As Austin Carr jumped, touched his toes, did knee bends and push ups, his silhouetted image on the laptop screen glowed in shades of purple and white.
A computer program designed by doctors at the University of Rochester Medical Center created an anatomical profile and captured 3D snapshots, every thousandth of a second, measuring each joint motion as Carr moved. Sensors at other stations in the athletic combine did the same, reading the QR code in a special armband he wore.
The resulting digital file for Carr filled 10 to 15 gigabytes, the equivalent of downloading four feature films — in HD. Similar profiles were built on more than 50 of his Brighton High School classmates this past weekend, and will be amassed for roughly 500 Rochester-area student-athletes as part of the UR Medicine project.
“It’s just so much data that we were never able to get before,” said Gregg Nicandri, an orthopedic surgeon and one of the physicians on the UR Medicine Sports Medicine team.
There is ample evidence that injuries are preventable. But while studies elsewhere have zeroed in on a particular injury, the effort here casts a wide net.
The Brighton combine was one of six such events the UR team will conduct this summer — others being at McQuaid Jesuit, Greece-Athena and Webster schools. They already have done a similar camp with the Junior Rhinos soccer program.
For coaches and players, the benefit is a free assessment of individual and team weaknesses, and potential injury risks. Everybody wants to be bigger, faster, stronger. But by repackaging injury prevention with performance enhancement and adding medical oversight, doctors hope to motivate youths and coaches alike while helping them better understand the linkages and their bodies.
For researchers, these combines produce volumes of data, compiled into a massive database to be continually updated with injury reports going forward. The software will learn over time and “heat map the data,” as Nicandri describes it. The goal is for the program to identify commonalities and predictors in form or performance for any host of injuries, from knee and ankle sprains to ACL tears to which pitchers will require Tommy Johns surgery — then spot those risks in future screenings.
“As we do more and more, we get better and better. That’s what’s so cool about it,” said David Mitten, another orthopedist and member of the UR Medicine Sports Medicine team.
Say a pitcher has a weak plant leg, inflexible hips or poor mechanics to generate the desired power. The pitcher might compensate by putting more thrust in his or her throwing arm, and thus more stress on the shoulder and elbow. Ultimately, that could lead to a season- or career-ending injury. Strengthen the leg, work on the hips or mechanics, however, and it reduces the arm strain, and minimizes the injury risk.
Not every injury can be prevented. But, if successful, the project team hopes to develop a reproducible program that can spot those and other factors just like a coach. Ultimately the goal is for the software to spot flaws even an experienced coach can’t see.
UR Medicine has done athletic summer camps the past five or six years, primarily limited to patients and focused on strength and conditioning as the student-athletes readied to return to competition. Combines are open to all athletes in a participating school or program. The last major outreach effort on injury prevention was back in 2007-09, when the college sent athletic trainers to area high schools who worked to reduce ACL injuries. They succeeded. Injuries dropped by 70 percent, officials said. But the effort was not sustainable, the young athletes and coaches did not maintain the regimen, and injuries returned.
“In the athlete’s mind, it’s, ‘I’m 17, and have been playing soccer since I was 5 (without serious injury),” Nicandri said. “They don’t see the big picture.”
That was very much the case for Carr, who plays quarterback and is looking ahead to his senior year. He said the importance of putting in the time on injury prevention — leg stability, balance, agility — wasn’t instilled until high school. Now they spend weeks on it, he said.
Teammate Johnell Gamble, similarly wrapping up his junior year, plays middle linebacker and running back. He was running the ball when he tore his ACL, meniscus and chipped his kneecap a couple years ago. Rehab focused on form, he said. He has stuck to it, for the most part, but admits he has been remiss in working his hamstrings.
Watching Gamble go through combine tests this past weekend, Nicandri said his form was off the charts.
Still, most every athlete has a weakness. In fact, the more elite an athlete is, the better compensator they are, said Jay Shiner, senior athletic performance specialist with UR Medicine, a former strength and conditioning coach for the Baltimore Orioles and part of the project team.
The focus here is on younger athletes, more in the high school level than professional players because “those are the folks who are getting hurt more often,” said Kostantinos Vasalos, chief of sports and spine rehabilitation with the sports medicine program at UR Medicine.
In this early going, whether a student passes a test is subjective, and entered by hand. Eventually, that, too, will be automated and assessed by the computer. The software utilizes a Kinect camera, like those in an Xbox video game console, and a Freelap Timing System that is the same technology, though in more basic form, used in the Olympics. The technology is so precise that it records if their jump landings, lumbar curvature, balance and flexibility, agility or endurance is off or limited by a measure of degrees.
The team will return to Brighton in a couple of weeks to discuss the evaluations with coaches and students. School trainers likely can tease out specifics to address any shortcomings, Shiner said. In more serious cases, the team might recommend that a student see a physical therapist or their personal doctor.
Other sports camps
UR Medicine Sports Medicine is also offering summer sports performance camps. There are two tiers. Each is medically supervised.
…Tier 1: Fundamentals of Athletic Movement, for athletes who want to improve their strength, stamina, form and technique.
Dates: July 6-30 (Monday-Thursday)
Time: 8:30-10 a.m.
…Tier 2: Premier, for dedicated athletes. The program offers advanced field testing, an athletic profile, and instruction on advanced stretching and weight training.
Dates: July 6-30 (Monday-Thursday)
Time: 9:30-11:30 a.m.
Sign up online by going to urmc.rochester.edu/ortho/sports and clicking on Sports Performance Enhancement Camp, or call (585) 341-9150 for more information.