When professional sports meet science
“You might be f---ing smart but I f---ing hate you.”
This is part 3 in a series about preventing NBA injuries.
BY HENRY ABBOTT
I just saw a player on YouTube Eurostep through traffic and finish with a dunk. He’s in eighth grade. Next up for him: high school. After that, his odds aren’t good to keep playing. Google tells me only three percent of players progress to play in college. And less than one percent of those college players get to play in the NBA. There are entire U.S. states, with leagues and gyms full of killer prospects, that don’t have a single player in the league today (sorry, South Dakota).
The NBA can sometimes feel something more than elite, almost magical. That’s a big part of what we love about it. By the time you get into the rarified air of the NBA, it’s tempting to believe everything applies differently here—even gravity.
That feeling can mess with your head a bit, though. I remember one of the first times I walked into an NBA locker room. It was the visitor’s locker room, in Philadelphia. Objectively, that place is still shabby, damp, and sweaty—like you took a wrong turn into an airport maintenance area. Painted cinder block walls, a giant pillar in the middle of everything, and echoes and steam streaming out of the adjoining showers.
And, on that day: a folding table like you might expect at an eighth-grade game, covered in snacks. I made a note to myself check out that table. It seemed like the important and professional thing to do. These snacks presumably had been hand-selected by the training staff to fuel the greatest athletes on the planet. I guess my thought was, basically: They must be amazing snacks. Maybe something I should report on.
You know what was on that table? You know what a Bit-O-Honey is? That was one of the things on there. Another: Juicy Fruit gum.
I came away with two key thoughts:
The NBA has the best basketball players: without question.
The NBA has the best of everything: questionable.
I challenge anyone to make the case that Bit-O-Honey has any special qualities to fuel elite athleticism. Other than “honey” in the name—read the ingredients and it’s more corn syrup this, partially hydrogenated that. This was Halloween candy junk food you can get at the dollar store. For most of us, maybe all of us, athletic performance improves when you stop eating stuff like this.
There was no magic on the table. NBA players might do amazing things, but not because of the Bit-O-Honey.
This series is about how sports keep up with science. We tend to assume the league is elite at knowing and ingesting the best research of elite performance. But, there’s a lot of Bit-O-Honey around.
Marcus Elliott earned his M.D. from Harvard Medical School in 1997 and then set off to change the world of sports performance. He worked a bit for the New England Patriots, the Australian Institute of Sport, and the U.S. Olympic training facility. In 2006, he started Peak Performance Project (P3) in what might seem to be one of the worst locations imaginable: Santa Barbara. A stunner of a Pacific beach town, Santa Barbara is at least a couple of hours from the closest professional teams in Los Angeles, depending on traffic. “It was clear to me,” he said, “it would be a great place for my family to be and for me to be. It wasn’t clear that it would be a great place for the business. My mindset is: I want to do this so much I’ll do it that much better so the athletes have to come.”
Elliott built a reputation as a guy with scientific insight who could help elite athletes. By 2009, he found himself behind a lectern in Indianapolis, at Major League Baseball’s winter meetings, addressing a room full of strength and conditioning coaches. Elliott’s message: The science was crystal clear that baseball would benefit from profound training changes.
“I’m coming in with a lot of conviction,” Elliott remembers. A pet hangup: the flush run, a fabled baseball tradition. He asked the group if they had pitchers go for long runs—five miles was common—the day after pitching. The idea is it “flushes” lactic acid from their muscles. As Elliott remembers, just about all the hands went up. In the room were the brains managing the best pitchers of the day: Tim Lincecum, Cliff Lee, and CC Sabathia.
Elliott held out his hand about waist high, and said he had a stack of studies up to there saying they should stop. At once.
He had his reasons. One: Pitchers don’t generate much lactic acid. “Maybe they would,” Elliott jokes, “if they started each pitch at the top of the stadium, and then ran down and threw the ball.” Anyway, lactic acid clears quickly without a run. By the time these legends of pitching were lacing up their running shoes to clear the lactic acid from their muscles, the lactic acid was already gone.
