Australians have had a huge impact on the NBA this season – largely due to the performances of Philadelphia rookie Ben Simmons – but off the court, a broader and more subtle influence is also being felt.
More than a dozen Australian sports scientists and physiotherapists are now dotted throughout the league’s 30 teams, including Philadelphia, San Antonio, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Boston, Memphis and Brooklyn.
They keep a low profile and rarely speak to the media, but in their own way, they are changing how the game is played, and even how it is talked about.
“Australia definitely has a very strong brand in sport science,” said Aaron Coutts, professor of sport and exercise science from the University of Technology Sydney.
“We’ve been early adopters of this idea of embedded sports scientists in professional organisations, and I suppose it’s almost like they (NBA teams) are picking from the pioneers,” said Coutts, who regularly consults with NBA teams.
Perhaps the biggest indicator of this Australian influence has been the increasingly sophisticated methods teams are now using to manage player workloads.
Former Houston Rockets and New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy recently observed “there is an Australian term that has crept in: load management”.
Load management is about balancing the workloads of athletes to both prevent injury and optimise performance.
It can mean resting a player for a given match, or placing them on minutes restrictions – just as Philadelphia has done with star centre Joel Embiid over the past two seasons.
The term has become part of the NBA lexicon, and its source can be traced all the way Down Under.
“We definitely pioneered load management,” Coutts said.
“It’s new over there [in the US] and I suppose they’re cutting some corners to get some people who have experience, rather than learning it from fresh.”
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Australians in demand
So how have Australian sports scientists come to be in such high demand?
Coutts said Australia’s success in the field can be traced back to the 1990s, when there was significant investment in the Australian Institute of Sport and sports science more generally in the lead-up to the Sydney Olympics.
This was followed by some breakthrough innovations in the use of wearable technologies to monitor athlete performance – another field where Australians have excelled.
The Melbourne-based company Catapult, for example, currently boasts contracts with more than 1520 elite teams across 35 sports.
These developments have been fostered by domestic sporting codes that have been open to scientific experimentation.
“The AFL is professional as any code in the world,” Coutts said.
“But they probably don’t have the massive budgets that they have over [in the US] and players are probably more accepting of having this innovation in a way.
“We obviously got into trouble with that a while ago [referring to the Essendon and Cronulla doping scandals] but for the large majority, really high quality practices have developed.”
Sharing insights in the US and Europe
Steve Saunders discovered this demand for Australian sports science “almost by accident” when he was in the United States on a pre-season trip with AFL club North Melbourne several years ago.
In his role as the club’s high performance manager, Saunders developed a program called Kanga-Tech, which merges sensor technology, data analytics and physiotherapy to improve athlete performance.
Saunders shared some of the insights of the program at workshops with US sporting teams.
“I would present some of our data and say we would make this decision with this sort of player in this sort of situation based on these data sets, and they were saying, ‘well how do you measure that?'” he said.
“Suddenly we found ourselves selling the technology.”
The program is now being used by professional teams across a number of codes in the US and Europe. A watershed moment for Saunders was in the lead-up to last year’s NBA draft when he was asked to help screen a potential recruit.
“I was assisting with the work they were doing … and it was really nice to hear not just the sport science staff, but the general manager come down on court, watching a potential player, and ask about his Kanga-Tech profile.”
Some in the NBA still need to be convinced
Australian sport scientists in the NBA get to work with some phenomenal athletes, but there are plenty of challenges.
“The NBA is a different sort of beast – some of the guys have been fawned over their whole lives, so they have a high expectation of what people should be doing for them,” said Lachlan Penfold, who was the head of physical performance and sport medicine at the Golden State Warriors during their record-breaking 2015-16 season.
“With some players there are some big egos involved … you don’t encounter anything like that in Australian sport.
“But then you have Steph Curry – a two time MVP of the league, one of the best players of all – he’s one of the most humble, down to earth guys you’d come across.”
Penfold said there are still plenty of players and coaches within the NBA who need to be convinced of the benefits of adopting a more scientific approach to preparation and performance.
“What I found, there was a lot more emphasis on the ‘sell’, so to speak. You’ve really got to work on winning a player over all the time and selling them on the benefits,” he said.
He said his work with the Warriors was often constrained by the tightness of the schedule, with up to four games a week and extensive travel, coming off the back of a short pre-season.
“When I got there, the NBA pre-season was a four-week pre-season, and when I sat down with the coach he was like, ‘how good is this one, we’ve got six days before we start playing games’. I was like ‘are you serious?'”
Penfold has previously worked in the AFL, rugby union and several Olympic sports and is now director of performance at the Melbourne Storm in the NRL.
“People still see American sports as the pinnacle. I wouldn’t be one of those. Not taking away anything from the exceptional players that are involved, but the sporting structure that is involved I don’t think is anywhere close to the pinnacle,” he said.
“I think that Australian sport is a much better environment for my profession.”