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What Do Utah Jazz Want with ‘Electronic Thumbprints’?

Mark McKown, the Jazz's Director of Sport Science, discusses keeping players healthy and on the court in the NBA.
John Portch

Mark McKown is now in his 20th season with the Utah Jazz. He arrived as a strength & conditioning coach – the first person to take the position full-time at the Salt Lake City franchise – and, as he puts it, his role has ‘evolved’ into its current iteration. “The basic goals are the same: keeping players healthy and on the court,” McKown tells the Leaders Performance Institute.


By John Portch

He is always mindful of the gruelling playing and travel schedules of an NBA team: in any given season Utah can clock up to 50,000 air miles and play in excess of 80 games. This itinerary has its impacts on performance and player wellbeing and, to help mitigate the effects, McKown and Utah have devised ‘electronic thumbprints’ for their players which have been gleaned from a variety of data sources. We sat down with McKown to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by data and analysis in the NBA.

In what ways are the Utah Jazz striving to stay ahead of the curve in terms of player development?

MM: One way is trying to take advantage of the expertise of other people, who have given me the opportunity to learn and develop new skillsets. For example, we have formed relationships with the Peak Performance Project, also known as ‘P3’, in Santa Monica, California; and we also work with Chris Powers, the Founder and Director of the Movement Performance Institute in LA.

What are ‘electronic thumbprints’ and how are they used at the Jazz?

MM: We do a series of tests using dual force plate and motion capture plates to take biomechanical data that is unique to each individual player – like a thumbprint. The process enables us to see what kind of symmetry a player has; what his lateral force resistance is etc. We can see if he is moving efficiently. We’ll also using force meters and dynamometers; we’ll measure specific extensions, such as knee extensions or hip abductions. We might even perform a surface EMG. In addition, we use a device called ‘Delos’ to measure proprioception, which is the sense of the relative position of neighbouring parts of the body and strength of effort being employed in movement. Our data suggests that these tools are helping to keep our guys healthy.

Does the data present any challenges?

MM: The big challenge is posed by platform; there’s a million of them out there now and each one tells you they’re better than the next and that they can normalise data. Maybe we can compare some force plate data camera tracking system data in the arena, but then it still boils down to time; there’s so much data and the platforms make it nice because it consolidates it in one, nice place; but it’s still a matter of time and learning to navigate the platform efficiently etc. I think that more teams are getting more people on the performance side with that data analysis job role. We don’t currently have anyone on the performance side who has that designation, but it could make us more efficient if we did. We get a lot of data and it might just tell us it’s not good; but I feel if we just had somebody to dig into and counsel us on which data points are valuable.

 

 

What discussions happen around these tools?

MM: I take a lead on the performance side with our strength coach, his assistant, and sports science assistant; then we’ll meet with our sports medicine staff weekly or bi-weekly to discuss injured players. However, the NBA season is brutal and meetings can depend on how many guys we have hurt, how significant their injury is, or where they are in their rehab; if a guy is progressing really nicely, we want to make sure we’re on the same page with the training staff, the sports medicine staff, and the doctors. We don’t want a situation where a guy is medically cleared to play but we don’t feel like he’s ready.

So you’ve created an environment where everyone can give their input on the wellbeing of the player?

MM: I think it’s important and you need to have healthy dialogue or even a healthy disagreement, which happens sometimes; we work well together. I’ve been in a situation where you don’t necessarily get along with everybody but in this case we do. If you look across the NBA, everybody’s staff is growing on the performance and sports medicine side; this makes sense if you talk about the investment that the teams have in these players; that you do everything you can to keep them healthy and on the court; and then it’ll improve their performance and make them better athletes. It’s a collaborative thing and that’s not just the company line.

If there was ever a disagreement how would you decide to go forward?

MM: Maybe you’d present some evidence-based research to support what your argument is. I’m watching this guy move and I feel like he’s moving well; I feel like he’s not moving as well; he’s not driving as well off his left as his right; we can support that with data and video evidence.

 

 

Is the most important work done in the pre-season or during the season in terms of preparing athletes?