But the biggest reason to lose the flush run is that running five miles makes them less effective at pitching. As Elliott explains it, pitching is about as explosive as athletic movements get. Usain Bolt sprints 100 meters. A pitch, Elliott says, is basically a one-meter sprint. After you reach a certain level of fitness, your job is no longer to just get in better shape. It is to fine-tune your muscles for specific kind of movement. Unlike most people, elite athletes experience a trade-off. When they maximize muscles for endurance, they actually lose explosive potential. “It’s not just not helpful,” Elliott says looking back. “It’s interruptive.” That term hangs in the air a minute before he adds: “that means it’s harmful.” (He co-authored a paper on this.)
As Elliott talked, he assessed the mood of the room: “They hated me. The lasting memory I have—when I describe it, I feel like I’m typecasting—but sitting up at the lectern, looking out, I saw big necks, square shoulders, bald heads. All guys who have more testosterone than is good for them. That was really my indoctrination.”
Here, Elliott lapses into discussion of the social effects of testosterone—making people not only more aggressive, but also more like a wolf pack. Around a wolf pack, it can be bad to stick out. Elliott didn’t just stick out. Intentionally or not, he was picking a fight.
“That evening there was a little mixer, and these guys were like a pack of hyenas. They barely talked to me. I’m the guest, they’re the permanent fixtures. There were clearly a handful of ringleaders. When somebody would come up to me, it was clearly a younger, smarter one, with less years—like doing it against the pack’s wishes. People didn’t want to be seen chatting with the science geek.”
It was cold as hell in Indianapolis that week—highs in the teens. Elliott didn’t really have the right gear with him to work out outside, but went for a run anyway. “I felt kind of dirty,” he remembers. “Cultural whiplash, coming out of five years at Harvard. Such a different culture. In the middle of the run I was astonished at how much these guys didn’t like me. Generally, in my life, people like me. These guys were the direct opposite way. My first instinct was to get away.”
At the time, Elliott was juggling various offers to join MLB teams. In the middle of his run he remembers thinking there was no chance in hell he wanted to work there. Then, Elliott convinced himself the wolf pack’s reaction wasn’t personal. It was scientific: “People are feeling insecure about this earthquake that just went through their world. The more right you are, the bigger the earthquake. I would rather it wasn’t that way. I was bringing science where there had never been science. Felt very Copernicus or something. It felt like I was carrying this torch.”
By the time he got back to the hotel, he had changed his mind. He would sign up with a team: “I was like we gotta go show these guys. Be a beacon. Go do this right.”
He decided that in many ways he was the perfect person to bring innovation to baseball—which he still calls “definitely the dumbest sport”—for a funny reason. Most people who follow the science, he realized, wouldn’t ruffle feathers working for a baseball team because they were too worried about their jobs. As someone with no interest whatsoever in working for a team full-time, Elliott could raise hell. If (or when) he pissed off too many people, he would return to his happy life in Santa Barbara.
In 2010, Elliott became the Seattle Mariners’ director of sports science and performance. In 141 years of major league baseball, no one else had held a title like that. He negotiated the position so it was essentially a part-time job. He could keep running P3, with regular visits to the Mariners.
The Mariners’ season began with spring training in Peoria, Arizona. Lesson one: an MLB team employs an incredible number of people. The director of team travel, the performance specialist, the administrator of player development, the Pacific Rim coordinator … so many people packed the striped green infield of T-Mobile Park.
Elliott’s early interactions with the rank-and-file Mariners employees reminded him of a conference he had gone to at Birmingham’s Andrews Clinic, in 2009. Afterward, a physical therapist friend introduced him to the then-head strength coach at the Diamondbacks. “He shook my hand and said ‘you might be fucking smart but I fucking hate you,’” remembers Elliott. “That was it. That summed up his entire opinion of me.” Elliott doesn’t remember saying a single word in response. “I was too just too floored by it.”
In his early days with the team, Elliott remembered that moment often. Science isn’t welcome everywhere. In a way, it makes sense. If you have a dream career with a good salary that’s based, in part, on convincing pitchers to do flush runs. How would you feel about Marcus freaking Elliott from Harvard? If your team is pivoting to science, how long will they need you?
