Danté Exum arrives at Red Bull HQ in Santa Monica. It’s a few weeks ahead of the NBA Draft, where he is widely expected to be a top-five pick. Exum is, by any standard, an elite athlete. At 6-foot-6, he boasts absurd length for a point guard. He is fast on his feet and between his ears. Only 18 years old, Exum is an embodiment not just of performance, but potential.
Everyone knows the kid is good. What everyone wants to know is how good? What might Danté Exum become if he could tap most effectively and efficiently into his gifts? Among professional athletes, the gap separating the average from the good or the good from the great isn’t always large. Often it’s not a matter of athleticism, but the difference between someone getting 90 percent of the potential benefits from his workouts versus 85 percent, having a nutritional program more in concert with his physiology, or the psychological edge of knowing how to better recognize and control brain activity. It’s about maximizing the gifts all elite athletes have.
The Red Bull High Performance Program is designed to provide that edge. Launched in 2007, it supports Red Bull athletes through individually tailored fitness, nutritional, and mental training. “They sit down with us and tell us their goals and dreams, and we set up a program to support that in the best way possible,” says Andy Walshe, director of the program.
“In Danté’s case, what it’s going to take to succeed in the NBA,” Walshe says. “We look at those elements -- it might be a level of fitness, there would definitely be a level of strength and power -- and we identify those components. Evaluations or assessments are geared exactly toward them.”
Personalized High Performance
Exum enters the gym not quite sure what to expect. To personalize his program, the assembled team -- including experts in sports psychology, nutrition, athletic training, and exercise physiology -- must first establish baselines. The Exum of today determines how he can be molded for tomorrow.
The first thing Exum is asked to exercise aren’t his muscles, but his brain. He sits in a big black leather chair, and what looks like an ordinary water polo cap (if ordinary water polo caps were covered in brain-monitoring sensors) is placed on his head. Exum’s brain activity is measured at rest, then as he opens his eyes and engages his brain on a minimal level. Then Exum is handed what looks like a home gaming controller and is asked to play what amounts to the world’s worst video game: Whenever the display shows a red square pattern with nothing in the middle, hit a button. If the square is filled, do nothing. Grand Theft Auto it ain’t.
“It’s not exciting,” says Leslie Sherlin, Ph.D, Chief Science Officer at SenseLabs, who administers the test. “That’s the point.”
The idea is to see how well Exum stays connected to his assigned task. “It requires him to stay engaged, or he’ll start making mistakes,” Sherlin says. “To what degree can he engage in that process? And if he does make a mistake, how did he respond? Did he reset? Did he let it go and continue on, or did he start having a lot of anxiety?”
According to Sherlin, a typical athlete might commit between six to nine errors during the approximately 20 minute test. Exum made three.
Hitting the Hardwood
The next phase of testing puts Exum on the basketball court, wearing specialized headphones equipped with more brain monitoring technology. He’s asked to shoot free throws with crowd noise pumped into his ears. Screaming, booing, cheering, all at different volumes and intensities. Strobe lights pulsing at irregular rhythms flash from behind the backboard.
As Sherlin watches Exum’s brain waves, he notices patterns emerging. In those moments where Exum’s brain is least active, his shot is more successful, to the point where makes and misses can be accurately predicted. “There’s a construct around mastery,” Sherlin says. “If you really master something, before you do it you just shut it down from a mental standpoint, and let your body execute.”
In those areas where athletes struggle, they can be trained to recognize when the brain is overactive and correct it.
Turns out, as the distractions built up, Exum grew more focused and his shot became more precise. “Not knowing him, I didn’t know what to expect, but it is unusual that someone that is that young demonstrates such a competency over controlling his brain,” Sherlin says. “From a brain standpoint, from a flexibility standpoint, he’s got a lot of skills that are going to be valuable down the road that we don’t always see in even more refined and mature athletes.”
No small thing for a point guard, who must constantly process information, quickly sifting through what is relevant and what isn’t.
Checking the Vitals
His brain mapped, attention turns to Exum’s body. The Performance team wants to learn everything they can about it. Blood pressure and lung capacity are recorded, before blood is drawn to measure glucose and lactic levels. The performance team also notes his hemoglobin levels, providing an indication of how well oxygen is carried through Exum’s body. The more, the better.
“Hemoglobin is something you can really tweak and optimize,” says Red Bull High Performance Exercise Physiologist Dan Turner, “and thereby become more efficient when you’re training.”
Exum is put through a series of exercises (squats, resistance bands, standing jumps, and more) designed to measure flexibility, strength, core power, reaction time, and detect any imbalances in his right and left sides that could hinder efficient movement and cause injury. Once his body is fully engaged, Exum heads to the treadmill. The final test is a grueling one in which the machine’s speed starts at six kilometers an hour (a brisk walk for Exum) and increases incrementally every three minutes until he’s working at a sprinter’s pace.
A mask is placed over his head, helping monitor his oxygen output throughout, and between each interval more of Exum’s blood is drawn.
The test reveals how much oxygen Exum’s body requires during training and how his body processes energy, providing even more data needed to optimize a foundation for Exum’s career. How does his body burn energy during exercise? How much fuel does he need to maintain muscle mass? To build it? What is the pace which his body trains most efficiently? The answers will lead to workout and nutrition programs tailored specifically to his needs as an elite basketball player.
In a perfect world, just as a car gets a diagnostic every 3,000 miles, Turner says Exum would repeat this process every four-to-six months, allowing for tweaks in his training and diet. It’s all about fine-tuning. The more data available, the better an athlete’s metaphorical engine.
Armed with the information provided by Red Bull’s High Performance Program, Exum has a head start in that process.