Innovation is about adoption, not invention; creating something valuable is much easier than gaining consistent adoption of such an invention into an everyday workflow. ⅓ of our team has now been dedicated to customer success, acknowledging that the relationship and education of organizations is paramount for an innovation to be successful.
New technologies have changed the way we engage in and watch sports. Sensors, Wearable Tech, Video Assistant Referees (VAR), and Instant Replay, are examples of new technologies that have changed the way we play and watch sports. In this interview series called, “The Future of Sports; New Emerging Technologies That Are Disrupting The World Of Sports,” we are talking to sports leaders, athletes, sports tech experts, and sports equipment companies who can talk about the new technologies that are reshaping the sports world.
As a part of this interview, we had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Phil Wagner, M.D.
Dr. Phil Wagner is the Founder and CEO of Sparta Science. After receiving his medical degree from USC, Phil was frustrated by the lack of evidence-based approaches to performance and injury prevention within Sports, the Military, and Occupational Health. It was this lack of evidence-based practices that inspired him to create Sparta Science. #MovementDoctor
Sparta Science is the leader in the application of movement diagnostic software. Using Force Plate Machine Learning™ (FPML™), the Sparta System identifies how you move (your Movement Signature) and provides individualized, evidence-based plans to help you move better at work, at play, on duty.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up fascinated by the potential of the human body to physically maximize itself through movement. As a kid, one of my first books was Walter Peyton’s training manual, followed by Herschel Walker, and others, fascinated by their ability to prepare and withstand the challenges of being a running back at the highest level of professional football, the ultimate expression of speed, strength, and resilience.
This curiosity grew beyond sports with high school gifts being books on anatomy & biomechanics. As I played sports in high school, I was often the most prepared physically so excelled in sports like football and rugby even at the next level in college. Yet the physical preparation began to bend towards other joys and problems. I discovered the joy of teamwork; how contributing to others became a higher self-actualization, a joy that I continue to seek daily. Yet the despair of injury began to surface, which directly challenged this joy of being on a team. How could someone so knowledgeable, prepared, and committed still be unable to participate on a team due to physical limitations?
Dozens of injuries, surgeries, and concussions were the tipping point for me in discovering my mission on this earth. If someone is truly committed to being active with others and for themselves, there should be no physical limitation to that goal.
So I pursued the highest level of application and education; coaching at professional & college sports teams and pursuing advanced degrees in biomechanics and medicine. Perhaps the best example of this dichotomy is my completion of USC medical school while working full-time as a strength & conditioning coach at UCLA.
From there, the goal was to establish a team and a software platform that could capture movement screening and individualize how every person can prepare their bodies for the goals of movement so they can truly experience life; both as an individual and the movement opportunities within a team — whether it is with a sports team, serving your country, or with loved ones.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
The most interesting story after starting my career was getting a call from Naval Special Warfare. They saw our technology at a nearby university’s athletics facility and wanted to use it. The call and interaction was just a lightning bolt for me; this idea of movement and human health/fulfillment was just a limiting, underappreciated facet if only applied to sports.
In this case, we have these individuals serving their country, putting their lives on the line every day so the rest of us can enjoy the liberties and freedom this country can offer. So if this mission was started to serve others’ desires to compete, how amazing would it be to serve those who serve?
That call and subsequent partnership launched us into our largest current focus, supporting the US military and its troops. But it changed my perspective permanently for myself and our company; impacting this world is both necessary, available and far bigger than athletes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” Einstein
The whole concept behind Sparta begins with Spartan, the pursuit of simplicity and less. Such a concept is even more important in this world where distractions and notifications are constantly flooding us so it becomes increasingly difficult to remember what really matters.
Exercise is no exception, as we have endless possibilities to be active, but what do we really need? The barrier for most getting started is the minimum therapeutic dose. If we try to have someone become more active, giving a daily 90min plan seems daunting. So, starting with less is key to developing habits. On the flip side, most dedicated exercisers overdo it. We see it often, especially with athletes, as they attribute their success exactly to what they did as opposed to attributing being successful in spite of what they did. So how can technology, like Sparta, identify what to do through simplification. After all, I see technology’s role in our lives as one of simplification; identifying what we do not need to do, and allowing us to simply “be” more.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Absolutely, there are so many people along the way who help, generally, they appear when you need them most. I am grateful for so many different influences, voices, and peers along the way, yet one stands out the most when it comes to my career. That person is Fern Mandelbaum. She has perhaps the most intuitive and wide range of mentorship I have ever experienced.
One minute she is stern, dictating that I must focus, quoting financial metrics & milestones, and the next she is explaining the importance of diversity & inclusion and that a company and product are, at its essence, a group of individuals that are interconnected to help this world be a better place. A CEO is such a whirlwind of emotions and skillsets, that it is incredibly challenging to mentor that role. Fern always seems to know what to convey (financials vs team unity) and how to convey it (“Phil, you have to stop complaining and go” to “Phil, I am so impressed with your progress”). Her experiences range from a Stanford professor, a venture capitalist, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, a tough New Yorker by birth…but ultimately one of those human beings whose presence makes others better.
