that other teams would find out about it (a Rockies spokesperson did not respond to an email seeking comment).
The world of Sparta and the idea of how predictive and proactive we can become with player health are worth examining. How far away are we from teams’ drafting players who are a ticking time bomb of injuries becoming a thing of the past? How long before we can see a tangible limit to the kinds of preventable, soft-tissue injuries that plague so many of the sport’s best players? At what point does the ageless Tom Brady become less of an outlier, as more and more players are armed with high-quality, customized data pertaining to their own health?
Wagner laughs when asked about the difference between now and utopia. When it comes to player health today, how often are we still just stabbing in the dark?
“When aren’t we stabbing in the dark?” he asks.
Garrett Giemont has been the Steelers’ conditioning coordinator since 2007 and has been a trainer or strength and conditioning coach in the NFL since 1970. If there is a sober, utopia-free analysis of what Sparta provides right now, he is in the best position to do so, having weathered countless industry fads that predate Gatorade.
In essence, he likes Sparta as a tool to get baseline information on all of his players, a set of scores that he can compare them against after future workouts. Force plate technology, and the act of players jumping on these squares to generate metrics, are decades old. The difference with Sparta is that the comparative pool is much larger; the metrics have been simplified “and given a purpose over a broad spectrum of people. In other words, a football coach can get excited about Sparta, and not just a strength and conditioning coach talking about force plate metrics, which you then have to systematically break down and formulate,” Giemont says.
Basically, there is one number that everyone understands. The team’s recovery staff, strength and conditioning staff and coaching staff all know what a rise or dip in the metrics means, and how it affects them individually. This is surprisingly radical to those who don’t understand how difficult it is for a football team to balance all aspects of their operation when it comes to their players.
Giemont says that when he gets a new player via free agency or the draft, he normally refers to the process as “cleanup on aisle six” because “it’s a little bit like working in a grocery store when someone knocks down all the pasta sauce.” Sparta helps him get a picture of where the player is at, and a calculable window of where he can get to before the season starts.
“If I could see in the future I’d just get every lottery number correct,” he says. “Where I’ll go with this is that I know there are certain things, certain numbers that need to be correct with the Sparta software and if there are some numbers that are off, it’s going to behoove us to rectify the negative numbers, maintain the positive numbers and create a better-balanced athlete and football player.”
In Giemont’s eyes, at its most valuable, this is a tool that serves as a neutral arbiter between forces that can sometimes spin in varying directions. There is the trainer supplying medical advice, and the player either not wanting to do the rigorous exercises to strengthen nonglamourous posterior chain muscles, or a player who has a strong relationship with a personal trainer outside the building. Sparta, in its quest for hard, objective data, is the middleman—the evidence as to why something is working or not working.
“It creates part of the equation,” Giemont says. “You can make sure that people away from the facility are getting done what we need to get done. If they did it? Kudos to them. Thumbs up. If they didn’t, you can make the adjustments, which is the key to the difference between being good and great.”
When asked to look forward to utopia—specifically, when asked where this could all be going—Giemont flinches. If there’s a machine that can tell us all of this stuff now, and plans on telling us even more in the future as it learns more about the athletes that jump on its force plates (including an objective score that can assess a player with the accuracy of a lab blood test), what becomes of the modern NFL training staff? How much of what we’ve been doing for years goes by the wayside, archaic litter resembling the dusty pro-style playbooks that were all chucked into the dumpster back in the early 2010s?
Do we need to force draft prospects to risk injury doing 40-yard dashes and bench presses when GPS tracking data and force plate technology could provide a much clearer, more objective picture of a player’s individual health and ability? Could it ever replace the combine?
“No. No. No. No. No,” Giemont says. “And that’s O.K. It continues to give you incredibly valuable information. But it’s a tool, another piece of information. The thing you can’t measure is what’s inside a man. We’re blessed to be living in a time where one individual shows us that.”
The individual Giemont is referring to? Tom Brady. He was at Brady’s infamous combine workout back in 1999, when the player who would become the most dominant in NFL history showed up as a middling, doughy prospect worthy of a sixth-round pick.
“In our game, he has been the lead dog in that. If you look at his combine picture and if you watch his running and jumping ability—and I know because I was there—and if you look at the other things he presented to everyone at that point in time, it was what it was. Fast forward 21 years and tell me how it looks. Just having numbers and tools and tests and all of those things still can’t try what’s inside a man.”
His opinion represents what is essentially a trifold dividing line among NFL staffers when it comes to player health.
On the far right, there are teams who are doing things the way they have always done it. Most, if not all, NFL teams utilize force plate technology. Some prefer to keep their data in house and compare it against prior data that they’ve culled from their own players, which gives them a limited sample size. In the middle, there are teams investing heavily in technology like Sparta, believing that the near future is in maximizing these numbers and rounding out the athletes into more complete players. Then, at the far left of the ideological spectrum are those who are viewing Sparta and similar products as a small part of a more holistic, whole body and mind experience.
As Giemont noted, there probably isn’t a device in the world that could have told him that, as he watched a 22-year-old Tom Brady jump and swat at a bar to determine his vertical leaping ability, his future commitment to understanding his personal health and fitness would redefine the NFL as we know it.
How do we get there? How do we create that?
Matt Long was a Major League Baseball player struggling with injuries when an old hitting coach led him to Sparta’s sports performance center out in California, then in its infancy back in the early 2010s. Wagner had him jump on his force plates; five minutes later, he came back with a guess about Long’s career that stopped the player in his tracks.
“He said, ‘Well, from this I can tell you’re fast and quick, but that you’ve had a lot of hamstring issues in your life,’ ” Long says. “I had always had hamstring issues. I also had shoulder surgery in high school, and that same movement signature that I displayed on that scan was also predictive of shoulder injuries.”
He had been tested and assessed countless times in his career, but this was the first time data was being used to arm him with information, and not just discount him from something.
A weight room in a typical baseball locker room at the time was just a whiteboard with workouts specific to different position groups, regardless of whether one pitcher was tall and lanky and maybe another was short and pear-shaped. Shortstops punching line drives through the infield and home run-dependent first basemen were largely asked to do the same things.
After being converted to a utility player with the Angels—which meant time spent both in the infield and outfield—he’d also developed plantar fasciitis that was so nagging he would have to rest his feet on the ground before climbing out of bed. An orthopedist recommended surgery, or simply letting it rupture with a 50-50 chance it would be pain-free.
Wagner, having looked at Long’s movement signature, recommended eliminating any workouts that generated force into the ground. That meant no sprinting and jumping. Focusing on soft tissue work to break up the scar tissue. No surgery. No rupture.
Two months later, ahead of spring training, Long sprinted for the first time in two months and says he recorded his fastest times ever. He also logged a career high in stolen bases that year. He played the season without injury and, following his retirement, immediately became Sparta’s director of marketing. “It changed my life,” Long says.
This is, ultimately, what Wagner hopes to get across. Teams treating one mammoth left tackle with a hamstring injury like another left tackle they had previously with a hamstring injury are simply costing themselves time and money. Wagner believes Sparta can help point you in a more precise direction.
Utopia, whenever we get there, will involve an incredibly deep understanding of every player on an individual level. At some point, the idea of force plates to determine movement deficiencies will evolve into anything and everything. Vitamin intake. Sleep. Stress. Diet. Maybe then we can start to understand the switch that flips inside a person’s head and produces another Brady—a world where the outliers become common.
But in the meantime, they are telling anyone and everyone who will listen that it’s one step closer.