Las Vegas, Nevada
Monday 21st July 2014

Over the last few days, I have been on a summer tour of research, personal development, fact-finding & introduction.  It’s been an incredibly interesting & entertaining experience, meeting many new people & catching up with old friends.

The tour was topped & tailed by stays in Las Vegas, with an LA sandwich thrown in the middle.  Starting with the NBA Summer League, my first days were filled with hour upon hour of basketball, interspersed with meeting performance science & medical services staff from several of the teams.

The NBA Summer League is a ten day “feast” of basketball, attended by 23 of the NBA teams, in addition to a representative team from the D League.  The teams use the tournament to evaluate the recently drafted talent & associated players that haven’t as yet made the playing squad, alongside coaching their less experienced senior players that managed relatively little game time in the previous season.

Given that the Las Vegas event (preceded by a smaller Orlando edition, hosted the week before) takes place in the final week of the free agency signing window, the GMs are busy bouncing from meeting to meeting with their counterparts & player agents.  Meanwhile, the army of scouts run the microscope over the array of talent that is striving to create a strong impression on the court.

From my perspective, it gave me a great opportunity to observe a vast array of warm-up strategies adopted by the respective trainers & conditioning staff.  There’s not really another opportunity like this, to compare & contrast in such a short window of time, in one location.  

Some routines did not surprise me…knowing the staff at the Knicks & the Spurs, the fact that their different but well planned (& clearly reasoned) approaches were relevant & thoroughly executed, was to be expected.

In contrast, some teams’ approach to preparing their players for a full length competitive basketball match, was at best disappointing & at worst somewhat dangerous.  

From the teams that didn’t even bother to stray beyond throwing a few balls in the direction of the hoop & rolling out a few lay-up drills; to those whose physical range of movement drills would have made more sense for football (soccer) players than for basketball players to execute; to others who leapt straight in to high velocity plyometric movements before addressing any other warm up aspects of lesser intensity, I had difficulty at times not to display a look of outright horror on my face.

It appears that, to some people, the aim of a warm up, is not to prepare the body specifically for the demands to which it is about to be exposed, moreover to kill a bit of time before the anthems are sung & the officials signal the start of the contest.  The lack of attention to detail by some teams was frightening considering the amount they are paying their players.

One team that I had previously had no contact with, was the Cleveland Cavaliers & I was delighted to spend a couple of hours chatting to their Head of Performance, Alex Moore.  Alex arrived at the Cavs about 9 months ago & has enjoyed incredible support from GM, David Griffin, which thanks to the arrival of new Head Coach, David Blatt, further extends through to the coaching staff.  

Alex has been able to establish a solid foundation of sports science, with which he is able to accurately inform the coaching department of athlete load data.  Conditioning sessions have been integrated in to the coaching blocks, so as to maximise attendance & the messages promoted by his team are vociferously supported by the coaching staff.  

To date Cleveland has been the team with which I have been the most impressed with in the NBA.  Not only have they hired a stellar performance staff, with great multi-sport experience (other teams such as the Thunder, the Knicks & the Nets have done that in some positions) but the front office is giving them the freedom to develop a great structure & execute their strategies without compromise.

Given the adage that “like attracts like”, it came as no surprise to me that Alex is well acquainted with several other performance experts that have made a big impression during the time I have spent in the US.  

One of those experts, Shaun Huls, is the sports science co-ordinator at the Philadelphia Eagles & whilst in Vegas, we caught up for a long telephone conversation.  Shaun, you may remember from a blog I posted a few weeks back, came to the Eagles from a military background, as part of Head Coach, Chip Kelly’s new regime.

Shaun is a breath of fresh air in a sport that until now seems to have trodden the same traditionalist path that the NBA has chosen to follow, with a lack of commitment to sports science & medical services.  Again, there are pockets of exception that I have stumbled across, such as the Seattle Seahawks, but on the whole, the minimal resource assigned to the performance departments have kept the coaching methods of American football in the dark ages.

Shaun preached the same message that both Alex & Sam (Ramsden at the Seahawks) have both voiced…education is paramount.  Each of these teams have afforded their performance staff the time, resource & respect to embark on well researched projects, whilst supporting them to influence the coaching staff, who in turn have contributed in the delivery of the philosophies to the players.

These are great examples for other teams in the NFL & NBA to follow.

After several nights in Sin City, I then ventured further west to Los Angeles & after several years, met up with my old friend & Loughborough research colleague, Gary Walker.  Gaz is now Head of Strength & Conditioning at Manchester United & the Red Devils were in California to start their pre-season tour.

I have a great deal of respect for Gaz from my time spent working with him during my MSc in Exercise Physiology (he was reading his PhD at the time) & to hear about the work he has been doing in recent years, was absolutely fascinating.  Alongside Gaz, the performance team at Old Trafford includes Rich Hawkins, Tony Strudwick & Mark Hulse, my former colleagues during our days at the Football Association.  These three guys inspired me to go to Loughborough to study exercise physiology in the first place, so there are some special people in that team.

Whilst in LA, I was able to catch up with Holly Silvers, the physiotherapist & director of research at the Santa Monica Sports Foundation.  Holly has done seminal work on ACL rehabilitation in soccer players & has been involved with football research on behalf of the MLS & US Soccer for a number of years.

I first met Holly at an IOC conference in Monaco a couple of years back & she immediately struck me as an exceptional woman.  Holly has been a big contributor to the field of injury prevention research in football (or soccer, given the fact she is an American), whilst also working as a clinical service provider for US Soccer, LA Galaxy & Chivas in the MLS.

Holly is currently working on developing a model to inform the return to play of athletes, based around specific functional tests & we had a really interesting discussion on the subject. 

Before I returned to Princeton, I headed back to Vegas for one more meeting.  Jay Mellette has been the Chief Medical Officer at the Cirque du Soleil for the last year, after working for the organisation for the previous 8 years.

During the last 12 months, Jay has completely reviewed & overhauled the lines of service that operate in the Cirque du Soleil, addressing critical elements of each, in order to establish what now appears to be a very thorough model of care.

I was impressed by Jay’s analytical approach to developing the strategy that such a large performance organisation such as the Cirque requires to run in a coordinated & efficient manner.  The fact that in Las Vegas alone, the company has 8 shows running concurrently, gives some idea of the scale of the operation.  Yet, it seems that until recently there were different structures in place for the traveling, resident, development & HQ teams.  It’s no small challenge that Jay has met.

Over the ten days, I have taken on board a vast amount of information from a wide range of great people.  My practice has been greatly informed & I have been challenged to reflect on my approach to various aspects of performance.  

I would like to express my thanks to Mike Clark (Fusionetics), Alex Moore (Cleveland Cavaliers), Jeremy Holsopple (Dallas Mavericks), Eric Waters (Washington Wizards), Thomas Knox (Washington Wizards), Matt Herring (San Antonio Spurs), Sean Marks (San Antonio Spurs), JoHan Wang (Golden State Warriors), Gary Vitti (LA Lakers), Chris Stackpole (Portland Trailblazers), Rich Cho (Charlotte Hornets), Scott Barthlama (Milwaukee Bucks), Tommy Balcetis (Denver Nuggets), Gary Walker (Manchester United FC), Holly Silvers (US Soccer), Jay Mellette (Cirque du Soleil), Vanessa Gurie (Cirque du Soleil), Nick Morris (Pineapple Fitness), Shaun Huls (Philadelphia Eagles), Andy Walshe (Red Bull Performance Center), Per Lundstam (Red Bull Performance Center).  Each of these good people was generous with their time & information, even if on occasion, logistics prevented face to face meetings.

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