On Saturday afternoon, Baylor and Villanova face each other in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament at Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The teams are in different conferences and time zones and have only met once before when Baylor defeated Villanova, 87-78, in the finals of the Myrtle Beach Invitational in South Carolina in November 2019.
Still, despite their unfamiliarity with each other, they share at least one commonality. They both are among the more than 100 college athletic departments and professional sports franchises that use Sparta Science in their training regimens. Houston, Michigan and UCLA, three of the other 14 remaining teams in the NCAA men’s tournament, are also Sparta clients.
Sparta, a Menlo Park, Calif., technology firm, offers a combination of hardware and software that allows teams to identify their players’ risk of sustaining various injuries and tailor training programs to increase the probability of avoiding such injuries.
The assessment only takes a minute or two. Players perform six consecutive vertical jumps on a force plate, which resembles a bathroom scale, measures the forces exerted on the ground and gathers data. They can also balance with one foot or get into a plank position on the scale. Sparta’s artificial intelligence and machine learning software then analyzes the results, compares it to tens of thousands of other scans in the company’s cloud database and displays what injuries players are susceptible to and what exercises they could do to help prevent them.
The technology allows trainers to tailor workouts for each individual and not just have one workout for the entire team.
“You can’t have two individuals that move the same way,” said Phil Wagner, Sparta’s founder and chief executive. “Even if they play the same position and play the same number of minutes, they may respond totally differently. There’s so much individual variation.”
He added: “There are certain movement patterns individuals excel at and certain movement patterns they’re not as good at. The question is, how do you assign the right program to each person?”
Wagner knows from experience how frustrating it can be for athletes who sustain injuries, which was the guiding force behind him launching Sparta.
As a safety for the University of California, Davis football team in the 1990s, Wagner had ankle, foot, wrist, head, hamstring and quadriceps injuries and eventually wasn’t medically cleared to play anymore. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in kinesiology, he became a strength and conditioning coach at the University of California, Berkeley, University of Pennsylvania and UCLA. Although he enjoyed his time at those schools, he kept coming back to the fact that there were few, if any, ways for trainers to use data to help athletes prevent injuries or aid them in their rehabilitation.
“I was surprised at the level of guess work that went into addressing the injuries I had,” Wagner said. “Half the time, I wondered if it was like a drinking game with dice in a back room where people were trying to figure out what to do with a given injury based on the randomness of whatever the dice was rolled. I really saw a need to both identify risk and help the rehab process.”
As such, Wagner enrolled in medical school at the University of Southern California, where he earned his MD with a focus in biomechanics with the goal of learning the science behind movement, founding his own company and making sure athletes didn’t have the same experiences he did.
In 2009, Wagner launched Sparta as a training center for athletes where he utilized technology and his experience in strength and conditioning. The company’s clients included Jeremy Lin, who began working out there in 2011 when he played for the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors waived Lin that December, but he signed later that month with the New York Knicks and turned into an almost overnight sensation as “Linsanity” became a national phenomenon.
“Coming here and working out here has made me a lot more educated in terms of my own body, feeling and understanding how my own muscles work, building up towards peaking at the start of your season,” Lin said in a video posted on Sparta’s YouTube channel in 2012. “I try to control my effort level and my work ethic. At the end of the day, I can look back and I can objectively evaluate whether I gave my best effort or not.”
Andrea Hudy started working with Sparta in 2012 shortly after she met Wagner at a sports research and development conference in Germany sponsored by adidas. Hudy at the time was the assistant athletics director for sport performance at the University of Kansas, where she worked on strength and conditioning with the Jayhawks’ men’s basketball team. She previously served in a similar role at the University of Connecticut.
Like Wagner, Hudy had sustained injuries while playing volleyball at the University of Maryland. She graduated from Maryland in 1994 with a degree in kinesiology and earned a masters degree in sport biomechanics from UConn in 1999. Still, despite her knowledge and passion for training athletes, she grew frustrated at times with the lack of good data available on predicting injuries and helping prevent them. She had used force plates before, but when she combined Sparta’s force plates with its software and technology, she saw a huge upgrade over previous products from other companies.
“What Phil was doing with the information and relating it to injuries, I found fascinating,” said Hudy, who is now in charge of strength and conditioning for the University of Texas’ men’s and women’s basketball programs. “He was connecting a lot of dots for me. He was simplifying the enormous amount of raw data that you were getting from the force plate. He’s looking at movement in ways that other people I don’t think are.”
Sparta raised $16 million in a Series B round last March, just before the coronavirus pandemic began, bringing the total capital it’s raised to about $26 million. The latest round was led by GSR Ventures U.S., a Palo Alto, Calif., venture-capital firm focused on early-stage companies.
Sparta currently has about 40 full-time employees, half of whom are data scientists or software engineers. The company also partners with colleges such as the University of Pennsylvania and Stanford to conduct research and publish some of its findings in peer-reviewed journals.
Besides sports teams, Sparta’s clients include the military, health care organizations and rehabilitation centers. They all pay an annual fee to license Sparta’s technology based on the number of people using it.
Wagner is looking to expand to other sectors, as well, including firefighters, police officers and warehouse workers, all of whom are in strenuous jobs where remaining injury-free is crucial for success.
“We see this as being a tool that can be used by any organization that has teams involved,” Wagner said. “We think it’s ideal if you’ve got a group of individuals that have physically demanding jobs and when one of those individuals is out it puts the stress on the team as a whole.”