Beyond the moneyball revolution with the UFC’s Chris Weidman and Al Iaquinta

How does a man rendered blind at age 13 learn to climb Mount Everest? He learns to see with his tongue, of course. Using…

By: David Castillo | 6 years ago
Beyond the moneyball revolution with the UFC’s Chris Weidman and Al Iaquinta
Bloody Elbow 2.0 | Anton Tabuena

How does a man rendered blind at age 13 learn to climb Mount Everest? He learns to see with his tongue, of course. Using a device, called the BrainPort, this machine takes the tongue’s rich chemical environment, and turns that environment into an electrode grid that duplicates qualities of the eye – identifying shape, movement, size, and distance through shocks and pixels. Turning taste into sight.

That man, Erik Weihenmayer, is the first and only blind person to climb Mount Everest. Insights into science and performance have been a staple of physical rehabilitation for decades. Even in the most unlikely places; treating muscle spasms in phantom limbs with cleverly arranged mirrored boxes, for example.

But insights into science and performance have been a staple of physical enhancement on a path that zigs as much as it zags. That path hit a nadir in 1961 when Manfred Ewald of the German Democratic Republic experimented on girls as young as 11 with the steroid, Turinabol. On the harmless end of that spectrum, Bill James brought statistics to baseball in order to revolutionize player analysis – an event so dramatic Brad Pitt got to star (and eat) in a film peripherally about it. The numbers trend has since spread its influence to other sports. Some to amusingly combative results.

Statistics can help explain what happens in sports. Steroids can help explain how athletes perform. But neither of these offer the convergence of description with prescription within sports.

Enter biometrics and two familiar faces to UFC fans: Chris Weidman and Al Iaquinta.

At the Sports Science Lab in New York, Weidman and Iaquinta have entered a literal and figurative virtual reality for athletic performance.

There, the fighters get to measure, and compare their qualities with what’s called a global athletic assessment.

Matthew Reicher, the SSL’s exercise scientist, elaborates on what this global athletic assessment is. “That’s what we use for our 3D motion analysis. This depicts the athlete in a skeletal avatar and it tracks the joint movements so that we can see very objectively the flexion and extension between one side versus the other. Let’s say for instance, we’re analyzing a squat. We can see between the left and right thigh which side is firing more. Is one hamstring overactive versus another? This allows us to zero in on areas of stability or instability.”

Reicher’s VR exercises highlight an important aspect of muscle response in athletes. While much is known about genes dedicated to fast twitch fibers versus slow twitch fibers, the more critical insights can be found in the biological gaps. For example, each muscle fiber has a satellite cell with a relationship similar to the Earth and Moon. When muscles wither, or are damaged, satellite cells gravitate toward each fiber to help the body repair what has been lost. Some literature suggests that satellite cell activity could be more critical to muscle growth, and how people respond to muscle growth.

Athletes are constantly tearing down their muscles. It’s part of the process. But as UFC fans have seen, notably with athletes like Cain Velasquez, fighters are tearing their bodies down into a rabbit hole of errors.

SSL’s biomechanist, Juan Delgado, has tried to focus on getting athletes to target proper muscle movement in order to avoid muscle injury. “It’s very important to know which muscles they’re working on, which muscles are working well, and which muscles are working more than others. By having this comparative data, it makes our job easier and it makes our job more statistical. The NFL combine uses an isokinetic extremity machine to determine the difference between quad and hamstring strength. If there isn’t a perfect ratio then athletes are more susceptible to non-contact ACL injuries.”

Avoiding injury just might be an impossible task in a sport like MMA. Even at the most fundamental level. COL1A1 and COL5A1 are genes dedicating to coding for proteins that maintain the collagen fibrils that keep tendons and ligaments connected. Mutations in these genes can put an athlete at greater risk. But perhaps proper training can mitigate the risk inherent in challenging that stability.

General Manager of the newly minted NHL team, Vegas Golden Knights, remarked at the hockey combine that the main takeaway was to find out which of the bodies will be able to handle 10 years in the NHL. Much of what’s done at the SSL in New York is rehabilitative. Their Sports Physiotherapist, Rushi Shahiwala, explained to me why they often take in high school athletes.

“We see a clear pattern of poor posture, core control, rounded shoulders from interior pelvic tilt, and winged scapulas. I think that has a lot to do with everyone sitting more than they used to be, such as sitting in school for eight hours a day. Sometimes part of our job is getting athletes out of those foundation problems.”

Photo by Pete Norton/Getty Images

They also have a comprehensive concussion protocol – a far cry from the NFL’s concussion protocol that players can easily cheat, or the comical inefficiency of the NHL’s “concussion spotters”. Delgado detailed what should be the universal standard.