Is there a particular book, film, or podcast that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Most of the podcasts and audiobooks that I listen to are focused on improving my emotional resilience and spirituality, traits that help me better for my team, both at home and at work. These areas are often harder for me to improve as I cannot measure them like physical goals or business objectives. Probably my favorite author is Deepak Chopra as he speaks to the ability of humans to create their own medicine. After all, he explains the body’s ability to create its own pharmaceuticals; valium, opioids, cannabinoids, etc. The closer we can connect ourselves, the easier it becomes to create our own context and response. An understanding that all pain is temporary gives believers the mental strength to put it in proper context and to cope without falling into depression or self-blame.
I don’t read many books, but prefer listening, because I am constantly reading so much online; whether it is spreadsheets for financials and project planning, or academic journals of research in optimizing human movement. I do love movies because of their stories, the framework is often centered on the hero’s journey, so true stories are my favorite, especially sports movies due to their inspirational nature. Miracle is my favorite movie because of this aspect with a strong theme of what a team can accomplish regardless of individual skill, fame, or lack thereof.
Along these lines, I connected most with Donald Miller’s book, Storybrand, which lays out these stages of any good story.
- A Character (your customer)
- Has a Problem (they need to solve)
- And Meets a Guide (your business)
- Who Gives Them a Plan (your solutions)
- And Calls Them to Action (to start the buying process)
- That Ends in Success
- And Helps Them Avoid Failure (what would happen if they don’t buy)
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Compassion — My initial training as a coach made this trait instrumental as leading a team requires a delicate balance of pushing others to achieve their full potential for themselves and the greater good of the team. BUT, I have to keep the compassion for an individual above results not only to achieve better outcomes for the team but to not lose sight of the value of connecting to our fellow man, which is the ultimate source of satisfaction ingrained in all of us. I don’t think there is a specific story here, but an example is how strong our team is; 80% of our team has been with me for over 4 years now and the root of this mutual commitment is that we all feel committed to each other’s fulfillment above business metrics.
- Faith — this trait has become more aspirational than innate for me. The path to innovation is not linear and not without pain of rejection and/or failed expectations. So through trials and tribulations, faith is critical to maintaining the same enthusiasm and commitment that existed on the first day. So I have to balance on where to focus; obsessing about financial metrics versus being aware of them. I like to relate experiences to sport so I can either obsess about the scoreboard or focus on the current play and execute knowing that the present and near future is the best way to score. A belief in a higher power, my faith in God has helped to strengthen this trait, spending time every morning in meditation, prayer, and gratitude, which formally occurs every morning for 30–60 minutes through an intense sauna, cold plunge, and challenging breathwork protocol.
- Determination — This is my dominant trait and very valuable to persist through any setback or larger goal. If a goal is set, my best trait is to accomplish that goal at any personal cost. So this trait must be constantly tempered with compassion and faith so my ego does not accomplish at the risk of the greater good of others or the business. The adage of “losing the battle in order to win the war” is the mindset I try to maintain daily in order to temper an intense commitment to achievement. Our team values are “Trust in Results” so we use a very collaborative yet intense system of OKRs (objectives and key results) that keep us focused on both short and long-term goals at the individual, department, AND team level.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think so much of human experience is the joy of being active, whether it is chasing grandchildren or participating on a high school sports team. So my success is aimed at empowering others with the information so they can be more active, without pain, to experience activity and adventure with ourselves and others.
Ok wonderful. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. Can you tell us about the sports technologies that most excite you at the moment? Can you explain why you are passionate about it? How do you think this might change the world of sports?
As a minimalist by nature, I am a fan of sports technologies that are invisible and easily threaded into our lives with minimal disruption. So the form of wearable technology is super exciting. I prefer things like the Oura ring because I forget that I even wear it.
What gives me pause is the lack of scientific insights from sports technology, even wearables. Wearables can track activity, yet they often lack insights or give generic recommendations. For example, if my sleep and HRV are suboptimal, recommendations include a regular sleep/wake time, eating vegetables, and sleeping 8 hours a day. All of which require no technology, just common sense of pursuing good habits.
So the impact of sports from technology has NOT been realized much yet, because the insights are not being provided at the individual level based on data. Perhaps the most concerning are technologies that are not using science and data correctly, so provided insights could do direct harm, such as walking 10k steps a day (which has no scientific evidence — 4,000 steps is enough!), OR indirect harm by distracting from existing habits to pursue new habits that do not serve us as well (like developing a fasting habit that eliminates vegetable intake per day).
Keeping “Black Mirror” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this technology that people should think more deeply about?
Certainly, technology can be used for evil rather than good, which is starting to surface more and more with data privacy & security. The potential drawback I see is when we start to leverage this technology as certainty around future outcomes.
