Building the modern athlete

BOSTON -- "Performance Analytics," an MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference panel of John Brenkus, Mike McCann, Kevin Pritchard, Angela Ruggiero, Mark Verstegen, and moderator Peter Keating, says that while our understanding of the athletic body is fast-progressing, there are, and will continue to be, hurdles.

The issues, surprisingly, are more scientific than moral.

The central conflict comes between a player’s right to privacy and the team’s imperative to get as much actionable information about them as possible. Genetic testing that identifies predispositions to, say, ACL tears or inflammatory conditions, could help the team better identify risks and help the player avoid them. But it would also leave players at a disadvantage in contract negotiations and draft positioning.

TrueHoop at MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference

Genetic testing also can create some red herrings. Brenkus pointed out that predisposition to a condition and actually having a condition are two different categories: Someone with a predisposition to ACL issues might have trained and strengthened their ligament to the point that the predisposition was mitigated or completely wiped out. In this case a monomaniacal focus on genetic markers can lead a team astray.

A large part of athletic performance of course is, and will continue to be, performance-enhancing drugs. McCann said the regulation of such compounds -- steroids, HGH, etc. -- is wrongheaded: There isn’t a relationship, or at least isn’t one that’s nearly strong enough, between the risks of specific PEDs and whether they’re allowed in certain sports leagues. He posed a hypothetical: If we were to develop a steroid that carried no health risks, but just made people stronger, would we embrace it?

The line of the segment? When Pritchard, the Indiana Pacers' director of player personnel, was asked tongue-in-cheek to break the news of rampant steroid use in the NBA, he replied: “I like my job too much for that.”

While some performance-enhancing drugs get a certain ethereal status as "magic pills" in the sports world, all the panelists agreed on one in particular: sleep. Collectively, they emphasized the need for a full night's sleep to maximize recovery; your body builds its muscle in the times between your workout regimen, and the best way to let your body rest is, quite simply, to rest.

To stress the importance of sleep, Brenkus cited one study in which one set of mice was denied food, and another set was denied sleep. Each group of mice died almost simultaneously.

The most exciting frontier of athletic performance enhancement though, the panel agreed, is the brain. Verstegen spoke to what he calls “training above the neck.” Verstegen said that in order to excel in any sport you need a lot of reps—specifically about 10,000 hours worth—but the body breaks down under the weight of this training load: it can’t support what the mind requires. The solution to this problem comes from an uncoupling of physical and cognitive training. Verstegen said brain-training programs are becoming increasingly common in professional athletics.

Devin Kharpertian is a writer for Nets Are Scorching, part of the TrueHoop Network. You can follow him on Twitter (@uuords). Tom Sunnergren is a writer for Philadunkia, part of the TrueHoop Network. You can follow them on Twitter (@Philadunkia).