MM: I’m convinced that the offseason and the preseason are easily the most important. Right now, mid-season, the question is: are a player’s loads too high or did we not do a good job preparing him in the offseason? I feel we have more European and international players now than ever; so many have responsibilities with their national teams in the summer that they go from the NBA season, which is gruelling, to some kind of international play; and they don’t have time to train their bodies like they need to in order to handle the loads that you’re going to see during the season. And so I think the most crucial time is in the offseason and preseason. We get them at a decent level and then we do the best we can at that level; not just the conditioning but with stability and movement strategies. We’ve realised over the last four or five years that the guys are healthy but they tend to start moving less efficiently in season so we’re doing more things now to try to keep them moving efficiently. In an ideal world, we would have more time to train the players during this time and the focus would be more on their training and their bodies than on their game and their skills. You need to get a solid foundation in that time and that helps you prepare for the rigours of the NBA season and then in season you’ve got to train smart so that you can continue to stay solid and have a decent level of fitness. There’s all sorts of things that go into that; how many minutes are you playing; how tough are our practices; there’s research that changing time zones affects heartrate variability negatively; and if your heartrate variability isn’t good then it trickles down and you may be more apt to get sick or hurt and not perform at as high a level. You try to juggle it all, plus what’s going on in the players’ lives. You can’t invade their privacy but you try to monitor that as best you can. We do a regular survey, which they get from one of my assistants; the players then go through and answer the questions and we take that data and compare it to other data, such as that taken from the SportsVU cameras. We can measure leg fatigue but we don’t have time during the season to do a battery of tests on them with the force plates and motion capture.

How do you make the science digestible for the players?

MM: We will say, look, we want to improve the way you move; we want you to be more stable and the reason you’re going to have that is that you want to be able to move laterally better; to be able to change directions better. We communicate that it’s something we want you to do because we want you to be healthy but I don’t think it’s something we have to dwell on and it’s not something they want to hear; but if you can put it in performance terms then they get that. They want to know if something is going to make them look better; but if you’ve got a guy who’s been in the league for a while he understands what is necessary to stay in the league. It’s interesting to see how the veterans eat compared to how the rookies eat or see how they approach things on game day. If we get through a shoot around, or film, they know they need to go home and take a nap and maybe eat a healthy meal etc. but they’re a little bit more attuned to doing what it takes to extend their careers. But with young guys, and our guys are young for the most part, you can hit them with things like ‘this will help with your performance’.

Have you seen a player improve and then you’ve been able to show them the numbers?

MM: I think so. We had that player who had surgery and he’s back on the court now and he’s been off the court for a year. He comes in to request things – and that is not his nature. He will request to do certain hip work that they all hate.

 

 

Do you ever have to convince players who arrive at the Jazz that they can get better, even if they feel they’re at the top of their game?

MM: I think that might be the norm in the NBA. They sort of think that, right, I’ve tapped out my athleticism and right now I’ve just got to be a smart player and they’ll get smarter as they go along. Some of that is true, you do have to become a smarter player and you are going to lose a bit of power over time, just as you age; but Karl Malone played until he was 39; he was still pretty explosive at 39 but he wasn’t as explosive at 39 as he was at 29. I think we have extended playing careers but you do have to sell the guys on it and it does take time because you have to earn guys’ trust, particularly if they’re a vet. They don’t give it away real easily and I don’t blame them and I don’t think they should; I think it’s part of our job. They’re not obliged to trust us; we’d like them to but they need to get a good feel for you as an individual and maybe the best thing about this job is that it’s really positive. We can help you play, we can help you impress upon a coach that we need this guy on court, but we don’t dictate playing time; we’re going to help you get better and then guys figure that out and then they tend to look at us as an ally. We’ve got to sell them on that if you want to be successful.

Is that the art behind the science?

MM: I think we all probably know people who didn’t have a great scientific foundation, but because they communicated so well with the players and engaged with the players, they ended up being an effective practitioner. I think if you’re that person and you can, in turn, improve your scientific foundation and how to apply it, then you’re much better. I’d like to think that’s what we’re doing here and I feel like we are.

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