The Washington Redskins have been beaten up on the football field this year. With 10 players on the injured reserve list, and quarterback Case Keenum hobbling on a walking cast after hurting his foot in Monday’s loss to the Chicago Bears, many DC-area fans agree this season is a bit grim.
Despite the setbacks, this week Redskins coaches are testing players to see if they can prevent any more injuries this season. Every player jumps, planks, and balances on a special metal force plate that captures a thousand dynamic movement measurements per second. The data will be fed into a software program that uses machine learning to predict whether a player is more likely to get hurt because of an imbalance in anatomy, such as a tight hip on one side or relatively weaker hamstrings as compared to the quadriceps. “It paints a movement signature of where there are risks and opportunities to improve,” says Phil Wagner, CEO and founder of Sparta Science, which developed the technology.
Wagner says 40 professional sports teams are now using his system, including six in the NFL. He says it can predict the likelihood of elbow injury by, say, analyzing how a baseball pitcher jumps, or identify a vulnerable football lineman with laterally weak knees.
“Offensive linemen do a good job of generating force at the beginning of their movement off the line,” says Wagner, a former collegiate football player who later got a medical degree in sports medicine. But overdeveloped quads can make them prone to knee injuries, which Wagner says Sparta can help spot.
After calculating an individual’s score on the three tests, Wagner says the Sparta Science predictive algorithm can determine if a player might need, for example, to increase the flexibility of his or her joints. The team’s coaches then take the scores and prescribe specific exercises. The Redskins test players each week with the Sparta Science force plate and software program, according to head strength and conditioning coach Chad Englehart.
“It allows us to look at each player from an individual standpoint, at that given time,” Englehart wrote in an email to WIRED. “We look at each player’s load, explode, and drive scores, along with other assessments, to write their weekly individualized programs.”
Englehart says Sparta Science is a useful tool, but it’s hard to tell whether it has reduced overall injuries. “We feel it has made a difference in our strength and conditioning program,” Englehart wrote. “But injuries in football are multi-factorial, and therefore, it’s difficult to say that any assessment alone can predict or help reduce injuries in a contact sport such as football.” Still, he says the data form the tests allow an athlete’s training program to become more personalized than it otherwise would be.
One expert says coaches can’t ignore psychological factors, such as the everyday stress of competition, lack of sleep, or even poor coping strategies, that affect a person’s injury risk. “There is a heavy psychosocial component to injuries,” says Eric Hegedus, an expert on athletes returning from injuries at High Point University, in North Carolina. “How stressed you are, how well you are sleeping, what type of personality you have. Whether you are a perfectionist.” All those factors, he says, show a correlation with injury.
Teasing out the specific weak spots that make an athlete prone to injury takes a lot of time, expertise, and money. But some programs believe the Sparta Science system makes a difference. More than 900 varsity athletes at the University of Pennsylvania, from a number of different sports, are taking the force plate tests this fall. According to Brian Sennett, Penn’s chief of sports medicine, the number of medically diagnosed injuries has dropped by 30 percent among the teams that began using Sparta three years ago. But without a controlled experiment to test the program, it’s impossible to know its precise impact.