You’ve seen the commercials by Gatorade, Nike and every other sports brand: An incredibly fit professional athlete connected to a bulky, high-tech breathing apparatus runs on a treadmill as multicolored sweat drops off his face. If you’re an “athlete,” like me, you’ve thought about what those tests could potentially tell you — and what those results could mean for your game.
The truth is, by and large they’re not meant for us. Athlete testing is designed to test athletes. Like, professional athletes. Not a beer-league-soccer, weekend-runner, semi-regular-cyclist, pretend athlete like me. As such, those facilities are mostly confined to medical labs at leading universities across the country as well as select few pro athlete training centers.
That leaves the average consumer few options, one of which is the NY Sports Science Lab on Staten Island. The brand-new facility — which is a part of the NY Chiropractic & Physical Therapy offices run by Dr. John Piazza and his wife, Susan Piazza — is one of two operations in the country making some of the best athlete-testing equipment in the world available to consumers.
As you go through each of the tests, you can’t help but feel like Roger Federer, or Odell Beckham Jr., or Meb Keflezighi. That is until you see the results, and realize that you’re only mortal.
The facility is small, but its personalities are big. Dr. Piazza, who’s the tall, suave type you’d expect to have a passion for classic muscle cars (which he does), owns the entire facility along with his wife Susan, who is a master in tae kwon do.
But they are only the tip of the iceberg. The team includes sports physiotherapists like Rushi Shahiwala, certified biomechanics specialists like Juan Delgado and Michael Greene, and Matthew Reicher, an athletic trainer who has spent time with a number of professional sports teams, including the Brooklyn Nets and the New York Red Bulls. As a group, NYSSL has tested Olympians that competed in the Rio games like silver-medal boxer Shakur Stevenson and bronze-medal fencer Dagmara Wozniak.
My NYSSL was based on my classification as a runner, which by some definition of the word I am. (I do run often, but never under the scrutiny of trained athletic professionals.) The team first turned me into a mummy of sensors, prewrap, athletic tape and lycra, strapped to every part of my body to measure gait, heart rate, breathing, etc. Weighed down by thousands of dollars of technology, I couldn’t help but feel like a pro while I sprinted around the indoor track. The five-person team looked on, and I struggled to look as though I wasn’t struggling. I felt more or less like a pro athlete, providing valuable data for future analysis. That is, until I realized that the numbers I was producing were likely only a drop in the pond compared to NYSSL’s databases.
Output from the sensors for the 3D motion analysis.
Next, it was back to the lab for more testing. NYSSL tests everything from strength, to balance, to reaction times and hand-eye coordination. I wore goggles that tracked where my eyes focused, played an Xbox Kinect–like game that measured my reaction times, jumped on force plates that measured my jumping force, did the Y-Balance test (a test designed to measure your balance in a number of orientations that will easily put you on your ass if you are overconfident in your abilities). The team measured my hamstring and quad strength, then froze me in a cryogenic chamber that dipped the temperature down to about -300 Fahrenheit to aid in recovery after the day of testing. Most pro athletes go through all of these tests either daily or weekly on their way to a specific end-goal improvement (say, lowering heart rate in the 15th round of a bout). They also record numbers much more impressive than mine. For instance, in the sensory motor skills tests for target capture, multiple object tracking and hand-eye coordination, I was in the first, first and thirteenth percentiles respectively when compared to NYSSL’s database of pro athletes.
But the NYSSL’s most important objective is not raw data, nor is it helping individual athletes tailor a workout program to a specific goal. It’s finding imbalances. In other words, whether you favor your right hamstring more than your left, or if your left bicep is stronger than your right, or whether you land heavier on your left or right side when you’re running.
Almost everyone has imbalances, and I had loads of them. I expected this. But what I didn’t realize was how those imbalances were closely tied to former injuries, and that the NYSSL team could use them to predict a potential Groundhog Day experience of recurring injuries, including tearing my hamstring. This is where the usefulness of a service like NYSSL intersects for both pros and amateurs: all athletes want to avoid serious injury, but are most likely in the dark about the pitfalls that are coming, and how to avoid them. Once NYSSL has identified imbalances, they put clients through a weeks-long tailored training program to help even things out. For me, that meant working to even out my hamstrings and my upper body.
The programs at NYSSL aren’t cheap, the initial assessment runs $500, and then each training session after that ranges anywhere from $45 to $185 for four-, six-, eight- or 12-week training programs. It’s a hefty sum, but it’s well worth the cost. Having experienced it, I can, for the first time, quantify my athleticism in a way that’s meaningful. And even though the results of my tests weren’t on par with the big guns, going through the process is a blast. Strapped up with sensors on a treadmill, you can’t help but feel like Roger Federer, or Odell Beckham Jr., or Meb Keflezighi. That is, until you see the results, and realize that you’re only mortal.