Meanwhile, Elliott was in a bind. He was there on a mission to deliver the lessons of science to elite athletes. He would honor the legacy of his destroyed knee, and all those long hours at Harvard. He would do something that mattered. “We’re not curing polio here,” he says. “If you can’t make it measurably better, if you can’t really move the needle—what’s the point?”
One of his new bosses cautioned him to go slow—he said it would take a decade to effect real cultural change. “I didn’t have a decade,” he points out. “There were so many obvious things you would do that would unequivocally make it better. The normal routines were violating laws of biomechanics and needed to change. We’re either going to make it better or I’m not wasting my time.”
But looking around T-Mobile Park, this was yet another sunny afternoon—after the day in high school he ruined his knee—that broke Elliot’s heart: “All these middle-aged guys with Dunkin’ Donuts coffee cups, which they were using to spit chew into. They wanted nothing to do with me. I could see it was going to be a struggle.”
He walked into the upper reaches of the stadium, where the green seats were flipped up, unoccupied. “I remember crawling up into the top of the stadium and calling my dad. I called a Catholic priest I’ve been close to for a long time. I just wasn’t sure I could do it.”
“But ultimately, I decided that sports comes down to competition, where somebody is doing their best trying to beat somebody else doing their best. And that battle … that’s pure. And I love that. So I decided to stay.”
Elliott had already negotiated tremendous dominion over the minor leaguers in the system. In the minors, he banned flush runs. He made every workout for every athlete tailored to that individual’s movement patterns. He refocused strength training on rotational movements, mostly by installing all new kinds of equipment. He encouraged careful workouts with overhead weights, which baseball had long treated with superstition. He found some players really benefited, like then-minor-leaguer Kyle Seager, who followed every instruction, quickly had measurable benefits, and plays third base for the Mariners today.
But he faced battles in the major leagues. The Mariners’ Ken Griffey Jr., for instance, responded to Elliott’s arrival by saying he would keep working out how he had before. Griffey missed 129 games that season.
The real immovable rock was the strength coach. Elliott won’t say his name, but you can deduce who it was from that year’s media guide. Elliott told the bosses they should fire him, in no small part because, Elliott says, “he had no academic qualifications for the job whatsoever.”
It came to a head over the high-salaried pitcher Erik Bedard. “Left-handed pitcher, paid a fair amount,” remembers Elliott. “And as he’s coming off elbow and two shoulder surgeries. He was so promising on the mound, but had missed two or three seasons. I saw him getting ready for his third bench press workout of the same week. He was super overdeveloped in his chest and biceps with his knucklehead workout program. His poor posture was putting load on his shoulder and elbow—this wouldn’t help. I laid it out to them. After presenting this, what I got back was: I don’t like people who try to figure things out. That came from the player, but standing next to him was the strength coach who looked very satisfied. It was real jocks vs. nerds stuff.”
That coach would not be fired, Elliott heard later, because he personally trained the team president’s wife. She didn’t want him fired, and neither did the president. “I was told by the GM,” says Elliott, “that was the holdup.”
Elliott lasted three years with the Mariners. While he has anecdotes, there isn’t really some sweeping victory or failure to discuss. A lot of his stories are like the Bedard one above. Elliott didn’t change baseball forever. He has a lot of thoughts about the lengths people go to to avoid science.
It has now been almost a decade since Elliott joined the Mariners. He has long since moved on, but his boss’s prediction that cultural change would take ten years has proved prophetic. Now Elliott is in touch with teams in all major sports—from the German national soccer team to much of the NBA—and says that he feels amazing about the state of science’s march into sports. Silicon Valley is exploding with interest. Science is getting interested in sports. The shift is happening, even in baseball. He’s delighted about the future of his personal mission: “It has taken forever, but I believe almost everyone has finally stopped doing flush runs,” he says. “It just feels like things are really starting to change.”
Tomorrow on TrueHoop: David Thorpe explains how Luka does what Luka does.