There is often confusion around prediction and guarantee. For example, Sparta Science predicts injury risk by assigning odds of these negative consequences actually occurring. Prediction does not mean certainty, guaranteeing outcomes will happen…this is no different than other medical predictions that help dictate treatment for a diagnosis. Other industries have used this same concept for decades — the weather or even blackjack hands are two that come to mind. When society starts to use data and technology to condemn others for outcomes that have not yet occurred is where the problem lies.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the sports industry today? Can you explain? What can be done to address or correct those concerns?
- Individual over the team — players and employees of sports organizations have become more and more separated from their organization, creating misaligned goals and a general sense of mistrust with the perspective that winning and individual connectedness are mutually exclusive. This mistrust is why the majority of sports organizations minimally collect longitudinal data outside of sports competition, individual athletes don’t want their data to be misused against them and organizational employees don’t want to push to obtain such information for fear of losing trust from their athlete or fear of being fired if that data does not support their philosophy and shed a negative light on their impact.
- Short-term costs vs long-term value — Sports teams spend billions of dollars on facilities and salaries BUT mere fractions of that capital is spent on player health and wellness. Sparta Science has proven millions of dollars in savings for a professional sports organization, yet a 30,000 dollars investment in this technology is often their largest technology cost, let alone one of the largest investments outside of facilities & salaries. Military organizations often operate similarly, favoring investment in large capital expenses like fighter jets. We must transition the value of concrete expenditures to long-term investments in data around individual health, especially if that value is proven in research and case studies.
- Transiency — every 2–3 years, departments and personnel are fired from a sports organization if winning does not occur. It’s like sports organizations see the need for a “controlled burn” to cleanse the environment. Each new regime brings in their own philosophies, but the true crime is that this new philosophy often entails the perspective that anything done by the previous regime was wrong. So previous technologies, and worse entire data sets, are discarded and the organization starts from scratch to recreate the past. Sports executives are generally unaware of the value of this longitudinal health data because it was never used/communicated well, but are well aware of how to leverage other data sets; ticket sales, sponsorship value, etc so the opportunity is there, just avoided because of a misplaced trust that every practitioner knows data. The reality is that the vast majority of practitioners know treatment and physiological science, but not data science.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Innovation is about adoption, not invention; creating something valuable is much easier than gaining consistent adoption of such an invention into an everyday workflow. ⅓ of our team has now been dedicated to customer success, acknowledging that the relationship and education of organizations is paramount for an innovation to be successful.
- Building a company is like sprinting a marathon; it is relatively easy to sprint a short distance as it ends relatively soon but building a company has many stages so the sprint ultimately ends only to present another race immediately afterward. After each investor raise for capital, the feeling is euphorically awesome, but it is never really “over” or “done.” So, in a way, the next raise begins immediately. When we finished the Series B raise, I had to start preparing a deck for a series C raise to line up the current tactics to work towards that next sprint.
- Hiring is the most important role of a CEO; our biggest expenses and revenue attributions come down to the key hires we have made. A bad hire not only costs us in salar, but more importantly, challenges our culture and the ability to work seamlessly as a team. Perhaps most difficult is hiring new people that are diverse in background/experience that add to our culture & deliverables, yet share the core values that are accretive to what is already working.
- Don’t compare; like raising a child, everyone is different so while advice can be helpful, it can also only be effective for a certain scenario that may not be yours. So I have had to develop a strong filter in gathering feedback from advisors, investors, customers, and our team. I have had to balance a strong openness that invites feedback, radical candor, yet that advice may not apply. We were told we needed SDRs to build “x” amount of revenue, as cold emails and calls have been helpful for others to build a sales pipeline. So we hired 6 of these individuals after our first big funding round. This model did not work for us like sports, government, and healthcare are enterprises (especially the last 2) so the sales process is complex, multilayered, and requires trust and subject matter expertise rather than more people making cold phone calls.
- Focus on your core competencies; if you’re passionate about the company and its impact, it is easy to try to solve it all, which maybe you can, but certainly not all at once. For us, we rolled out a robust product of both diagnostics and exercise prescriptions. Ultimately, we could not have 2 masters. We needed to focus on our main core competency, provide a movement diagnostic, a vital sign, first and foremost. Exercise prescriptions are key, but secondary to this major goal and core competency. Ultimately, we cannot provide the best exercise prescription or plan without knowing what a person needs first.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
The movement of Movement, helping the world move better.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Making changes at a national or global level requires the ability to affect policy while staying authentic, relatable, and passionate. It also requires world leaders to be engaged. Michelle Obama is a great example of this with her Let’s Move! Initiative. There are also major technical leaders that have the power to drive awareness and adoption, folks like Mark Cuban have that standing to be brashly bold in relaying the value of technology and its impact on our lives. It might take more than lunch, but a lot could be accomplished between the three of us.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Readers can follow Sparta Science at SpartaScience.com and on social platforms @SpartaScience. My personal profiles can be found on Twitter (@DrPhilWagner) and LinkedIn (/DrPhilWagner). I also really enjoy speaking publicly and on podcasts. Some of my previous presentations and episodes can be found at https://spartascience.com/drphilwagner/ and https://spartascience.com/news/.
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!