Tuesday December 23rd, 2014

Recently, I made two trips to Peak Performance Project in Santa Barbara for an SI feature that you can read here. The story examines the rise of P3, a performance and analysis center used by a number of NBA teams, while also looking at the growing field of predictive injury analysis. ​

As part of the reporting, I underwent the same in-depth assessment that P3 gives every NBA client. It takes roughly an hour and includes a barrage of tests, many of which are carried out on force plates and filmed by 3-D motion-capture cameras.

Afterward, the P3 techs provided me with the same written assessment they give all their clients. In this case, they compared me – a 40-year-old former Division III athlete – to current NBA point guards. The results were predictably humbling. The process, however, was illuminating. It didn’t take long for me to understand the value of the technology for elite athletes.

Here then, in both video and written form, is a look at how P3 works, from the inside.

The Pre-Test

Heading over to a 30-yard running track, I begin warming up under the guidance of a British performance coach named Luke Storey, For a gym that caters to so many elite athletes – including MLB, NBA and MLS players – P3 is surprisingly small. All the training and diagnostic equipment exists side by side in one very large room (it’s a former live music club).

Beginning with heel walks, Luke leads me through a series of dynamic warmups: lunges, skipping, leg swings. Meanwhile, P3 founder Marcus Elliott wanders over. He jokes that they may have to start a wing of the gym’s data for “writers and GMs.” A few years back, Elliott explains, an NBA GM who was a former college player came and underwent an assessment and workout. Says Elliott: “We put him through the ringer.”

Moving off the track, Luke leads me through side steps using rubber tubing, ankle flexes and other activation exercises. Finally, I jump back-and-forth over a metal pipe as fast as I can while Luke times an 8-second interval. Previously, I’d watched Casey Fossum, an MLB pitcher looking to make a comeback, on this drill and thought it didn’t look that hard. I was wrong. I kick the pipe twice in my haste. My legs feel big and bottom-heavy. In eight seconds, I complete 27, which Luke deems “not so bad”. Then again the record, he says, is 44, shared by two MLB players.

A verbal injury history follows, conducted by lead biomechanist Eric Leidersdorf, a bright 25-year-old who, with his bushy beard, dark hair and round face, looks a bit like a tiny Andrew Luck. What are my significant past injuries? When? How many times? How bad? He goes over my sports history – in this case, high school and college followed by twenty years as a rec league point guard, playing roughly four times a week. Next Eric arranges me on a cushioned bench and performs a mobility assessment, measuring my body angles with a digital protractor. I don’t score well. The rotation on my right hip, Eric announces, is the second-worst they’ve ever measured.

Luke gives me a sympathetic look, but I take the information as a compliment. I beat someone, after all. Which isn’t so bad considering that, one, I’m being measured against pro athletes. And, two, I’ve got arthritis in my right hip and am due for surgery or a replacement in the next six months. On this day, however, I’m fresh off a recent cortisone shot, so feeling as good as is possible.

The Assessment

Next we head over to the back right corner of the room, where the motion-capture cameras surround a large mat. I’ve watched Spurs guard Patty Mills go through the assessment, so I know vaguely what to expect. First, I strip down to running shoes and shorts. Then P3 techs stick small, round reflective nubbins all over my lower body and lower torso. They are the same markers used by video game companies when they film pro athletes against a green screen. The markers allow P3 to track the important parts of an athlete’s body – knee, ankle, etc. On screen, they show up as white dots and are used to calculate angles and distances. They’re also fed into a software program that creates an animated version of an athlete’s skeleton (you can see mine in the video).

Over the next 20 minutes, Eric and Luke run me through movements on two force plates embedded in the floor. They test standing vertical leap. “With NBA prospects, we start this at 10’6,” says Luke, nodding at the vertical rack. Peering up, it looks impossibly high. And yet, one P3 athlete, Jeremy Evans of Utah, has touched more than a foot higher (he holds the P3 record at 11’10.5” for standing vert; his touch with a run-up was a ridiculous 12’9”).

Want to avoid injury? NBA teams are looking to Marcus Elliott for answers

​We do a squat jump, which I find both both difficult and awkward. You’re supposed to crouch as if to leap and then stop, count to three and rise up without dipping back down (try it; your body wants to load). As Eric explains, the test allows them to measure the ability to generate force from a static position, relying almost solely on muscular contraction for force generation. Next, I stand on an 18-inch high box and drop off, landing with one foot on each force plate, then spring back up. Elliott expected me to do well on this test, since I was a high jumper in college and, once upon a time, a dunker. “Usually power athletes get higher with the drop,” Elliott says. But I reach the same as my straight jump (9’9).

An approach jump comes next, where I’m allowed to take a few steps. This is more familiar for a one-foot jumper like myself, and I manage to touch 10’3, a respectable height but a good bit below my younger, healthier days. For the first of many times, I have a pang of irrational regret. What if, I wonder, I’d been able to undergo this testing when I was 25, or 21, or 18, back when my body was springy and pliable? How might it have enhanced my performance and reduced my risk for injury? Maybe I’d still have a few years left in my hip. When I spoke with NBA agent Bill Duffy, who sends all his clients to P3 for six weeks before the NBA draft, he referred to this aspect of P3 as an  “incubator concept.” And it makes sense; the earlier you learn about your body and your mechanical inefficiencies, the better you can address them.  