“A lot of the concussion training is outdated. We use the industry standard concussion assessment and return to play program. It takes into consideration your heartrate, reaction time, and balance capabilities in addition to SCAT3. By doing those different tests, such as full motion sensitivity, we can assess them in other areas, such as identifying potential postconcussion symptoms.”

It’s not enough to look simply at neurocognitive function. And it’s certainly not enough, as the NHL did in the Sidney Crosby case in May, to make nonsensical assumptions about whether or not slamming your head against the ice is a better predictor for concussions than slamming your head against a heavy aluminum frame (!).

“We use SCAT3 as a baseline. Once we have that analysis, we’ll identify their reaction time and balance capabilities to see how they’re affected when we elevate the heart. That elevation of the heart, measuring it against variables identified with concussion symptoms is actually one of the most critical aspects to proper concussion testing.”

Indeed, concussions have a significant impact on cardiac functioning.

As important as rehabilitation is, athletes are just as concerned with what they can fix as to what they can build.

What separates a good athlete from an elite one? The right genes to keep tendons firm? Higher aerobic capacity like the Kalenjins? The right versions of genes that better modulate pain? Being packed with fast twitch muscle fibers? Or as a talent program did to turn Helen Glover into a Olympic behemoth – identifying the perfect profile for a specific sport?

Perhaps the scouts of yore, despite their parody in Moneyball of old men confusing hieroglyphic cliches for keen insight, were onto something. When they talk in hushed tones about the greatest players ever – Wayne Gretzky, Steph Curry, Tom Brady, etc – a few words always come up: vision, creativity, and timing. Kevin Costner in the comprehensively mediocre Draft Day gets more specific, reflecting on Joe Montana‘s famous Super Bowl XXIII drive, stating that “the great ones always seemed to slow things down.”

Reicher believes that if there’s a breakthrough in biometrics, timing is where they’ll find it – an athlete’s ability to harness their vision, timing, and creativity to ‘slow things down’. It sounds abstract at first, like some sort of athlete string theory.

“We have a visual reaction time trainer and it measures accuracy and precision reaction time. What MMA fighters do a lot is they tighten up their shoulders, which slows them down. What we can show them is the difference between when their shoulders are tight versus when their shoulders are relaxed. This can result in a focus on speed as opposed to strength.”

The SSL is interested in something more neural specific than neural abstract. We know a lot about sensory perception and how we process smell, sight, taste, hearing, and touch. But we know less about time perception, and the different rhythms inherent in the way senses are processed at different speeds.

That understanding is changing. Even now, it is theorized if not understood that some disorders relating to language have temporal causes. Consider stroke patients; their language capacities are disrupted by being unable to distinguish durations of language. Dyslexia is said to have roots in auditory and visual representation timing.

Reicher and Delgado may or may not be familiar with work on time perception, but they used it to prepare Al Iaquinta vs. Diego Sanchez at UFN 108.

“What we did for Al is that we would train his sensory motor skills, hand eye coordination, and striking accuracy on a screen where Diego was facing him. So Al was training his hand eye coordination and accuracy with Diego standing right in front of him. For Al, he would be hitting Diego in his mind, about 10,000 times. By the time he was in the octagon, his brain was already reacting.”

The idea that patterns of thought can affect of physiology of thought isn’t fantasy. Pascual-Leone at the National Institutes of Health tested this idea with a unique experiment involving a piano. He taught two groups of people to play a melody with a small series of notes. One group would practice playing the melody for two hours a day. The other group would practice imagining that they were playing the melody for two hours a day.

Using transcranial magnetic stimulation, Pascual-Leone mapped the two groups’ brain activity to find that both groups experienced a similar and significant change in motor skills and muscle responses.

“Fighters need to have very critical distance vision. So the way we work with them is by getting their vision focused specifically in the center. Most of the time, our brain is filling in gaps. And those gaps are filled with memories. The fighter remembers what they did or didn’t do at critical moments. Take the Al Iaquinta vs. Diego Sanchez fight. At our lab, Al will remember that image of having Diego Sanchez in front of him. Not just because it looks cool but because his brain will use that memory to execute its fight or flight path,” Reicher explains.

Perhaps it pays to hone perception. It certainly paid off for Iaquinta when he decapitated Sanchez.

After all, perception is something of a post hoc process. When an image hits your retina, it doesn’t register within the brain until 100 milliseconds later. As John Coates from The Hour Between Dog and Wolf wrote, “our eyes fix on a small section of our visual field, take a snapshot, them jump to another spot, much like a hummingbird flitting from flower to flower.”

