We’ve all heard it—the Chargers are snakebitten. They have the ‘injury bug.’ By and large, a majority of the fanbase and media actually believe this. No, not as concrete truth, but as just one of those things. While the majority of these injuries that often cripple key players each season appear freak and unprecedented, the statistical anomaly of it happening inordinately to the Chargers points at a potential failure on the team’s views of sports science/sports medicine.
That said, the science of Sports Science is still very new, and, in many ways, we’re still plodding through the dark, trying some off-the-wall remedies to see what sticks. This isn’t a blast to the Chargers’ staff, nor any other similar unit, this is an admission that we’re still putting the puzzle pieces together, but we don’t have the luxury of looking at the box art.
Sports science can trace its origins to ancient Greece. The noted ancient Greek physician Galen (131–201) wrote eighty-seven detailed essays about improving health (proper nutrition), aerobic fitness, and strengthening muscles. It wasn’t much of a page-turner, but it had the market pretty much cornered for over a thousand years.
New ideas upon the working and functioning of the human body emerged during the Renaissance as anatomists and physicians challenged the previously known theories. The stories of Michelangelo and Leonardo slicing up bad guys and reviewing their innards is, mostly, correct, and pizza would have been on the menu in renaissance Italy. Anatomical knowledge spread with the implementation of the printed word, the result of Gutenberg’s printing press in the 15th century. Allied with this was a significant increase in academia in general, as universities were forming all around the world. These new scholars went beyond the simplistic notions of the early Greek physicians, and shed light upon the complexities of the circulatory and digestive systems.
Entering the modern era, by the middle of the 19th century early medical schools (no, not Evil Medical School, Dr. Evil) began appearing in the United States. As evidenced by the increasing ability of athletes to break former physical barriers, the concept of Sports Science has really come into its own throughout the last half of the 20th Century.
Still, while we now have a better idea of how the body works, the interconnection of diet, exercise, genetics, and setting still leave a lot to research and wonder. In many ways, sports science is still a wild west, where head coaches can shoot from the hip and sometimes hit the target (or even a different target than they were aiming for!).
Take Penn State this year— James Franklin’s staff has implemented a cherry juice diet for the athletes. According to Kayla Martin, assistant athletic director of performance nutrition services:
In addition to relieving inflammation and oxidative stress, it has a cardiovascular benefit. You’re looking at improving their blood markers. As an athlete, you need maximum blood flow. It also helps with reduction of illness.
Penn State isn’t the first to implement a cherry juice diet. However, they have seen it work other places and are no going full-bore to see if it makes a difference. A single season or two is still not enough to draw many conclusions, but it could shine a little light.
In the NFL, the Eagles made a splash when they brought over Chip Kelly from the college ranks. Chip shined in his first season as head coach, taking the eagles to the postseason. Nick Foles entered the football hall of fame with his 7-TD game against the Raiders. A lot of this credit was given to Kelly’s fast-paced offense and scheme, which is valid. One of the most dramatic changes was how Chip Kelly customized the team’s nutrition and training for each player. His trademark was custom smoothies.
One of the Chip Kelly changes: Tables with fruit and juices lined up post-practice for players to grab. pic.twitter.com/uWdtG4N5QA— Jeff McLane (@Jeff_McLane) April 17, 2013
Craziest thing I've seen so far right here ... personalized smoothies. pic.twitter.com/J0SXzNC9Qp— Geoff Mosher (@GeoffMosherNFL) April 17, 2013
This compares rather dramatically to the nutrition ideals of Andy Reid’s regime:
What about Meatball Monday, Waffle Wednesday & Tortellini Thursday? RT @SInow Chip Kelly strips Eagles of Taco Tuesday and Fast Food Friday.— Arash Markazi (@ArashMarkazi) May 13, 2013
However, Andy Reid was a winning coach. Chip Kelly, after his one amazing season, floundered in the NFL. His record between Philadelphia and San Fran is 28-35, with 20 of those coming in his first two years. Anecdotally, his players appeared to have more stamina and a slightly lower injury rate of injury by the end of each season. Doug Pederson, who just won the Superbowl with the Eagles, was a protege of Reid’s. He also did not throw out the baby with the bathwater—most of the policies that Kelly had put in place, as far as training and nutrition, are still in effect. Their chief of sports science was kept in place. Meanwhile, the Eagles also lost an immense load of key starters—QB Carson Wentz, RB Darren Sproles, CB Ronald Darby, K Caleb Sturgis (hey, welcome to the team!), DT Fletcher Cox, and many more. Remember Ryan Mathews? He went to Philly because of their incredible sports medicine program, but he got injured again anyway.
In short, sports science is still more of a sports art. The Chargers should be aware that they have a problem, and that problem might or might not be of their own making. It might be time to start shooting form the hip and trying slightly-off-the-beaten-path techniques, because the status quo, to misquote Doctor Horrible, “has not been very quo.”