“What about a 32-year-old Caucasian
with a history of hamstring strain
who has a .303 batting average?
What does he need?” —Phil Wagner, Sparta Science
PHIL WAGNER is a man who believes in con-
trolling his physiological responses, not letting them control
him. Each night, he uses a technique called coherence training
to harmonize his heart rate and breathing to maximize the
restorative delta sleep phase. Upon rising, he spends the frst
three hours of his morning under red lights to stimulate
the mitochondria in his retinas to produce more energy. This
regimen allows him to limit his sleep to four hours and still
feel refreshed. Wagner also fasts 18 hours a day so his stomach
won’t distract him when he’s too busy to eat. “The mental
constructs around eating are actually pretty interesting,” he
says of the condition most of us simply think of as “hungry.”
Still, when Wagner, who runs a sports-tech company called
Sparta Science in Silicon Valley, glanced at his phone after
a meeting one morning in 2010 and saw he had nine missed
calls from his wife, the reaction of his animal brain was a
pure fght-or-fight adrenaline surge. Those calls could only
mean something was terribly wrong at the hospital, where
his newborn son was being treated.
Three-month-old Mason had been looking jaundiced, so
that morning Wagner’s wife had taken him to the pediatrician.
There, Mason was given a diagnosis of something called
biliary atresia. A medical school graduate, Wagner knew it
was serious. “They call it the silent killer,” he says. Mason
was the one infant in 20,000 born without a bile duct. He
needed emergency surgery to create one, and spent the next
few months in the ICU while doctors waited to see if he would
need a liver transplant.
The waiting carried an extra charge of anxiety for Wagner:
He was not only a new father; he was also a new entrepreneur. As any parent would be, he was reluctant to leave his
sick child’s side, but he was also barely
a year and a half into running Sparta.
After a slow start, the company had
fnally begun drawing a regular clientele
of elite athletes, who had heard about
Wagner’s ability to improve their perfor-
mance using a proprietary jump-testing
analysis. This was no time for a hiatus—
Wagner was the one person the com-
pany couldn’t function without. He was
torn between his duties as a father and the demands of
his startup. “I was really hoping they wouldn’t be mutually
exclusive,” he says.
They weren’t. Today, Mason is a healthy 7-year-old, and
Wagner is more than ever master of his interior states. On
the rare days things aren’t going well at Sparta, all he has to
remember is the crisis he and his family weathered seven
years ago. “It puts stress into relative terms,” he says.
Proftable and with a staf of 15, Sparta is a leader in the
rapidly emerging sports-science industry that is using
machine learning and previously unheard of levels of data
about athletes in action to help professional and college teams
minimize injuries and maximize player potential. Sparta
collects prodigious amounts of biometrics from a seemingly
simple jumping exercise. But Wagner says that data is the
key to truly understanding athletic performance.
For years, pro teams have employed quants armed with
statistical analysis to draft, trade for, and pay players on the
basis of their output on the feld. Now they are taking that
same approach to the athlete’s body, frst to keep it productive—that is, of the bench—and second to increase output by
helping it achieve its upper limit of ftness. Eventually, that
technology will flter down to weekend warriors, too. Firms
in this industry include P3 Applied Sports Science, in Santa
Barbara, California; Fusionetics, in Milton, Georgia; and
Kitman Labs, which, like Sparta, is a Silicon Valley company.
That’s not coincidental. Data-centric sports-tech companies
such as Sparta have become the latest recruits to Silicon
Valley’s venture capital teams. Go ahead, call it moneyball
for injuries—the team with fewest broken players wins.
W AGNER HAS ALWAYS had confdence in his ability to control things that others write of as whims of biology or luck. It’s at the heart of what Sparta does. Once a week, the 12,500 professional and college
athletes who train at Sparta HQ, or whose teams pay from
$20,000 to $200,000 per year to use its technology, step onto a
square metal plate and perform a sequence of six vertical jumps,
striving to get as high as they can. Data collected from sensors
under the plate feeds into a machine-learning software algorithm, which analyzes the force generated during the jumps—
how powerfully the athlete explodes of the ground and how
evenly that force is distributed over time and between the left