Raptors embrace healthy attitude toward bioanalytics: Feschuk

Toronto Star

It was about 14 months ago that Alex McKechnie experienced the aha moment that changed the way he looks at NBA players.

McKechnie is the sports scientist who has been a Raptors assistant coach since then-GM Bryan Colangelo brought him aboard in 2011. Before that he spent most of a decade helping the L.A. Lakers win a handful of championships; Shaquille O’Neal coined McKechnie “The Resurrector” for keeping the once-oft-injured centre healthy in his prime.

Still, for all McKechnie’s experience, his NBA outlook was reshaped when the Raptors began practising and scrimmaging wearing Catapult GPS devices. The units, which are roughly the size of a smartphone and sit in a small pocket sewn into the back of jerseys, between the shoulder blades, transmit droves of data as they bounce along with the player. The devices can be used to measure an array of performance details that are vast in scope, from the average length of an athlete’s stride, to the height of his every jump, to the number of kilometres he logs in a given workout. Outfitted with an electric compass, the gizmos also measure the direction and orientation in which players move.

If the droves of data can be daunting to digest, McKechnie soon emerged with one surprising takeaway. According to the Catapult numbers captured during Raptors scrimmages, some 80 per cent of movements were performed laterally or backwards. Only 20 per cent of athletes’ collective movement was of the forward variety. McKechnie beckoned Gary McCoy, Catapult’s senior applied sports scientist, to have a look at what he’d discovered.

“Alex says to me, ‘All our conditioning is done going forward. We don’t train laterally or backwards,’” McCoy recalled. “Alex said, ‘That’s the first change we’re going to make.’”

The changes the Raptors have made since embracing Catapult technology aren’t merely the stuff of tech-savvy trivia. One of the underplayed stories of Toronto’s first playoff run in six years was that, along with benefitting from the Rudy Gay trade and career-best work from a handful of key pieces, the Raptors were the least-injured team in the league in 2013-14 as measured by man games lost. The previous year, when they won 34 games and finished out of the post-season for the fifth straight year, they were one of the most-injured squads.

McKechnie’s understanding of the Catapult data has been credited, along with some good fortune and various other factors, as a major reason for the reversal. Along with rejigging training protocols to account for the vast amount of lateral and rearward movements, practising with the devices also allows the team to keep an eye on the overall workload being imposed on its players. That information helps coaches determine the duration and intensity of sweat sessions.

“If you monitor the load, you offset fatigue. If you offset fatigue, you massively reduce the opportunity for injury to occur,” McCoy said.

Indeed, while injuries are often portrayed as a matter of luck, good or bad, McCoy said it’s his opinion that McKechnie and other adoptees of so-called bioanalytics are proving that many types of hurt are preventable.

“Soft tissue injuries, like hamstrings and groins, are all preventable,” McCoy said in an interview. “Alex is the first guy I’ve heard say . . . ‘Look, injuries are going to happen. But those soft-tissue, preventable injuries? They’re on me.’ He takes full responsibility. A (Jonas) Valanciunas groin or hamstring? Alex takes full responsibility for that. That’s why those things don’t occur. There’s so many other strength and conditioning coaches that go, ‘I can’t prevent that.’ Well, yeah, you could. If you knew what you were doing, you could prevent those injuries.”

McCoy, a former strength and conditioning coach with baseball’s Houston Astros and Miami Marlins, said North American sports is “six years behind” the cutting edge of sports science, which he says currently resides in Europe and Australia.

The Catapult device, which has a handful of competitors in the market, isn’t new. Developed in Australia, it had long been used in European soccer before it found its way to these shores. Now McCoy said more than half the teams in the NBA have purchased it, as have about half the NFL teams. Hockey, the slow-learning poor cousin of the pro sports family, currently has two teams using the device, the Buffalo Sabres and Philadelphia Flyers. McCoy said a few more NHL teams are on the verge of coming aboard. Mark Cuban, the Dallas Mavericks owner, has counted himself as an investor in the company.

While even hockey has embraced the value of statistical analysis of in-play data, bioanalytics, as it’s known, is a relatively new field in North America.

“In the U.S., they build athletes bigger and faster, and then they break. And they don’t care,” McCoy said. “The next guy comes in. There’s massive amounts of injury. And I think it’s because (the U.S. has) got a population of 300 million. Attrition is not a big deal. Where I’m from in Australia (with a population of about 23 million), if we get an athlete that’s world class we say, ‘(Wow), we’ve got one. Let’s put everything we have around him to keep him out there.’”

If there’s one way to explain how the Raptors have enjoyed such an impressive run of keeping their players out there — and franchise insiders knock on hardwood at such mentions — McKechnie said it largely comes down to keeping a close eye on symmetry. Most human beings aren’t symmetrical; they have strong sides and weak sides, a right leg that doesn’t fire as powerfully as a left, et cetera. If those imbalances become stark, the Catapult data will point it out.

Last season McKechnie said one Raptor who was coming off an injury looked to be fully recovered to the naked eye. But the data saw it differently; the player, McKechnie said, wasn’t pushing off his injured leg with the same force generated by his non-injured leg. What might have been a recipe for re-injury without bioanalytics became a successful comeback story.

“What Alex looks for is something that’s so far ahead of everyone else — he looks for athlete asymmetry,” McCoy said. “Nobody else is doing this.”

Part of the reason for that is that there isn’t a ready formula to follow. Catapult doesn’t necessarily provide all the answers; it’s a tool an expert analyst can use to discover them.

“When we talk about sports science . . . it’s really about science and art,” McKechnie said. “Once you understand the science, you’ve got to paint the picture. It’s not a paint-by-numbers thing.”

McCoy said it’s a new way of thinking for most of the experts charged with taking care of North America’s best pro athletes. But success stories like McKechnie’s are being noticed and, in a copycat business, minds are being changed.

“We’re about to see a revolution take place in pro sports,” McCoy said. “This technology, it’s like an aha moment, not just for Alex but for a lot of people.”