We don’t experience the world live. We just perceive it that way. “How can we humans survive in a brutal and fast-moving world if our consciousness arrives on the scene just after an event is over?” Coates asks.

The brain is made up of different neural highways. One central destination (or central nervous system) receives what these peripheral neural highways send. And just like highways, sensory information moves at different speeds within the brain. Can sports labs get athletes to potentially regulate these speeds?

It’s easy to stress the body, after all. You can add more weight to the benchpress. Altitude chambers can get your body to become more resourceful with your red blood cells; especially if you sleep in one (like Michael Phelps). You can take cues from street fighter characters and wrestle bears instead of humans. But how do you stress the mind, and get your brain to slow things down in this ‘brutal and fast’moving world’?

It might help to understand time perception.

One of the most interesting tests done on time perception is David Eagleman’s SCAD Diving Test. Using a wristwatch called a perceptual chronometer that looks like it starred in a William Gibson cyberpunk film, subjects try to read numbers moving too fast to see while plummeting through the air. Dangerous events are often described by victims as occurring in ‘slow motion’. If this is a real phenomenon, perhaps the numbers can be read more readily while falling 150 feet off the ground. It turns out, the slow motion effect is a brain hoax. But not a complete hoax.

Photo: John B. Carnett/Popular Science via Getty Images

The slow motion effect is actually tied to memory accumulation.

As Eagleman argues, “time and memory are tightly linked. In a critical situation, a walnut-size area of the brain called the amygdala kicks into high gear, commandeering the resources of the rest of the brain and forcing everything to attend to the situation at hand. When the amygdala gets involved, memories are laid down by a secondary memory system, providing the later flashbulb memories of post- traumatic stress disorder. So in a dire situation, your brain may lay down memories in a way that makes them “stick” better. Upon replay, the higher density of data would make the event appear to last longer.”

Eagleman adds that this may be why “time seems to speed up as you age.” Childhood experiences are more novel while adulthood experiences are not.

How this ties into sports performance is anyone’s guess. But that seems to be the mission. Even for star athletes.

Timing is what Steph Curry works on when he’s training with Eclipse’s strobe goggles, which allow Curry to make moves depending on what colors he sees. “By making the brain do more with less, the strobe goggles are a way to make the brain more easily reach said warp speed when one’s vision is clear,” Bleacher Report’s Brandon Sneed observes.

The SSL in New York enjoys using strobe goggles as well. “With our neural efficiency technology we measure anticipation as well. We look at coordination over an extended period of time. And what we’ll do is measure if an athlete anticipates early, or anticipates late. If they’re ‘early’ what we tend to see is that they’re impatient and will jump too soon. If they’re late we’re usually looking at a cognitive delay,” Reicher explains.

“Training the eyes to identify objects and then making a brain-body connection in accordance with a movement,” Reicher says, is where timing can evolve to become as essential as sweat and meat.

Is this weird stew of timing, vision, and memory somehow linked? Perhaps the 17th annual USA Memory Championship holds a potential key. It’s there that you’ll find a different kind of athlete. Athletes who compete against one another’s memory by recalling the order of a deck of cards in under 20 seconds (among other extraordinary tasks).

With the use of MRI scans, scientists noticed that there’s nothing’s unusual about these super memorizers. Everything is relatively normal except for the note where “parts of the brain associated with memory and with spatial learning seemed to be interacting a lot.”

How else are elite athletes able to perform if not by determining the geography of play? Is it not spatial awareness that allows an athlete to know when to move, so they can know where to move for maximum function?

Athletes can readily challenge their bodies in preparation and in practice. But challenging their minds is another matter.

When Gary Kasparov famously accepted the challenge of Deep Blue, a computer, it seemed like an impossible task. Deep Blue could calculate 2 million moves per second. Kasparov could calculate between five and ten moves per second at best.

Yet Kasparov won three of their six game set. Intelligence, then, is not just raw calculation. So what was it? The American neuroscientist Read Montague identified ‘valuation functions’ as the difference. Kasparov’s brain wasn’t just the product of one destiny. But many. According to Montague in Your Brain is (Almost) Perfect, “Kasparov’s valuation functions are better than Deep Blue’s for another reason: they can be flexibly applied to other problems. Kasparov can make analogies between chess situations and problems that he faces in other areas of life, and use that connection to reason in new ways.”

Maybe the limits of kinetic potential in athletes won’t be challenged with the supersoldier serum of Steve Rogers. Or gene doping. Maybe training will come full circle, just as it was in 300 BC, with the elite athlete practicing with a bad haircut trying to speak with stones in their mouth.

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David Castillo
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