Jumping ahead: How ForceDecks became a game changer
Written by Simon Austin — October 9, 2018
YOU may have noticed a simple exercise that has become a staple of most clubs’ pre-season social media videos.
A player stands, hands on hips, before springing up and landing on two unassuming, flat platforms that look like weighing scales. For the general fan, it’s a little mystifying. For practitioners, this countermovement jump (or CMJ for short) provides a goldmine of insights into performance, fatigue and injury risk.
The platforms are ForceDecks, a powerful force measurement system for assessing performance, readiness and injury risk. Beneath the surface, these dual force platforms measure 1,000 data points per second during a static test, dynamic jump or movement, before a powerful software platform turns the data points into usable reports and visuals. This is all done within a matter of seconds.
Jeremy Bettle, Head of Performance at the Toronto Maple Leafs NHL ice hockey team, told TGG: “ForceDecks are an integral part of all our rehab programmes, certainly for the lower body. It’s not just a fancy scale, it’s a laboratory-grade force detector.
“You can see symmetries from side to side, ground contact time, you can really be very specific about your rehab programmes.”
ForceDecks was founded in 2013 by sport scientist Dr Daniel Cohen and biomechanist Dr Phil Graham-Smith, although for the true genesis of the firm we need to go back more than 15 years, to when Cohen’s fascination with jumping forces began.
“Fascination sounds so much better than obsession,” he says, with a chuckle.
Now, Cohen and Graham-Smith have handed over their baby to a new family – that of Vald Performance, the Australia-based home of the NordBord hamstring testing system.
“To be here now, handing this over to Vald Performance, should tell you a lot about who they are and what I think of them,” Cohen said. “They are a special group of people with the right systems and the right balance of skills and work ethic.”
HELP FROM MAN UTD
As a young sports scientist and part-time University lecturer, Cohen became fascinated (or obsessed) with force time curves after reading papers by the renowned American biomechanist Tim Hewett.
“They were looking at landing forces in relation to injury risks and that turned out to be the early seeds of ForceDecks,” Cohen remembered. “I travelled to Cincinnati, where Tim was based, to find out more.
“I felt this was a fascinating tool for measuring functional performance. When I got back to England I looked for ways to beg, steal or borrow a force platform and test people.”
Back then, force platforms were essentially confined to laboratories. They were very expensive to buy and it took hours, days, or even weeks to get the data back in a digestible format, because a specialist was required to interpret it.
There was also a lack of research with elite sports teams so, in 2002, Cohen persuaded Manchester United's Head Physio, Rob Swire, to allow him into Carrington to do testing during pre-season. Cohen wanted to research the association between force platform variables and injury risk, which involved testing injured players in pre-season, before returning in November to re-test them.
It was there that he first met and worked with future co-founder Graham-Smith, though they didn’t join forces for another 10 years.
The results of their testing were illuminating: “Consistently, these players were showing at point of return to play very large deficits in eccentric impulse, despite peak force being essentially where it was prior to the injury.
"I was fascinated by this and began to think this could be a really useful tool for rehab and return to play assessments.”
The only problem was that it had taken months for Cohen to produce a digestible report.
“The carrot for Rob Swire had been that he would get the data after we did the analysis,” Cohen recalled, “only we didn’t get the analysed data back to him until late January, having collected it in pre-season.
“I recall clearly the relative efficiency with which we collected data, starkly contrasted with the months of crunching it to produce a digestible report. This was one of the seeds of ForceDecks - to speed up that process and take it from six months to six minutes.”
What followed in the coming years was an arduous quest to “deliver force platform data more easily and quickly into the hands of practitioners”, with numerous prototypes developed, many visits to clubs and Cohen remortgaging his house to continue his dream.
With the help of “a brilliant software engineer”, Dr Alan Williams, they developed sophisticated algorithms that could automatically identify which activity was being performed on the dual platforms and which key results to report on.
Without even the click of a button, the algorithms were able to instantaneously turn thousands of data points from jumps, contractions or activities into simple, understandable and actionable data.
This software would later become the engine of the ForceDecks system.
Graham-Smith, who was then working with Salford University and the English Institute of Sport, came on board after another chance meeting with Cohen at the Olympic Park in 2012, as did David Kuper, an old school friend.
After a follow-up visit to Manchester United in 2013, they were ready to launch ForceDecks to the world.
MORE THAN 100 CLIENTS
In the early days, Cohen installed every system in person and followed up with each client personally, “as it pained me personally to think that a ForceDecks system was out there, in the hands of a brilliant practitioner, but not being used to its potential.”
He added: “I remember David tearing his hair out and berating me for ‘lending ForceDecks to another multi-million pound football club when we have £2,000 in the bank’.
“‘Trust me,’ I said, ‘if they find it useful, they will buy it’ – and eventually they did.”
The English Institute of Sport (EIS) helped to test and develop ForceDecks after launch, as did some early adopters in the Premier League, and word spread about a product that was finally making force platforms a viable technology in elite sport.
Now the company has more than 100 customers in the Premier League, La Liga, NFL, NBA and MLB, as well as a range of research institutions and sports medicine facilities.
ForceDecks is the official force platform supplier of the EIS, meaning the platforms have analysed some of the fastest and strongest athletes in the world.
However, the product isn’t only being used at the very top level. There are even a number of High Schools beginning to integrate ForceDecks into their physical education curriculum.
The next part of the ForceDecks journey will be with Vald Performance, who announced in August that they were delighted to acquire the “world’s fastest, most intuitive and most powerful dual force plate system for analysing neuromuscular performance”.
“We’re proud to be able to say we have a world-leading suite of human performance measurement systems,” the Brisbane-based company added.
Vald Performance’s aim is to “deeply integrate” ForceDecks with its existing NordBord hamstring testing system, GroinBar hip strength testing system and HumanTrak movement analysis system and “provide functionality and analytics that have never before been possible”.
Dave Hamilton, Assistant Athletic Director for Applied Health and Performance Science at Penn State University, said: “Vald Performance and ForceDecks technologies play an integral role in our athlete-centred approach to performance.
“We’re always looking to streamline our protocols and enhance our analytics by removing the guesswork from athlete management and injury screening processes.
“ForceDecks joining the Vald Performance line-up is a great bonus for us and we’re excited to see what the team can do together as their systems integrate.”