So far, all the tests have been in the vertical plane. The P3 techs are noting how high I jump, of course, but more important, they are examining how I jump. Am I using my hips or knees to generate power. Do I need a big bend and load to jump or can I go up quick? How long does it take me to get off the ground? Taken together, the information provides a better assessment of what Elliott calls a “system for basketball.” “What I really want to know if I’m an NBA GM is not just how high you jump but how fast you jump,” says Elliott.

Back on the force plates, Luke leads me through lateral tests off one leg, leaping from left to right and vice versa. Then the same thing, but with a cue to determine which direction to leap. This second drill is both more difficult and, as it turns out, revealing. When an athlete knows which way to move, his body is more likely to be aligned. When he has to react, as when an opposing player comes at him on the dribble and makes a move, the whole system can break down. When Jazz center Enes Kanter first came in, for example, his form fell to pieces when reacting, his legs leading the way while his torso trailed. This happens to little guys too: I watch video of one athletic lottery pick from this year’s draft as his feet fly one way while his chest and shoulders miss the memo.

An extended breakdown of Jazz big man Derrick Favors.
Courtesy of P3

Finally, moving to the track and using laser timers, Luke runs me through a series of side to side slides. Then I turn and run, touch the ground and turn and run back. And so on. The P3 record for the 5x5, the first slide drill and a great predictor of the ability to cover ground on defense, surprises me: Gordon Hayward. Says Luke, with reverence, “Gordon is a lateral specimen.”

The Breakdown

Upon finishing, Elliott leads me to the computers and, along with the other techs, commences to tear me apart. Kyle Korver remembers feeling weird at this point during his first trip to P3. Says Korver: “They’re standing there talking to each other about all my shortcomings and I’m like, ‘Uh guys, I’m standing right here!’”

In my case, Elliott shows me my “lousy ground angles” when moving laterally. He points out how, every time I load to jump, I unconsciously shift my left foot outward just prior to leaping. It happens without fail and yet I was totally unaware of it. I’m also what’s known as a “a blender” in P3 talk, meaning that rather than dipping low into my jumps, I stay stiff and rely on my knees, putting me at increased risk for back and knee injuries, based on their data (as opposed to yielders, the term P3 has coined for athletes who exhibit significant hip-flexion). The lesson, so far: Use your hips when you jump.

Chris Ballard
Courtesy of P3

In my case, my bad hip also shows up in the lateral testing, and especially in the agility drills. The good news is that my vertical work is relatively symmetrical. Still, Elliott’s a bit perplexed. “You jump unlike anyone I’ve seen,” Elliott says, watching the video. “Your feet are close together, your toe is pointed out. You’re creating lots of vertical force, but your hips aren’t into it. You’ve got a surprising amount of elasticity for your age. But you really need to get your ass into it.”

Elliott also notes how I land on my toes, rather than the balls of my feet, putting me at risk to roll my ankle. “How you interact with the ground as an athlete is hugely telling,” he says. “Watch the quickest players and you’ll see them on the balls of their feet.” As an example, he pulls up video of Jeff Teague of the Hawks, one of the best lateral athletes they’ve tested. Whereas I move off the force plates in a bit of a staggered arc, Teague seemingly fires himself directly sideways.

If I were a real client, Elliott and crew would then take me through a workout, and begin focusing on exercises to address my issues. In my case, Elliott would focus on some of the same things he did with Korver at first: building strength in the glutes so I’ll engage my hips more when jumping.

The Final Grade

Elliott and company can tell a lot about an athlete right away by looking at the video and force plate measurements. But to produce a detailed assessment requires roughly 10-16 hours of number crunching by the data analysts. For NBA teams, P3 tries to turn these around in a day or less.

The more often a player returns, the more valuable the information becomes. Indians pitcher Trevor Bauer, who is assessed before me on this morning, is in for his second test. Something of a biomechanics wonk, he also gets an MRI every year in order to track his physical history. “I like knowing what’s going on as much as possible," Bauer says in between tests. “I always felt my mechanics were fairly efficient, intuitively, but being able to put numbers on it, and using force plates, measuring power in a lateral drive…that’s valuable.”

In my case, I receive an email attachment a week later from P3. As promised, they’ve compared me to their data set of NBA point guards. This, it turns out, was not much of a competition. I was a deviation below average in generating lateral force. Or as the assessment put it: “Chris’s plyometric performance metrics consistently trailed other NBA Point Guards tested at P3.” Sure, there were a few bright spots. My approach vertical not only graded out as "very adequate" -- talk about damning with faint praise -- but according to Elliott it was actually higher than one 2014 second-round draft pick.

This isn't where the true value of the assessment lies though. At least not for athletes like myself (and on a grander scale, someone like Korver), who are looking to prolong a playing career as much as enhance it. For that, I'll have to get back to you in a year or two, after implementing the recommendations.

For now, though, P3 offers the most valuable commodity imaginable to a broken-down athlete: Hope. ​

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